“All of us are in two stories at the same time,” said the sandwich lady. “Life and Times. There is our own personal story, and the bigger story of what’s happening around us. When both are in trouble simultaneously, when the crisis inside you intersects with the crisis outside you, things get a little crazy.” — Salman Rushdie, Quichotte, 2019
This is my first post on Medium, but I felt a need to sort through my jumbled thoughts about my trip to San Diego and the Museum Computer Network (MCN) conference a couple of weeks ago. The post starts before the conference, but past is prologue, and for me my other San Diego experiences (and general history and state of being) not only can’t be separated from the conference content, but they form the lens through which I experienced the conference.
This was sparked in part by some of the other really great round-ups of the conference people have written, and in part by listening and talking to others during the conference, either in formal sessions or informal conversation. I call some of these out below, but there were many more — thank you all.
I arrived a few days early for MCN— I’d never been to San Diego before and wanted to sightsee. The morning/afternoon I arrived, I went to Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, walked around the campus a bit, wandered my way down to the Pacific, took off my shoes, and walked in the surf a long way up the beach, getting wet to the knees despite my rolled-up jeans. It was lovely.
The next day, I took a Lyft 30 minutes south, down to Border Field State Park, the furthest southwest point in the United States. It’s beautiful, in the isolated, desert-ish, coastal-scrub kind of way that feels harsh and austere to someone used to the insanely lush, green overabundance of rainy Michigan.
You don’t have to get far into Border Field till you see the walls. There is ours, the one constructed and maintained by the United States, and then there is Mexico’s. They wind along the top of hills and the U.S. wall extends even out into the Pacific. As you’re walking along, the relative silence and solitude of the park is broken by the sirens and squealing tires of Border Patrol vehicles.
Inside Border Field, you walk uphill for probably a couple of miles along the single, mostly paved road toward Monument Mesa, the highest point, named after the monument established after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — though now the monument is located on the Mexican side of the fence. For four hours each Saturday and Sunday, in the questionably named Friendship Park atop Monument Mesa, visitors can enter a small area beyond the U.S. border wall and walk right up to the Mexican border wall — an area prohibited to all but Border Patrol staff anywhere else and at any other time.
Mexico doesn’t have any restrictions on approaching the wall on their side, and when I peeked through the slats of the fence to see the monument, I saw that the park on their side contained joyous murals and brightly colorful concrete stools arranged in a semi-circle — a clear contrast to the prison-like razor wire, brown fencing, and Border Patrol officer (very friendly, but in uniform, and presumably armed) on the U.S. side.
Photography was not permitted in Friendship Park, but even if it had been, I wouldn’t have wanted to take photographs. Would I have photographed the whole family, at least three generations, who conversed happily and excitedly through the fence with what appeared to be a similar family group on the other side? Or the young man who knelt down on this side of the fence, silent, but playing a slow song in Spanish on his cell phone to a young woman who knelt down on the other side? Or the people who stood, patiently, on the Mexican side of the wall in ones and twos and threes, presumably waiting to meet friends and family who hadn’t yet arrived on the U.S. side? I’d suspected my emotions might get the better of me in this place, but I hadn’t guessed how quickly that would happen.
After Border Field, I went to Old Town San Diego, where Day of the Dead celebrations continued. Much of Old Town was corny and touristy, and there were far too many people there for my taste, especially right after the solitude of Border Field. But there were some honest and touching tributes to lost loved ones scattered amongst the sugar-skull-everything gift shop souvenirs. It was a reminder that we are all struggling with something, that we all have our equilibrium challenged sometimes (maybe even right now), and that all of us have lost something.
The next two days I spent at Balboa Park — the first exploring on my own, and the second on an MCN-sponsored tour. On the first day, I arrived early, before the museums were open, and started at the Ford-created building that now houses the San Diego Air & Space Museum, eventually working my way north all the way up to the entrance to the San Diego Zoo.
Behind the Balboa Park Club are the remains of a cactus garden created for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. The garden is beautiful, with the clear and bright San Diego sky behind it, and stunning (if slightly terrifying) views of the steep drop-off just below.
The first person I encountered in the cactus garden was a shirtless homeless man washing his clothes at a standpipe. Then I stumbled across a colony of feral cats, and, a few minutes later, ran into several women who stop by frequently to care for them, filling at least a couple dozen colorful plastic food dishes with food and water.
