Sustaining and Maintenance: Reflections on MCN2019 (aka: MCN should always be in San Diego)
I usually try to post my annual reflections on the Museum Computer Network conference quickly after it ends, but this year I headed off immediately from San Diego for a vacation in Australia, so my thoughts have had more time to settle. That vacation started with a few days in Melbourne, staying with Alli Burness (who I first met through MCN some years back), and it was our conversation in the car from the airport that helped me clarify my thoughts.
Alli, following the conference online, saw a different tone to previous years, especially in the final farewell tweets. She didn’t see the same sense of joy and exuberance about the gathering that had characterized previous years, and she wondered if it felt similarly to me, having been there in person. We talked it out (Alli graciously typing notes which my jetlagged brain appreciated), and I fleshed this out over the next few days, until I’ve got these reflections to share.
Overall, MCN2019 felt like a year of hunkering down and figuring out how we can all sustain ourselves in this field for the long haul.
In the past, there have been joyful conferences that are hotbeds of people’s brilliant thoughts and exciting projects and a palpable sense of promise. Over the last couple years, though, the world has felt increasingly politically-fraught and polarized, and museum workers have increasingly adopted a tone of vocal activism and urgency.
My perception of MCN is that the conference tone also shifted — especially in the last two years — away from all that joy toward a desperation-tinged need to support each other through difficult times. Last year’s conference felt like a lot of people were throwing in the towel, getting out of the cultural sector, and feeling defeated by the frustrating, seemingly-insurmountable challenges facing our field.
This year, the scales seem to have balanced a bit more between depressed cynicism and blind optimism to something I’ll dub sustainable maintenance.
In my own working life, this past year was a journey of internal focus. Who do I want to be and what do I want to model for colleagues and museum visitors alike? How do I find the right balance of energy to be invested in what I do without blowing it all working too hard to change things faster than they can change? It was a year where I found myself thinking back to lessons from the Slow Change session I led at MCN2017 in Pittsburgh, and how those lessons can help me maintain my ability to do what I do.
Maintenance work isn’t traditionally given a lot of attention, though that seems to be shifting recently (check out The Maintainers for research and thinking about this topic, and read Shannon Mattern’s article, “Maintenance and Care” as a couple of starting points). Maintenance work is often assigned to women. Think home-making, child-rearing, relationship facilitation. It builds skills like listening and reading social cues and making space for multiple viewpoints to coexist. The gender coding around it means these essential skills aren’t often amplified in a patriarchal structure that finds it easier to recognize Silicon Valley style sexy, revolutionary change led by a Maverick Renegade Visionary Dude Leader (MRVDL™). 🙄🙄🙄
That kind of change is flashy and fast and sounds great in a press release, but it’s not always lasting. Maintenance is the opposite of that. It’s quiet and ongoing and gets shit done without demanding credit. It should get credit, let’s be clear. But traditionally, it doesn’t.
So, here we are in the museum sector that’s so female dominated, and we’re trying to change it (and it needs to change), but we still seem to be looking for that change to come in the headline-grabbing ways that are the territory of the MRVDL.
Increasingly, I’m coming to see that sticking around in the museum world and not leaving the sector is about changing that mentality and normalizing slow, incremental change. Rather than feeling stymied by not having the revolution that feels necessary, what if we focused our museum work on the small wins and mundane shifts instead?
MCN had that thread running through it this year.
Maybe this was best encapsulated in the session called Intersecting Agile and the Antidotes to White Supremacy Culture. It was all about how to find new ways of doing the slow, steady, necessary work of dismantling and pushing back against the oppressive systems we operate inside. In this case, that was about using Agile methodology to intentionally counter some of the facets of white supremacy culture that Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones outline here. (more resources here)
There was a Deep Dive (itself a new session format to allow for a longer examination of a given topic) called Moving Beyond MVP, in which we broke into small groups to strategize about how to make small, iterative changes inside staid, hierarchical institutions. We covered a lot, including the need for clear communication about individual roles and accepting that the Perfect is the enemy of the Good. And also what we can learn from 18th century pirates to work flexibly, fast, and well.
