What I Learned on My Government-Enforced Research Sabbatical

I’m back to work now. And very happy about that. There’s renewed sense of vitality and vigor, in part due to a soon to start new director, end of the year R&R, new year jitters, and the record-setting furlough for federal workers. Don’t get me wrong, there is despair, low morale and fatigue as well, thanks to the shutdown. But the focus of this essay is on what I learned through this put-upon, forced meditation on the benefits of a structured life. I wasn’t the only one who was furloughed, my almost 3-year old daughter was as well. (She attends a Smithsonian preschool program.) So I had the added benefit/opportunity/punishment of experiencing weeks of the life I did not choose- I was a stay at home mom. The hardest part was trying to keep her on a schedule which had never been reset after the sugar-filled bacchanal that is Christmas and visiting grandparents. We went to the same museum 3–4 times (it was the only age appropriate one open) and we danced around the house a lot. I enforced “quiet time” which was a “nap-time-lite” offering the sweet, sweet possibility of 2–3 hours of stillness and calm. It didn’t always work out…. but realization came on quick that without some willpower, that priceless time would be a B-list Black Mirror episode, a lonely housewife trapped in an endless loop of twitter, Facebook, news, instagram and listening through child’s door. I decided that I could at least use this time to catch up on reading that I needed and wanted to do. After the shutdown crossed into 3 weeks, I added another goal: I could use my private time to start writing.

The writing part only sort of happened. This is my post-shutdown wrap-up of what reading and thinking and being overstimulated by a national snafu can do to the mind.

The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker

Parker says beautiful things about how to create gatherings that are planned for the people, and not the logistics. Logistics matter, but much less than the Miss Manners and the Martha Stewarts of the world think. What matters is planning for the well-being of your guests. Giving them notice of the space and experience they are entering into (only selectively, Parker isn’t anti-surprise), welcoming them into the gathering, understanding sequencing and communicating it boldly for the person next to the loud-talker and the person who is hard of hearing. These principles translate well to internal meetings for our colleagues [1], and also for visitors entering into the museum space. The museum space is a gathering space, even though we tend to think of it as architecture, abstract matter, white boxes to be molded and skinned. Flesh and blood, nervous, excited, bored and tired people just keep coming and Parker can help us understand how to welcome and gather with them.

“The bigger the ask — say, if you’re having people travel long distances to attend your gathering — the more care, attention, and detail should be put into the pregame phase. You need to attend to your guests in this pregame window in proportion to the risk and effort you are demanding of them.”

As she explains: “We moved the controversy from implicit to explicit by ritualizing it. We created a temporary alternative world within the larger gathering, a wrestling match that allowed the controversy to be litigated in a way that was honest and aired feelings without being bridge-burning.”

As an idea, provocation has always been close to my heart [3], as a practice it’s much, much, much harder to build an exhibition design practice around. As a designer, we are often translating the existing situation into a process that brings us to some unknown outcome. Uncertainty and mess is a given. Asking for even more uncertainty? A tall order.

“When I work with clients, they often tell me they want to do a “town hall” to air opinions and get people to speak their truth. Then the day comes, and if I haven’t managed to wrest control over the event, the town hall is used to recirculate the old platitudes, to reassure those in charge about the wisdom of their rule, to keep everything exactly as it is. When I challenge the organizers, they often tell me that it’s too risky to introduce controversy in a group setting.”

“To embrace good controversy is to embrace the idea that harmony is not necessarily the highest, and certainly not the only, value in a gathering. Good controversy helps us re-examine what we hold dear: our values, priorities, non-negotiables. Good controversy is generative rather than preservationist. It leads to something better than the status quo. It helps communities move forward in their thinking. It helps us grow. Good controversy can be messy in the midst of the brawling. But when it works, it is clarifying and cleansing — and a forceful antidote to bullshit.”

More about risk to follow…

1: I once wrote a note to myself: “Repeating information isn’t a waste of time, it’s inclusive.” I firmly believe this and I find information-hoarding to be a modern ill of the office environment. It’s a virus and we need to work 24/7 to fight back against it. I am not saying that we should be ok with just wiling away our meeting minutes with rehashes of previous discussions. In fact, we could be properly documenting and making information accessible in a timely manner that allows for reviewing in a manner that doesn’t break flow. An example would be distributing meeting notes via email after a meeting, then for the next meeting printing copies of the past meeting notes and putting them behind the current meeting agenda. Taking the time to highlight and call attention to the points that are carried over, time sensitive, or just more important. This dance between capturing information, distributing it and making it easy to digest can be the ultimate kindness in the office environment. And on that note, how about using some different methods to just break from the standard modes? Draw meeting notes, act out the meeting, create a different type of documentation. The act of doing so will inevitably present the content within a new light. Who can turn down the same level of documentation with new neural pathways?

2: As much I enjoy the cocktail party anecdotes, it grates on my recently-left-NYC nerves that her guests sound like the 21st century cast of Clue. When they first arrive, not while solving the murder: lots of pretense, not many flaws, terribly cosmopolitan and accomplished.

3: My master’s thesis title was “More than just sex and violence: provocation in exhibit design” and it was an attempt to define the criteria for provocation as a stimulus and response for deeper engagement between and exhibition and its visitors. The three criteria were context, content and design. It’s shocking that I didn’t hone my thesis argument beyond you know, everything.

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