As I spent the rest of the day walking around the park, thoughts about the ramifications of what (and who) we choose to neglect or maintain, and where we choose to spend our time and money, followed me. Balboa Park is wonderful, and so much of it is grand. Portions, like the Spanish Village Art Center, and the many museums, were crowded and lively. But there were homeless people hanging out in the shadow of the zoo (which charges $56 to get in), and everything in the park has a tinge of disrepair. Buildings, many of which were built for either the 1915 Panama-California Exposition or the 1935 Exposition and never intended to be permanent, could obviously use repairs, a paint job, or at least a powerwash to remove mildew.
Ranger Kim, who toured a group of MCNers around the park the next day, told us that Balboa Park had about two billion dollars in deferred maintenance. The wealthy might want their name on a building, but no one wants to put their name on a sewer system, he said. The zoo and the San Diego Museum of Art are the two financially well-off cultural institutions in the park — the others are all to one degree or other more shoestring and fragile, scraping by and unable to tackle these systemic issues. Even San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Department dedicates only a fraction of the gardening staff to the park that were dedicated at the time of the expositions — 40 people now (who also maintain two other large San Diego parks) vs. 130 dedicated solely to Balboa Park a century ago.
You’d think the House of Pacific Relations (HPR) International Cottages in Balboa Park might be a respite from painful reminders about the state of the world today. How can you go wrong with an organization whose mission states, “Our dream is to show the world our various cultures and to showcase the HPR as a world leader in peaceful coexistence?” But just in case I somehow managed to miss the irony of that mission in America today, it turns out the U.S. cottage is right next to the one for the Ukraine. Wasn’t there some news story about those two countries recently…?
Eh, it’ll probably blow right over.
In addition to all of this, before, during, and after the conference, I was reading Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. About 20 years ago, Ehrenreich attempted to live on working-class wages — then as low as $6–7/hour. Spoiler alert: This turned out to be pretty difficult, and fraught with all the perils, tragedy, and fragility you might imagine. I read chapters of this nightly with a touch of cognitive dissonance, lying in a comfy queen-size bed at a San Diego resort. At more than $200/night, even at the discounted conference rate, this room would be financially out of reach for many of the folks who drove me around town; fixed, served, and cleaned up after my meals; and even made the bed for me — let alone the homeless man who I’d watched quietly and without fuss cantilevering over and reaching down past his elbow into a fountain in Balboa Park, collecting stray pennies from the bottom.
Inequality. Injustice. Hatred. Walls. Loss. Decline. Decay. Vulnerability. The overlooked and undervalued.
But at the same time: Beauty. Kindness. Grandeur. History. Love. Brotherhood. Empathy. A belief in something better.
All of this was on my mind when the conference officially kicked off Wednesday morning with keynote speaker Tonya Nelson. The unofficial kickoff had been the night before, at the MCN Ignite talks, which covered a range of topics, but with a lot of focus on diversity, inclusion, accessibility, taking care of museum staff (and us taking care of ourselves), and the ways that technology can both help and hurt us as we work on all these things.
Nelson’s keynote ran through a group of digital projects intended to increase empathy in those who experience them. There was nothing wrong with any of these projects — in fact, they all had the most noble intentions — but I found myself wondering how much they would actually evoke empathy, and how much of that would stay with someone after they’d experienced it and walked away. Until we live in Videodrome or The Matrix, the digital realm is not reality. (And do we really want it to be?)
Ehrenreich spent weeks and months on her low-wage living experiment, and even then sometimes “cheated” — for example, when she had a nasty persistent rash, she called a dermatologist she knew and had him prescribe her some skin cream. But where her experiment in empathy pushed her was that she was working with people who weren’t doing that work as a lark. She spent her days and nights working next to folks who really lived their lives on low wages, getting to know them as people, and finding out what worried them and what didn’t. She immersed herself in the community she wanted to empathize with. In the end, is this the only way we build true empathy?
And why did I think it was worth it to go to Border Field and to Friendship Park? There are plenty of photos and descriptions of both online. But there is something different in the physical than the digital. One part is the serendipity — for instance, I likely would not have seen the damp orange marigolds strewn on the beach near the wall if I hadn’t been visiting around Day of the Dead. I wouldn’t have gotten to see those families conversing, through a wall, with their loved ones.
But even without the idea of serendipity, there is a reason museums exist. A photo, even in 360 degrees, of the Rosa Parks Bus doesn’t replace the emotional power of stepping onto the bus itself. I myself spent a moment on the bus before the museum opened on Inauguration Day 2017 — it was a way, on a difficult day for me and so many others, to center myself around the idea that though it would be really nice if the moral arc of the universe would bend toward justice just a little more quickly, good people have bested hateful and oppressive behavior before, and will again.