There was a session called Guerrilla Tactics for Successful Collaboration When Everyone is a Genius (my favorite title of MCN2019) that offered up practical tips for how to work better by using sometimes-slightly-subversive approaches. How to accomplish “mischief not malice” in our organizations.
There was a session called Museum Paralysis: I Should Go, Now What? that was this year’s entry in a string of what I think of as “career self-reflection” sessions. The one last year was called Should I Stay or Should I Go? and it encouraged people to examine the realities of why they might leave the museum sector. This year’s session title doesn’t capture the full scope of what was discussed in the room. It included perspectives from those who’ve gone in and out of the museum world. It asked questions, not about the dramatic imagined scenario of storming out of the museum world but about the practicalities of making that decision. What do you do if you want to leave, but not immediately? What are the potential benefits of leaving for a little while with plans to return? How do you sustain for however long you choose to stay?
Like previous years’ MCNs, burnout was a common topic in both sessions and informal discussions. This year, though, the focus was on avoiding and recovering from burnout, on how to keep it from being the primary driver of our careers. The people leading some of these discussions weren’t just people who’ve left the field, but people who’ve left and come back, as well as people who’ve tried various modes of working in the field, back and forth between consulting and working for a single institution.
The doors to the field seemed to be open in both directions this year, not just offering a one-way path out.
Another new format option this year was a daily plenary panel session, proposed and chosen with the concept that it was relevant to everybody’s work. One morning was Data Governance, Ethics, and Privacy, and the other was When Culture Eats Strategy, Make Sure It’s Delicious. These big topics are inherently about what kind of world do we want to sustain for ourselves in museums? They’re not about which platforms we should use or where digital projects should be positioned in an organisational structure, but how can we think big-picture about the kinds of places we want to work. And then make strategic moves to get them there.
The 2019 conference seemed set up to help people figure out how to stick around, not just how to support each other as they decided to leave. Last year, especially, felt like the helpful-but-hard work of therapy. That was still there at MCN2019, to be sure. This year, though, it was a session with a therapist who wasn’t just handing us a tissue as we cry it out, but was asking thoughtful questions to help us reflect and think about what to do next.
As with every year at MCN, the community of people is what makes it truly special. I’ve had a challenging year working very hard at the small, often-thankless, maintenance work of mindset-shifting and allyship. I’ve thought a lot about what are my inviolable baseline principles, what are my flexible preferences, and how do I want to bring my presence to the work I do.
What helps sustain me through that is knowing that MCNers are out there. That I can walk and talk along the beach for two hours with one person and wade into the ocean with another and set up a hot-pot and karaoke duet evening with a third. And after the conference is over, I can sit on a lounge bed by the pool and talk through hard shit and cry a little with a fourth while the sun sets through the palm trees.
I’m sustained by all of you, MCN fam. You’re the people out there doing the work and making the changes, and this yearly gathering is the thing that reminds me that sustaining is, indeed, a possibility.
No, this year didn’t have the unfettered, excited joy that’s been true of previous years. But we were all there, in a beautiful retreat space by the beach, talking about all the creative ways we’re finding to carry on working in the museum sector. Opening our eyes to the good things and the frustrating things that come with that. Everybody was dealing with how to be a grown up and forge ahead into the messiness of life.
At the risk of further abusing an abused-unto-near-death term of the moment, MCN2019 felt like self-care for the maintainers of cultural sector transformation.
It’s where I can head off into an adventure across the world looking forward to meeting up with familiar faces that I met at previous MCNs. It’s the space of reflection about our practice that, just by being that space, gives us the chance to break from the white supremacist, patriarchal patterns that so easily self-perpetuate in our daily working lives.
The conference itself iterates and changes its format and content and tone from year to year. MCN is where we all get to test and practice the change we want to see in our museums. To do it this year under San Diego’s sunny skies and warm temperatures and palm trees (did I mention the palm trees?) only underscored how refreshing and necessary that is if we want to keep up our good work.
So to end with putting out wishes into the world, I’ll say may all MCNs be in San Diego. And may all of us maintainers and translators and facilitators and guerrilla tacticians find ways to see the small shifts as victories that feed our drive to continue forward.