Finding Hope in a Post-Pandemic World
Iceberg with a hole in the strait between Langø and Sanderson Hope south of Upernavik, Greenland. Kim Hansen - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2847421
After Thanksgiving, I've often found inspiration for these pages in the best aspects of the holiday: kindness, collaboration, trust. This year, finding goodness in the waning months of 2020 seems a Herculean task. Many museum workers are no longer employed. One in three museums nationwide may never reopen. Those that have opened, did so under strange and constricting conditions, only to find themselves closed again as the pandemic sky rockets. And the museum field continues to make headlines, not for its great exhibitions or good works, but for poor leadership, lack of concern for its workers, and monetizing collections, aka deaccessioning.
Sunday morning I woke to discover Tony Hsieh, entreprenuer and Zappos founder had died. One of my leadership heroes, the 46-year old Hsieh made headlines in the late 1990's when he bought a shoe company called ShoeSite.com that ultimately became the Internet giant Zappos. Hsieh believed trust and friendliness were what create return customers online or in person. His decision-making-at-the-point-of-transaction philosophy, where call center staff were encouraged and trusted to make the best decisions they could in the moment, transformed Zappos. Later he embraced Holacracy, a method of decentralized management and organizational governance, changing and challenging Zappos still further.
What does any of this have to do with museums? Maybe nothing, but Hsieh's ideas of empowering staff and creating an organization where a call center employee has an equal voice in creating change echo a lot of what many museum thought leaders have written and spoken about since the start of the pandemic. And yet, when the National Gallery of Art (NGA), along with museums of art in Boston, Houston and London's Tate cancelled their joint Philip Guston exhibit, social media was swamped with opinions and feelings about how wrong they were.1 Midst all the noise, NGA director Kaywin Feldman suggested that, among other reasons for pressing pause on the show, were the security guards. She described them as "experts in the general public, and they know much more about our public, about public reactions and understanding, than I do sitting in my office up here." When was the last time you heard an art museum director reference their security guards' opinions in a public interview and how Hsieh-like was that? Feldman also makes the point that her thoughts are about NGA only, and that the other partner museums have their own approach, community, staff, and reasons for wanting to press pause.
If the Guston exhibit is a microcosm of the kind complex problem museums will continue to confront post-pandemic, shouldn't we as bystanders be equally nuanced in our response to their choices? The debate has aligned itself in two buckets: whether museums are about people (staff and community take precedence) or about things (collections are preeminently important). When collections take precedence, the museum's role is to protect, preserve and exhibit. On the human side of the argument, staff are seen as key to making collections speak, hopefully telling an object's full story truthfully and without bias, overlaying the knowledgable expert with diverse and authentic narratives.
When we think about how the museum world might move forward, it's worth remembering there are some 35,000 museums in the U.S. Yet art museums comprise only 4.5-percent of the total, even though they've garnered 100-percent of the of the news recently. So it's helpful to remember that art museum problems are not always a reflection of the museum world as a whole. In addition, there is social media, an ever- hungry animal, encouraging us to respond quickly, to "like" something or to comment. As a result we find ourselves commenting not always on facts but sometimes on opinions perpetuating a narrative that isn't fact-based, but amplifying a museum chronicle where staff is mistreated, DEI issues are rife, boards are groups of uncaring, entitled, privileged white folks. Some or all of that may be true for some institutions, but let's be clear that not all 35,000 museums suffer these symptoms in concert.
So where do I find hope? This month, I saw it in our Johns Hopkins graduate students, in NEMA conference participants, in Gender Equity in Museums Facebook members, and in my friends and colleagues throughout the field. They are committed, smart and intentional. They don't expect some faceless power to make change for them, but, instead, are eager to make change for themselves, their colleagues and the field as a whole.
Some days it's hard to know what matters and what doesn't. If nothing matters, there's no point. If everything matters, there's no purpose. It's up to this next generation of museum workers to find the bridge between the two.
As you look toward a post-pandemic museum world, where do you see hope?
Smee, Sebastian. "In Postponing Guston Exhibition, the National Gallery and Three Other Museums have made a Terrible Mistake: The Cancellation of “Philip Guston Now” is Patronizing and Outrageous." WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post.