#MCN2016: A Love Letter

Nota bene: lots of smart people are posting recaps of 2016’s Museum Computer Network conference that include key concepts and clever analyses. Others are posting valuable resources shared and compiled in their sessions. This isn’t that kind of post. This is an after-conference affair of the heart, and thereby a purely personal take on my week in New Orleans. I hope more of you feel this way (and I think you do), but YM, as they say on the interwebs, MV.

I’m sitting at the bar at Elizabeth’s trying to get down some words about why MCN2016 was so special. I’m still in that fleeting emotional state where a couple layers of my self-protective armor have been stripped off and all my inner sensitivity is right up at the surface. I pretty much want to look around the entire city of New Orleans for MCN people and hug them. I’ve got a biscuit drowning in gravy in front of me, and Florence Welch is singing about having the love she needs to see her through. Today, unsurprisingly, that’s an MCN anthem.

The MCN love that helps see so many of us through is built on the passionate creativity of hundreds of people working to make museums better places for our fellow humans.

It’s love built on conversations that go deep and stay true, where colleagues who’ve never met make space to share questions and stories that surface all kinds of emotions. (By my count, 4 sessions included cathartic tears from someone in the room.)

A photograph by the author of half a dozen musicians playing various instruments in spot-lit pavilions outside at night time.

It’s love built on the spirits of so many people who are ready to say “Let’s try it!”, whether that leads to a new museum app or a better interdepartmental workflow or a magical night dancing under the stars surrounded by zydeco musicians playing art pavilions as instruments.

MCNers are ready to say yes to all these things and more, and MCN2016’s theme, The Human-Centered Museum, felt so perfectly on-point about what makes this conference feel like the summer camp you don’t want to leave. It’s these beautiful, caring, openhearted, adventurous, thoughtful people.

It’s people connecting in personal moments: cracking up over comical sailor gestures (looking at you, @geealbers) and first time karaoke performers busting some SERIOUS moves (way to go, brinker). It’s finding someone to share shoe-shopping and bottomless brunch punch (salut, Juline), someone who’ll push you through fatigue to that one more spot that turns out to be excellent (thanks for spurring me on, Keir), or someone who can be wickedly sarcastic one moment, then turn around and offer up a warm, earnest compliment the next (that’s you, Koven, along with a whole lot of you funny, kind people; I hope you know who you are).

Beyond those moments, though, MCN is where people don’t leave their personal selves at the doors of conference rooms. It’s where the personal is also professional. Where you connect with people who want to keep digesting a complicated museum visit for days (here’s to museum moral ambiguity, Michelle) and people who carve out time for conversation when you ask (Ed, thanks for answering the DM call) and people who’ll think carefully about both the hard truths of the museum world and how to help museum workers have fun (suse, you’re pretty much the best).

These (you) are some of the individuals who helped make my MCN2016 amazing, and I’ve included them (you) by name because I’m coming out of this conference determined to be more public in my appreciation of supportive colleagues.

Emily Lytle-Painter’s tweet, reading “Compliment colleagues (on their work), especially colleagues who may not get them elsewhere. #sustaininginnovation #mcn2016”

The truth is that I could single out so many more moments when someone spoke up bravely or started a great Twitter exchange or made time for open conversation when a stranger introduced themself. These moments and people represent the attitude of the whole conference community.

This is the kind of welcoming spirit that makes MCN truly magical in a way no other conference I’ve attended has ever been. It’s not just a conference of show-and-tell sessions about the shiny, successful, and new. It’s also a place where you can bring your ideas and your questions, and they’ll find a receptive audience ready to hear you, affirm you, and push you to think on (read those last two words like you’re at a rock concert of museum technologists.)

A square screenshot of Boromir from “Lord of the Rings” overlaid with Impact font text reading “ONE DOES NOT JUST SIMPLY ‘BECOME’ A WEIRD KID IT IS A GIFT!”, found at memegenerator.net.

I think at some point we’ve all been the weird kid, out of step with people around us. Sometimes the confident weird kid, and sometimes the painfully uncertain weird kid. We’ve found our ways in the world. We’re still finding our ways, with that same confidence and uncertainty. But at MCN, we’re there as weird kids together, in all of our idiosyncratic glory.

The MCN community is a tribe of rabble-rousers. We rouse museum rabbles. We don’t accept that because something’s already out there, it’s necessarily out there at its best. We question and poke and push, because we know there are better things ahead, and we want to reach them. We want to create them. We want to share them with all the people who visit museums, physically or virtually.

When you give all of us weird kids a place to come together and find our people, a truly magical alchemy takes place (helped this year by the inherent Weird Kids Magic™ of New Orleans itself). Whether our daily work is full of triumphs, frustrations, or — more realistically — both, MCN is a place to find like-minded supporters. Sometimes that support comes in the form of the “Rah rah! You can do it!” cheerleading that doesn’t always materialize in the 361 non-MCN conference days of the year. Sometimes it comes in inward-looking dialogues about raising up unheard voices, and holding onto vulnerability in our work, and how to sustain innovation. MCN consciously makes room for both.

Photograph by the author of a wall of post-it notes in blacklight with affirmational messages on each one, including “NEVER LET ANYTHING DIM YOUR LIGHT” and “Love you! Keep up the good work!” from #StudioBe.

All these words don’t manage to capture the full emotional heft of MCN2016, of course. Part of the heft comes from the power of ephemerality itself (a powerful example of which can be found in Brandan Bmike Odums’s #StudioBe exhibition “Ephemeral Eternal”, which you should all check out between now and January, at least online). The special soup of being there in these moments with these people is something that can’t be fully recorded, no matter how far our technology takes us. But I can take a stab at it. And I can remember these moments when I’m feeling a need for inspiration and affirmation.

Let’s pledge to do that this year, MCNers who were at the conference as well as those who were following from afar.

When you’re feeling stuck or frustrated or confused, remember there are lots of people out there who are just at the other end of a phone call or an email or a DM. Remember that most of these conference sessions were recorded and can be accessed. There are people out there who can and will help you if you reach out.

In her keynote, Catherine Bracy called for us all to work at being more networked and less hierarchical. Let’s take her up on it. Let’s use our networks this year and be there for each other, weird kids for weird kids. In a world of hearing lots of No, let’s be the people who say Yes. And know that even if your Yes sounds isolated, you’re part of a whole community of people saying the same thing.