A couple years ago, after some conference or another, I’d written a post about my conference friends. I honestly can’t remember what particular issue I was facing as I walked into that conference or what specifically sparked that post. I don’t think it matters. But, returning from MCN2019, I’m ever more thankful for my faraway friends. (If you want more specific takeaways on MCN, try Brilliant Idea Studio where I usually leave big takeaways.)
Here’s the thing I didn’t say about conference friends in 2018…they save you, every time. I reach out to them all year long on social and by text. They tell me things like what to do about wireless controllers (lock them down) and listen when I feel lonely. They share real thoughts about things I’ve done; all the thoughts good and bad. They are okay when I get cranky and okay when I get loud. And, it’s not because they don’t live with me or work with me. It’s because we have something in common — we sometimes need community outside our little circle.
Museum Twitter exists because of this (also for keeping notes from conferences.) With such a small sector, our numbers are small. As MCN2019 Keynote speaker Tonya Nelson mentioned, the Internet allows affinity groups to thrive. When used for good, this ability to aggregate is powerful. Museum Twitter has certainly been incredibly important to me. How many people do I know only as a virtual friend?
Our museums are enormous or miniscule, but at any scale, we often have no peer onsite with the exact same responsibility. Imagine being the only OB/GYN in the whole hospital, and having an emergency. We, almost all of us, are that lone physician. We are faced with emergencies and have no one to share our failures and successes. We are faced with something big and no person to benchmark with. Even if you have peers, politics and personality might divide you. Often your colleagues cannot give you what you need.
Incidentally, I know our work is not life-or-death; but it is vital. This argument about not saving lives works when you talk about timelines and emotional labor (that label can wait until tomorrow morning, Seema). But in terms of importance or stress about emergencies, people in careers get to feel emotions, whatever their output.
Herein is my greatest takeaway from MCN2019, or maybe from life, emotions exist. Hiding them only transforms them into stronger, more distilled emotions. I’m not all that interested in becoming a toxic shell of museum ire. So, sometimes, I let my emotions show. Normalizing real emotions is important. Many people attribute an inability to deal with conflict and bigger forms of communication to white supremacy, and I think there is a point there. Some communities talk louder, use more emotional language, cry publicly, and still manage to survive. This type of communication is not popular in the American museum workplace, a culture whose norms were created largely by white men. What would work be like if we didn’t shame our colleagues for having emotions? What would work feel like?
I say this with the caveat that your experiments with showing emotions can be hard in a work environment where everyone else is not ready. And, this is where my conference friends are key. You can be the you that work might not be ready to see. You can be real (and not of us have the luxury of being real at work).
Moments of truth come out of reality. One of my most powerful conversations came with a group of women of color talking about life in the white museum world. We were just sharing stories. We didn’t have solutions (white museum world better step up for that one); we weren’t sharing specific projects; we weren’t augmenting our museum brand. We were just talking. This intangible experience, and the set of wonderful, hard conversations I had, will have incalculable benefits for me to do my actual job.
That’s the thing about conferences. Even if you end up off topic a portion of the time, in the hall, instead of in sessions, you are probably working. You are learning from people on how to do better, feel better, learn better, care better. We as a field are better the more our professionals are afforded the chance to make and foster friendships across this sector.