American History Of/By/For All
Tomorrow is the first day of Smithsonian National Museum of American History Museum’s next phase. Strategic planning begins in union with the inimitable Nina Simon and Of/By/For All team. Thus begins a months-long process to help the museum craft its vision for the next 7 years.
Is there a way to write personally about professional nerves? Sorry. Reverse that. Is there a way to write professionally about personal nerves? I’m nervous and excited about the beginning of this new, raucous, risky, vulnerable process.
I’m no stranger to vulnerable processes at work. Post-shutdown, the design studio embarked on a mission to interview 70+ of our colleagues. We were curious and time was a little looser as the engines of a national museum need some time to warm up. We took the opportunity to ask about process and frustration and feelings. We asked our colleagues: What do you enjoy most about making exhibitions? What would you change? If you were king, how would you change it? (This proved to be a much harder question to answer.) Can you describe your changing emotional state throughout the process? If you can’t describe, use emojis. The process was draining. We kept it deliberately open-ended as this was about deep listening, not a quantifiable survey. We listened actively, we proceeded with compassion and didn’t pursue direct answers. We wrote about how it was said, as much as what was said. That meant hearing of many workplace frustrations: poor communication, unclear approvals, lack of clear direction, poor accountability. We also heard about the deeper frustrations that lead people to leave the field and lose hope in their own value or their ability to make a difference in the organization. Speaking for myself, active listening was draining, emotionally and psychically. After the interviews, we had beautiful hand-written charts from participants of their touch points, ebbs, flows, bottlenecks, feelings, hopes and fears. We planned to synthesize them, revisit them, absorb them as a whole instead of individually. Our hope was to discover ways to improve our process that could be implemented both for the benefit of specific individuals and for many, short-term and long-term. If there was a small tweak that we could make to one person’s workflow so that it was significantly improved, we were ready. If there was a change that would ripple to improve workflow for multiple parties, we were ready. But the gears started moving again. Projects were restarted, with high pressure for picking up momentum. Even with adjusted schedules, it was a rough quarter. And the interviews and the listening process faded into the background of other priorities. But I’ve just realized what the next steps of those interviews could be. They are a time-capsule of how our colleagues felt about their work with the museum at a specific point in time. One could argue the lowest point in time. In the wake of our longest shutdown, in the midst of a politically charged climate, with a brand new director entering on the heels of slashed budgets and priorities. If it sounds awful, I can attest to that being true for some, which is already too many.
So tonight, I am nervous. Nervous about the process, the awkward silences, the eye-rolling, tensions. Nervous about the laughter, the relief, that sharp breath before you speak your truth. Nervous about the hold-outs, the resisters, those who are bursting at the seams and want it all now, immediately and it’s not enough. Nervous about no, yes, maybe, huh, buts and whys. I want to hear it all, I’m excited to be vulnerable again. In a keynote this past week, Porchia Moore spoke about museums’ responsibility to respect and acknowledge alternate ways of knowing. She argues it’s time to decenter “Knowledge,” (capitalization mine). To recognize emotions and feeling as important ways of knowing. I hope we are ready. I hope you are ready, dear Reader. I will do my best to document, share and be vulnerable for you.
Let’s learn together what it means when a national museum becomes Of/By/For all. Let’s hope it means we heal ourselves at the same time.