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The Museum Crisis: Does Reflection Help?


By Marquex bol - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Week after week the crisis in the museum field continues. First it was COVID. The stress began with physical spaces and collections, and quickly accelerated to furloughs, lost jobs, and epically bad communication, before moving to an unmasking of the racism littering the museum workplace, from collections, where BIPOC visitors feel as though they never see themselves, to the workplace itself. Now it's the dog days of August and the emperor definitely has no clothes. With nothing left to surprise us, the only question is have we reached bottom yet? If the answer is yes, it's time to rebuild. Clearly the last six months were filled with unprecedented change. For those of us planning to open or who already have opened, the indefinite nature of the COVID universe makes change constant. As museum leaders or museum folk who practice leadership regardless of our titles, change requires a big dose of creativity followed by a massive level of adaptability, and what helps with that? Self-reflection. My own program has a great reputation for service to our community, but our team reputation is tarnished. We're not a group known for rowing the boat easily together. So recently we spent some time talking about the importance of personal reflection. We charged each other with reflecting daily or weekly. We didn't specify whether the reflections needed to be written or a meditative pause in the work day or week, but rather a time to think about what went well and what didn't. Sound too woo-woo? Perhaps you're thinking who has time to pause? We're in a pandemic, a recession, not to mention a time of social and cultural upheaval? But maybe that is precisely why each of us needs to reflect on the way we make our way in the museum world, however tiny our role. Wasn't it Albert Einstein who said doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity? A reflective practice allows us to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. It asks us to acknowledge where we went off course, imagine a second chance and aspire to a better outcome. Okay, so why does any of that matter when, if there is a resurgence of COVID, your museum may close? Organizationally, it may not matter. But if you're lucky enough to serve a museum or heritage organization that is open and weathering the COVID/post-George Floyd storm, then reflection, both personal and organizational, will help you emerge from the same old place, doing the same old thing, just well enough. Reflection requires you to pause. It asks you to take personal responsibility for whatever happened. It asks you to be vulnerable, and it is often discomforting. Research shows us that employees approach their leaders regarding emotional issues at work more often than their peers, and see their bosses' role as part leader/part parent. That can be hugely exhausting for museum leaders, and without allowing yourself time to reflect you can quickly become emotionally depleted. One of the lessons Anne Ackerson and I uncovered in Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord is that the way individual leaders behave is echoed in their organizations' behavior. Leaders for whom self reflection is a habit generally lead museums or heritage organizations that reflect collectively. If you read Dr. Porchia Moore on Incluseum this week, you know trying to overcome a workplace with a dominant white narrative will demand a level of vulnerability. Reflection--yours and your museum's-- is the place to work on that. So in a world crowded with social distancing and air quality measurements, PPE equipment, reduced staffing, reduced income, and understanding how your workplace and your collections became so invulnerably white, stop, and pause:

  1. Don't take on too much. An hour of meditation each week might be a bridge too far. Pick a length of time that works for you in your world.

  2. Pick a method that meets your needs: On your morning walk, in a journal at day's end; online in a long document; alone in a quiet place or together with a trusted colleague.

  3. Don't expect answers unless you're willing to ask questions. Think about your work over the course of a week or a day.

  4. Ask yourself mindful questions:  Consider how you helped or how you hindered; consider where your own biases impeded your work or the work of others or how your team meeting might have gone better. Where did connection break down? Where did you find empathy? When did you feel vulnerable? We know the museum world must change if it's to survive. But it's not a monolith. It's made up of 300,000-plus individuals all serving a huge variety of museums and heritage organizations. Change won't come in a lightning bolt from on high. Change comes when each of us makes a commitment to change. Reflection helps with that. And you can't be with people--in the workplace, in exhibits, in historic settings---unless you understand the bridge from vulnerability to empathy. So just try. Start this week. Break down some walls. Joan Baldwin


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