I suppose in the end I’m not sure digital will ever equal the emotional impact of the physical — at least not in my lifetime. Maybe this makes me a terrible digital practitioner.
But I have always been an inveterate shades-of-gray person, and for me things just keep getting grayer. A couple of years ago, not long after Inauguration Day, I went through a traumatic situation that turned my life upside-down, and continues to do so. Many things I used to care about, things I used to enjoy deeply, I seem to have lost interest in. Suffering fools gladly, never a strong suit of mine, is now an even deeper challenge. I’ve always been an introvert, but now find myself wanting to spend even more time alone. Little things throw me much more easily than they used to, and big things, the normal noise of life, can seem insurmountable.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis notes that grief feels “like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling.” For a few years, I’ve been in this state of suspension, observing with varying degrees of dispassion my actions and my thoughts, and wondering what parts of this new person I’ve become are permanent and what will eventually revert to the way I used to be. I still don’t know.
But when your own personal footing is unsound, it’s hard to feel anything is sound. In my work life, that has meant an increasingly intense need to keep questioning everything — including whether digital is the right solution to any given problem, and even if it is, which digital option is the way to go.
Living in this constant state of questioning can be painful. In a story from The View from the Seventh Layer, Kevin Brockmeier puts it this way: “You remember having friends who used to lampoon the world so effortlessly, crouching at the verge of every joke and waiting to pounce on it, and you remember how they changed as they grew older and the joy of questioning everything slowly became transformed into the pain of questioning everything, like a star consuming its own core.” That could easily be my epitaph. But in order to be able to live with it, I have to believe there is some value in this pain, in the uncertainty, in the questioning.
At MCN, I had a hallway conversation with Susan Edwards and several other folks about why it is that museum staff are so quick to pick apart any idea that comes our way. She thought it might be the academic injunction to question. That critical thinking is a big part of it, I think, but I work at a public history museum--while our staff are quite a bit more well-educated than the average bear, most of us are not overly academic.
I think at heart the urge among museum staff to question everything springs from our deep passion for our noble and beautiful missions. I often tell people I’m not selling mortgages or making widgets--it does feel like there’s more on the line when you work for an institution whose purpose is to inspire and educate than for a company that makes soda or hubcaps. And we definitely have a wealth of content to work with, and any number of directions we could legitimately take, and a million really important stories we could tell. But we don’t have enough people or money to do everything, so we question and argue.
The trick lies in how we question and argue, and how we make our peace with the decisions that are made in the end. Those who work with me know that I often make a Venn diagram with my fingers to illustrate a conversational point. I am never happier than finding the overlap between what I think is the right thing to do, and what my museum thinks is the right thing to do. Everyone spends some time outside that overlap. But if you spend too much time outside that happy place, on either side, you’ll eventually either get fired or leave.
Which brings me back around to this year’s MCN conference, and the Salman Rushdie quote I started with. I’d submit if you’re a liberal-leaning American, as many MCNers are, you are probably already struggling to find the slim-to-nonexistent overlap in another Venn diagram, pictured below. We may all be off our balance right now. Add to this dark night of the soul any personal crises and traumas you have going, as well as the inherent challenges of museum workplaces even at the best of times, and things definitely get a little crazy.
This is what I think I heard and saw at MCN this year: in the sessions I went to, in the #MCN2019 Twitter feed, and in my conversations with other attendees.
Given all the ramblings above, what are my main takeaways from San Diego and the MCN 2019 conference?
- Maintenance > the latest new thing. There. I said it. It seems there were more conversations about care and feeding of digital transformations, digital practice, museum staff, museum culture, and even our physical collections than I’ve heard before. I’ve been following The Maintainers for a while now, and if you’re not, it’s worth your time to sign up for their listserv and/or social media. They examine the ways in which our society celebrates innovation and the new, and downplays and neglects maintenance. One idea I’ve long considered myself is that the idea of technical debt applies in other areas too — collections debt, facilities debt, content debt, etc. We don’t do our future selves any good when we don’t plan for the long-term. Remember that Balboa Park deferred maintenance? That matters. And the maintenance (of all kinds) that you’re ignoring at your museum matters, too.
