MCN2017: Are You OK, Friend?

For the second year in a row, I’m having tea in a cool neighborhood in a great city after an MCN conference has stirred up all my Thoughts and Feels. Last year, I was doing this high on the magic of New Orleans and a burst of inspiring revitalization, support, and positivity, and I wrote MCN a love letter. This year, I’m not in the same place. This year, I’m writing to check on how my friend MCN is doing.

This was a year of questioning for me. It was a year of trying to figure out the core values that keep me working in museums. It was a year of thinking about the best ways for museums and museum workers to be in our communities. Of wondering how we can keep doing the good work we do while making the changes we so deeply need. How we museum workers can find ways to make our work sustainable in the face of pressures that are pushing many of us out of the field. And underneath all these questions has run the tide of divisive anger and fear that’s swamped the United States this year.

Maybe, given all of that, it’s no surprise that I was coming into MCN2017 feeling stressed and scattered and struggling.

And you know what? So were a lot of people.

I talked with people who are disillusioned with their institutions, who felt like their professional efforts this year didn’t measure up to their or their bosses’ expectations, who were asked to take on workloads that were unmanageable with any degree of lasting equilibrium.

I had conversation after conversation about all the people who weren’t at MCN this year because they’ve left the field, or who may not be at next year’s conference for the same reason.

Elissa Frankle’s tweet, reading “Real talk in post-karaoke letdown: now that I’m out of hte field, I don’t know when I’ll be back at MCN again, and it makes me sad, because you all are family. Thank you for being the greatest community. #mcn2017”

This was a year where lots of us seemed to be in struggle mode.

Video of the MCN Keynote Conversation between Aleia M. Brown, Ph.D., Adrianne Russell, and Jamil Smith.

Ugly truths about the ongoing oppression and injustice in our field were discussed in the keynote conversation, and many sessions called out institutional cultures and behaviors that hurt far more than they help.

My physical and mental wellbeing proved a reasonably good indicator of all this. I exhausted myself into two migraines in three days, didn’t take the downtime I needed to balance out the hours of mental focus and social interaction, and never quite got my food and drink intake balanced.

If you think this is the part where I put in a big “But…” right here and turn this into a post full of positive thinking, you’re out of luck. Struggle was pervasive and real through the in- and out-of-session conversations I had this week, and that’s a big part of what I’m left thinking about when I think about MCN2017.

But if you think this post somehow indicates that MCN2017 wasn’t the place of inspiration I rely on it to be… well, you’re wrong on that score, too.

On the contrary, the MCN community was there, just as supportive and creative as ever, ready to help each other through this difficult collective moment. People were struggling, talking about it, and listening to each other. Alternative spaces like the Listening Lounge and the Green Room and the final-day #MCNergy sessions made space to metabolize challenges and reframe some of our worries into productive learnings.

Lots of sessions opened up from the traditional presentation format, encouraging attendees to share their own thoughts and raise up new ideas. No one fought to tie up session lessons into neat bows or to create a false rosy glow around the state of museums today. Instead, lots of session take-aways were focused on how to keep frustration from overwhelming you, or how to make projects happen without the funding or team members you might once have relied on.

It was a little like being in the Museum Marines. Over and over, I found the spirit of Improvise, Adapt, Overcome, and if it couldn’t allay my worries, it could at least remind me that we’re still in this together.

Yes, my body kind of quit on me, but at the same time, I tackled the anxcitement of an Ignite talk that actually managed to get a room full of a couple hundred people to be silent with me.

Video of my Ignite talk, “Fail Fast, Fail Furious: Pittsburgh Drift”.
Jason Alderman’s beautiful page of black and pink ink sketchnotes from my session, “Slow Change: It’s Not a Consolation Prize”.

I led a session with an amazingly inspirational team of colleagues that began as an inkling for “a silent disco formatted session about slow change and feminism” and became a gathering of people in a room that felt really special.

For those of you who approached me to express appreciation for either my Ignite or my Slow Change session, let me express mine right back. Thank you for going on those unexpected journeys with me. Being able to give these experiences back to the MCN community that has given me so much was a gift I was truly delighted to offer.

And on the day after MCN was all over, I spent a morning at The Mattress Factory with some people I really, deeply appreciate and an assortment of meditative, beautiful, heart- and mind- and spirit-stoking artwork that gave me exactly the kind of get-lost-in-it experience that made me love art in the first place.

A somewhat dark and grainy photograph by the author of artist David Pohl’s 4-channel video piece, “Vexations”. A large video of a bird’s nest in close-up is projected on a white wall, flanked by Jennifer Foley & Koven J. Smith sitting on the floor, watching.

I still want to make this into something that wraps up neatly with a positive takeaway. I want to be able to say that my MCN2017 was an unqualified source of refreshing excitement the way it’s been for me in the past. I want to be a fixer. But the issues we’re tackling in the museum field aren’t neat, they certainly aren’t positive, and they don’t have easy or evident fixes.

In the end, I’m choosing to take it as a good sign that MCN2017 wasn’t the full-out excited love fest that I might have come in hoping for. That’s not where I’m at, and it’s not where many of my most-respected museum colleagues are at, either.

It was a conference where I was alternately drained by, gaining from, and giving back to a community I love. And that’s what things we love do for us. We love them when they’re messy and maddening, and they’re always there when we need them.

So, funnily enough, although I’m not writing the same love letter I wrote after last year’s MCN conference, I’m ending on pretty much the same note.

Let’s keep being there for each other this year, as we work through some of the difficult and painful things facing us in museums.

My tweet, reading “As #MCN2017 closes out and we all head to our corners of the world, nikhil trivedi has just come up with a great plan that I’m joining: set a recurring calendar event once a month to check in with a different MCN colleague. Join us. You know you want to.”

I will leave off with my summative response to the ongoing Twitter poetry that ran throughout MCN2017 (Emily Haight and Sarah Banks called for MCN Haikus, which, once we got 280 character tweets, blossomed into some limericks).

In the end, this year’s conference? Still great.

Full of smart folks and meaty debate.

We came and we gathered,

With some spirits tattered.

Our museum work’s both love and hate.

So it’s onward with projects to juggle,

And when I’m in need of a hug, I’ll

Call an MCN friend

For the kind ear they’ll lend,

And together continue the struggle.