On COVID-19 and Managing SeparationPosted: April 13, 2020
Nothing changed this week, and yet everything did. Pandemic numbers continued to climb, all while public health officials predict the worst is still to come. Lines for food banks grew as the number of unemployed multiplied. Museums and heritage organizations made headlines with massive layoffs of front line staff. Midst it all, those of us lucky enough to work from home, found our worlds simultaneously shrink to the size of our houses or apartments and expand to the farthest reaches of the world as we spend more and more time online.
This week I’ve been thinking about separation. As museum folk, our livelihood depends on our interaction with things — paintings, documents, buildings, living things or objects. Suddenly, we’re apart. Apart from the stuff we care for, caring that comes in many forms, through leadership, advancement, scholarship, education, conservation or transportation. Whatever our role, we’re separated. And in this case we’re separated not just from the heartbeat of our museums or heritage sites, we’re separated from colleagues, our human communities, volunteers, tiny children, bigger children, budding artists and scientists, families, and elders.
Is there such thing as a good separation? How do you manage disconnection yet stay attached? How many novels, plays and movies take shape when one character announces they must leave, but they’ll be back? How do relationships deepen between absent friends? Does absence may the heart grow fonder?
And what sustains us through a separation? It used to be letter writing. Now, not so much. Are separations also defined by how we choose to fill the absence?
This week I read a wonderful piece by John Stromberg, director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum to his community. Stromberg talks about the Hood’s commitment to art “by all, for all.” But more exciting to me is his open acknowledgement that however empathetic and caring the Hood’s exhibitions were, now the museum is closed, he acknowledges his staff must pivot. He writes:
As the Hood Museum staff continues to transition to our new digital work format, we are challenged to revitalize and update a key tenet of what we do: putting individuals in direct contact with original works of art and each other. How do we move forward without the physical proximity that has been critical to our practice? Can digital means replicate the intimacy of face-to-face dialogue about today’s most pressing issues?
So must separation incorporate a willingness to change and grow?
Then there is the Philbrook Museum of Art whose relationship with its community, both virtual and actual is a marvel, thanks in part to the leadership of Scott Stulen, a multi-talented artist who admits his directorship is about putting community building into “overdrive.” Who doesn’t want to know a place that in a matter of days changed its tagline to “Chillbrook Museum of Staying Home, Stay Home, Stay Social” as if this were just another day in the life. The Philbrook’s website makes you believe all your emotional and intellectual needs are in hand. Whether it’s listening to podcasts, hearing a tiny concert or participating in a children’s art class, it’s clear that separated or not, the museum percolates along, even for those of us who’ve never been to Tulsa, OK. This week the Philbrook put its money where its mouth is, announcing it is expanding its edible garden in order to support the food bank. How could anyone forget a place that offers so much for so many, and who manages to be winsome, and serious, musical and witty, all at the same time? Maybe a good separation is about enhancing what’s already there, making it richer in the absence of human contact?
Although Old Salem Museum and Gardens closed ahead of some North Carolina museums and heritage sites, the door was barely shut before it launched #wegotthis, a series of online events that included the History Nerd Alert and the Old Salem Exploratorium. About a week ago, it began transforming its historic gardens into Victory gardens to support the city’s Second Harvest Food Bank. That prompted another online series called Two Guys and a Garden. In addition Old Salem has put its head pastry chef back to work producing 50 loaves of bread a day for the food bank, while its head gardener offers videos on seed starting. Does giving back make an organization more memorable? Is it easier to ask, once you’ve given?
Last, but not least, Raynham Hall Museum, The Frick (What’s not to like about Friday cocktails with a curator?) and the Tang Teaching Museum: All used Instagram before the pandemic, but since COVID-19, they’ve ratcheted things up, speaking directly to their audience, making connections between collections and past epidemics, illness, inspiration, art and spring. And there are many more museums and historic sites you know who, despite separation, are enriching connections, building bridges, and creating new audiences.
So what makes a difficult thing like separation doable? Ah…wait for it….because maybe it’s similar to museum life back when things were normal: How about honest, authentic communication that builds outward from mission and collections to connect with community? Opportunities abound for learning the “how-to’s” of social media, but knowing your own site, and your own community, and translating your organizational DNA to images, video, tweets and Instagram, that’s on you. Because when the separation is over–and it will be–how will your organization be remembered? As the site that closed its doors and then 10 weeks later woke up like Rip Van Winkle? Or as the online friend who made people laugh, taught them some stuff, and helped out the community?
 Scott Stulen, “When an Artist Becomes a Director,” American Alliance of Museums, May 17, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2020.
Image: Chillbrook (Philbrook) Museum Instagram post, “Our cats are lonely and would love to hear from you. Write them a letter and they’ll write back. 🐾”