- Constantly think about where you are putting your money. I was really struck by a tweet from Seema Rao, in which she asked: “What would museums look like if 50 million dollars was spent on people and staff instead of technology?” We all know in the 21st century there are critical technology projects (a museum needs to have a functional ticketing system, network, collections management database, basic software package, etc.), but just think about that statement a minute. What if you took the budget from your latest technology project and put it into salaries for new staff and/or raises for existing staff. What would improve? What would go wrong? Do we ever stop to consider this, or do we take a donor’s money and build something that doesn’t move us forward as far as staff investments would? “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are” (José Ortega y Gasset, Man and Crisis, 1962) applies to attention in terms of both time and funding.
- Diversity, inclusion, openness, accessibility. You won’t always get these things right, but if you’re not trying, you’re not going to get them right accidentally. If you can do radical (like the Baltimore Museum of Art’s decision to only collect artworks by women during 2020), do it, but if you can’t, do what you can. Effie Kapsalis noted, “We do an inadequate job of showing the people in our collections” — and particularly those who don’t fit the prevailing values of a largely white- and male-dominated society. An important corollary to telling those stories is that this won’t be fixed overnight (even by radical actions, like those of the BMA) — but we can make it better.
- Technology can be used for good or for evil, but we don’t always know which is which. Big-tech firms like Google, Apple, and Facebook provide opportunities for museums, but also bring a raft of potential problems, which seem to compound every day. We need to bring our hearts to work and think about the ramifications of our choices. And again, we won’t always get it right. But if we’re constantly thinking, bringing some humble self-doubt to the table, and constantly conferring with each other and our current and future audiences, hopefully things are more good than bad--and hopefully we can forgive ourselves when we make a well-intentioned but bad call.
- Not just dissent, but constructive dissent. Thanks to news coverage of the Trump impeachment hearings, I learned that the American Foreign Service Association gives out multiple Constructive Dissent awards. Wouldn’t it be nice if our institutions would do the same: recognize and celebrate people who don’t just challenge the status quo, but do so with “initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent”? How much would that help us with all the other things on this list? Many of us may not have the power to implement this across our whole institution, but we can start by making our own sphere safe for this kind of discourse, and lauding those who do this well.
- Museums bring unique challenges, but also unique opportunities. We are justified in kvetching about the downsides of working in a GLAM — there are many. However, I do believe that there are upsides to GLAM work that you are not likely to find elsewhere. During the “You’re a Project Manager — Now What?” deep dive session that Susan Edwards and I facilitated, one of my favorite takeaways was the exercise where small groups discussed the unique challenges — and the unique opportunities — of being a project manager in a GLAM. Check out slides 46 and 47 in the deck to see what people came up with. Which is not to say that your museum job may not bring more challenges than opportunities — and if you feel that’s the case, you should look for something else. But I do think there are enough opportunities to bring change to merit deep consideration before jumping ship. Which leads to the next takeaway…
- Make things better through slow change. We can’t fix all the problems of the world, but we can make them better, usually one small slow painful step at a time. In my prior experience in the for-profit world, I was just one cog in a giant machine. I did a good job, but I never had a lasting effect on the organizational culture. At my museum, I can see my influence in small but hopeful ways. On a bad day, this doesn’t seem like enough. On a good day, it means everything. And remember the person who, during Friday’s plenary panel, “When culture eats strategy, make sure it’s delicious,” answered the request for one word describing their organizational culture with “love.” It may be that you have some power to help make your museum that museum.
8. Self-doubt has power. Not long after I returned from MCN, I participated in a training session led by someone from the for-profit world, someone quite well-practiced in public speaking. There were some good takeaways in the session, and some interesting ideas. But there was a constant running subtext of how awesome the speaker was — many “I” statements, frequent mentions of laudatory comments and awards they had received, visible delight when someone else in the session expressed amazement at their words. Perhaps you can be successful without having self-doubt or humility — but I like to believe that the best among us freely admit that we don’t know everything, and that we will continue to stumble at times. It can be intensely painful to constantly reflect, and to question what we’re doing — but just think about how things might go if we don’t. This is not to say that self-doubt, taken to an extreme, can’t become a debilitating liability, but when that doubt, those questions, that reflection is shared with others, like it was at MCN this year, it can help distribute the load and perhaps, just perhaps, help us start fixing things.
9. Take care of yourself. As the airlines say, adjust your oxygen mask before assisting others. If you pass out, you can’t care for anyone else.
I’m not quite sure how to wrap this up, but since I started with a quote, it seems right to end with one too. I’ll let Adrienne Rich’s “In Those Years” be the last word.
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I