Covid & Creativity: Keeping the Dream Alive

Tristan Mimet – Imported from 500px (archived version) by the Archive Team. (detail page), CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75816034

Ages ago I was helping a relative in the kitchen. She had two children under five, and the kitchen was a quiet center in a certain amount of chaos. I remarked that I didn’t understand how she put together an interesting meal with everything else on her to-do list. Her response? “Sometimes it’s the only creative thing I do all day.” At 20, single, and probably monumentally self-absorbed, this struck me as odd and a little pitiful. I thought creativity belonged to talented folk–artists and scientists, writers and choreographers–not something possessed by an overworked parent at a kitchen counter.

I was really young, but the idea that creativity is the exclusive domain of artists and inventors is still alive and well. So is the belief that creativity is a special talent gifted only to a few. Fast forward again, and here we are almost a year into a pandemic. The lucky among us are working, and luckier still if we work in our museums as opposed to our kitchen tables. But our human interactions are still limited, confined by masks, separated by six feet, and reduced to images on Zoom.

I don’t think you can contemplate creativity and museums without referencing Creativity in Museum Practice. Written by Linda Norris and Rainey Tisdale, two humans who are always ahead of the curve, it’s a book that actively encourages you to engage, to remember what drew you to the museum field in the beginning, and to build creativity into your work life, not leave it to artists, writers and MacArthur winners. The bottom line? We all have the ability to be creative. Think of how you re-arranged your living room during COVID to allow for daily yoga or dancing or how you taught yourself to bake bread and grow vegetables. No, you didn’t win a prize, but you used your imagination to strategize, to problem solve, and improve your day-to-day life in tough times.

There is a lot about museum work that is like housekeeping, that feeling that as soon as one collection is safely catalogued and stored, another awaits; as soon as one foundation requests zips off into the Internet, another sits unfinished; ditto exhibits, virtual or actual, and on, and on. But somewhere in there, whether you’re confined at home, or six feet from colleagues at your workplace, you need to step out of your Cinderella role and shake it up a little. Norris and Tisdale quote creativity guru Michael Milchalko’s SCAMPER, a mnemonic for helping integrate idea generation into daily life: S stands for substitute something; C for combine with something else; A is adapt something to it; M is modify or magnify; P is put it to some other use; E is elminate something; and R is reverse or rearrange. Imagine how applying SCAMPER to tasks your team have done 100 times might change things.

But wait, you’re probably thinking, as am I, inserting one more thing into a crowded team agenda might just be the tipping point. Thanks to COVID, there is already too much to do, too few people to do it, and intense competition to get it done in a way that sets you apart from the crowd. True. Yet it’s likely what sets us apart from the crowd is our organizational ability to substitute something, to add something new, to modify or magnify a program or an idea we used before to quote SCAMPER. And what does it take to do that? Oh, creativity. So as a museum leaders or followers, how do we utilize our individual and collective creative brain power?

If you’re a leader:

  • Reward failure. Recognize that good ideas come from experimentation, and most importantly from collaboration. So build the ability to fail into your museum culture, and be transparent when your own ideas founder.
  • Present problems as challenges, and wait for collaborative answers. If you’ve always done an annual event one way that COVID makes impossible, ask for ideas. And then wait. Build in extra time to allow your staff to talk, ideate and experiment.
  • Remember to press pause. People need time to create. They need to know just thinking isn’t a bad thing. Model it. Make your museum culture a place where it’s okay to say “I’m just thinking.”
  • Get out of the office. If you aren’t working in your museum, this won’t be hard. If you are, meet your staff on a walk instead of six feet apart in a conference room. Sometimes a change of scenery sparks idea making.
  • Reward good ideas. Not all ideas are earth changing, but if staff trust their colleagues enough to share, that’s a good thing, and even small changes make work life more efficient.

If you’re a follower:

  • Believe in yourself. Whether you’re a leader bringing an idea to the board or a staff member offering one to a department head, trust that you know what you’re talking about.
  • Find inspiration. Sometimes it’s a quote, sometimes it’s an image, sometimes a word cloud. Fill your office wall with what inspires you.
  • Work with a partner. It’s no surprise that we work better with some colleagues than others. Their particular skill sets fit ours in ways that make us comfortable so try out ideas together. Pitch a project and share what you’re reading.
  • Get outside. Whether you’re working at home or at work, get outside every day for a walk. Banish your current project from your brain. Look up and look around.
  • Promise yourself to read. If your position allows, spend 30 minutes a day reading, whether it’s the books or magazines stacked on your desk or a new volume of essays or poems. Write down the quotes that are meaningful to you. See where they take you.
  • Give back. If you’re lucky enough to be offered time to think, ruminate and create, use it wisely and well.

In 2018 Gallup did a survey on creativity in the workplace. It’s unlikely there was a huge percentage of museum folk among those polled. Nonetheless, only 18-percent of American workers reported they could take risks at work. That same survey tells us that only 35-percent of workers say they are actually asked to be creative at work, and when they are, it’s infrequent.

There’s been a lot written about the museum world recently, how it’s stodgy, boring, white, male, hierarchical, and hidebound. Many museums are also chronically underfunded, a situation made maddeningly worse by the pandemic. Under-resourced organizations are rarely risk takers. It’s hard to pause and be creative when money is tight, but in a weird way, it almost feels as if that’s what the universe is asking us. No one wants another Zoom meeting, but maybe that’s because of the agenda, not Zoom itself. What happens if you tackle one idea every two weeks as a group–full staff, department, program–however you define your tribe? Make chat comments anonymous and SCAMPER through a problem. What have you got to lose? Maybe your collaboration will be worth it.

Joan Baldwin



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