On Museums, Clarity, and Hope

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Remember your pre-COVID-19 life when you wished you could just stay home and work? How peaceful it would be, how much work you’d get done if only you weren’t at work distracted by meetings, angsty colleagues, or workplace deadlines. Well, be careful what you wish for. Now we’re caught in a devilishly dystopian movie with no end in sight, a little workplace angst seems like heaven.

Many of us have completed our first week of either government or self-imposed isolation. For those of us lucky enough to collect a salary while working from home, it has its moments. Everyone uses Zoom like a pro, bouncing from meeting to meeting as we struggle to stay on point, while small children and dogs step into the picture. But there’s no doubt there’s a price to pay, and social isolation is the least of it.

So after five days, what do you as museum leaders know? There’s the obvious: that collections managers and curators’ work transfers home a lot easier than that of your front line staff. But how about protecting as many of your workers as you can, and while acknowledging layoffs are horrible? Then there’s social media: those of you who have a robust platform may no longer feel as though it’s the icing on the cake, but the main course. And of course, there’s the money: If you didn’t understand your museum’s endowment portfolio two weeks ago, you may be getting a crash course–no pun intended–in stock market physics; that some of this country’s leading philanthropies are already banding together to help support museums and heritage organizations. And the advocacy piece: We owe Laura Lott, Elizabeth Merritt, and the AAM staff thanks for leading the museum world’s advocacy effort on Capitol Hill. Fingers crossed, it pays off.

For many museums the Metropolitan is a kind of a bellwether the same way New York’s fashion world influences dress months later in the heartland. So when the Met announced that even if it were to open again in June, it will face a $100 million loss, it was enough to scare the crap out of many smaller museums and heritage organizations. Even the Met, with its $3.6 billion endowment, has only guaranteed salaries through early April while it studies how to navigate the coming months. Its plan, though, is interesting: Short term, it’s paying salaries and those who can work from home are; beginning in April it will use furloughs, layoffs and retirements in addition to shifting spending from funds associated with programming, acquisition, and travel to keep the museum operational. The hope is it will re-open some six months after the virus began in the U.S. with reductions across the board. (Not shared is whether Max Hollein or Daniel Weiss will take pay cuts for the duration of the crisis. #sharethewealth) So the model is short term, pay those who can work; figure out what you can jettison; shift funds you won’t need, and plan on opening a trimmed down version of yourself in two to four months. The more egalitarian among you may choose to take pay cuts, but that’s for you and your board to work out. There is by the way already a place to aggregate staff layoffs in the wake of the virus. Cold comfort, I know, but as more information amasses, you will have a sense of what other organizations are doing.

For those of you who are now thoroughly depressed, we hope you read Colleen Dilenschneider’s piece on COVID-19 and intended as opposed to actual visitation. As always with Dilenschneider, it is a clear and weirdly hopeful piece. She writes that as of March 13 the public was staying away because they were self-isolating or museums were closed or closing, but long-term, their intent is to return. Could a lack of discretionary income affect that? Yes. But do people need the beauty, the knowledge, the third space museums provide? Yes.

As my friend Franklin Vagnone, President of Old Salem Village writes,

“As museum leaders we must be thinking ahead of this to April 2021. What do you want to be? Who do you want to serve? How will you use your resources to achieve that goal? It’s not the time to be nostalgic for what we lost, we must embrace the butterfly that will grow out of this imposed cocoon.”

In closing, we want to thank history museums and archives who are already starting to collect reminiscences about the pandemic for future generations. We want to thank museum IT and social media folk who keep us entertained and in touch through Instagram, short videos and virtual visits. We want to thank conservators everywhere who donated equipment to first responders, and funders who recognize that museums (and all non-profits) are businesses too and need support as well. We want to acknowledge living history sites who are turning their history gardens over to raise food for community food banks.

And last, we want to send thoughts of encouragement and strength to our colleagues around the world affected by COVID-19, and especially all the museum people in Italy who are in the midst of such a desperate struggle. 

Be strong and stay in touch with each other. Email your professional friends and colleagues and set up a Zoom call today. Don’t wait. Talk.

Joan Baldwin

Image: The Mercury News


4 Tips for Personal Realignment

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Here in the United States we’ve entered the time of year known as “The Holidays,” a mash-up of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and Santa Claus that stretches from Halloween to after New Year’s Day. For many museum folk it’s an action-packed time of year. Will the annual appeal prove how much people love our organization? Will the various holiday parties yield new community connections? How much will the board cut the proposed budget? Will you get that foundation grant? There’s a lot. And that’s just work. This is also a time of year for family. Little children are permanently excited, bigger children exhausted from finishing exams and college applications, and adult children torn between wanting to come home and not wanting to come home. And there you are caught in the middle, again.

It’s definitely time for a little self-care. I’m about to make a completely non-scientific statement and say that in general museum staff are willing to sacrifice a lot for work. As a job sector we arrive early, stay late, and work from home, all while being paid less than we deserve. In 2016 Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight & Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance for Museums, wrote an article called The Museum Sacrifice Measure, which I consider one of the best and most interesting pieces of writing about the museum workplace ever. If you haven’t read it, you should. And even though the field has changed infinitesimally in the last several years, much of what Merritt suggests is still true. That we’re a field with high bars–an expensive graduate degree, unpaid internships and time-consuming volunteer jobs, and an oversupply of overqualified people who are by and large underpaid. Those characteristics, Merritt says, sometimes make us entitled, stubborn and resistant to change. I would argue they also make us a teensy bit masochistic.

So before you agree to work both the fundraiser and the day after Christmas, not because you want to, but because you can, think about yourself for just a tiny second.

Are you getting enough sleep? The Centers for Disease Control reports that one third of us get less than the recommended seven hours per night. If you are parenting a small human there may be a reason for that, but if you’re not, what can you do to get more sleep? Lack of sleep impairs brain function, concentration and productivity, all of which you use at work. Skip Netflix. Try going to bed an hour earlier.

When was the last time you exercised? I do not mean running to the train or across your museum campus because you are late, nor do I necessarily mean a full-on, spandex- laden gym workout, I mean an hour or so dedicated to nothing more than you walking or swimming at a decent pace. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier, more relaxed and less anxious, and in a side benefit, it boosts your energy, while also helping you sleep better. Measure a half mile, put the baby in her stroller or the dog on her leash, lace up your walking shoes, and go. Do it for yourself, not the baby or the dog. And don’t just do it once.

Take 60 minutes for yourself. This isn’t 60 minutes of extra sleep or that hour of walking, this is an hour for you. Meet friends for coffee or drinks. Laugh ’til your side hurts. Watch a sad movie and weep through the ending. Go to the library and pick out new books or sit quietly and gaze at glossy magazines. Get a manicure. Draw. Cook something just for you. Experiment with a new cocktail. Whatever it is doesn’t matter. What does matter is giving yourself permission to press pause.

Think about making some bigger changes. It’s roughly two weeks ’til 2020. A new year is a traditional time for change, personal resolutions, diets, exercise. Many of you know Seema Rao as the person who took over Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0. But before that Rao wrote a book called Self Care for Museum Workers. If you don’t own it, you should. And if the thought of reading a book, even one that might help you, makes you want to scream, read this piece she wrote for AAM almost a year ago. In it, she lays out a simple, clear plan to help you make incremental changes in your life. Try it.

Change is a big deal. A lot of people never manage it. They go through life crippled by everything that’s holding them back. If you’re reading this, you likely work somewhere in the museum/cultural professions. You may not make enough money, you may not have your dream job (yet), you may work more than one job or you may just feel as if you do. Control what you can control. Change what you’re able to change. Shed load where you can. Take care of yourself for yourself. Everyone around you will benefit.

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Leadership Matters will be on vacation for the weeks of Dec. 23 and Dec. 30. Before we return January 6, 2020, we’d like to hear your wishes for the museum world for the coming year. Send them, and any other thoughts you have about the museum field’s future to us here or directly to our email or Facebook where this is posted as well. Full sentences and punctuation aren’t necessary, just your hopes and dreams for the field.

Best wishes for happy holidays, time with family and friends, and a very happy New Year.

Joan Baldwin