Friday, May 29, 2020

“We Knew How to Do This” - Creating #MuseumSurvivalKit

In this guest post, two of the founders of #MuseumSurvivalKit, Michelle Moon and Sarah Pharaon, were kind enough to share how the project came about, as well as news about the upcoming Museum Survival Week!

“We Knew How to Do This” -  Creating #MuseumSurvivalKit

Even in the time of Zoom, somehow the best ideas are born in casual meetings over drinks. During a virtual happy hour - one of the more enjoyable Zoom calls we found ourselves on with seemingly never-ending frequency - a group of us fell into talking of our colleagues, some working from home, some furloughed or laid off. We spoke of friends whose interpretive portfolios consist largely of work developed at history museums, where over years, they learned and honed skills of the past that they used, season after season, to connect visitors to a history they loved. We joked about how those interpreters would survive the zombie apocalypse far longer than us: they know home remedies, have sourdough starters, and can hand-craft weaponry. 

And we laughed, and changed topics, and ultimately ended the call. But the idea that museums might be a source of real survival skills stayed with us after we all pressed “leave meeting” that night.  

Taking It Seriously 

The next day, we had an email exchange, checking with one another. Had we stumbled on a good idea? We knew that museums are full of the skills and stories our fellow humans used to manage the challenges of their lives - in crisis times, in hardship, under oppression, and just responding to the demands of everyday life. Telling these stories is what we do. But in this time when museums are considered “non-essential,” did people know that they can turn to our institutions to rediscover some of the inspiring, creative, and practical strategies our communities and our ancestors have developed over time? We asked ourselves: What if we made #MuseumSurvivalKit a Real Thing? Did it have enough juice that others would want to take part? Did we have the skills to produce it? Did we have the energy, in such a crazy busy time, to give it a shot? We weren’t really sure - but we decided to go for it. And we got right to work. 

Production was fast-paced, a Stone Soup of contributions from each of our strengths. Each of us found a place to add something needed: text drafting from Michelle Moon, graphic design from Sarah Pharaon, website creation by Tobi Voigt, and outreach strategies from Melanie Adams and Jackie Barton, with many encouraging and critically constructive emails in between. Many of us learned how to do things for the project we would have, in the past, asked colleagues at our organizations to help us with.  Most of us had other things to work on, but the idea was compelling, and the work was fun - a bright spot in a dark time. 

Celebrating Abundance

Part of the promise we saw in #MuseumSurvivalKit is that it highlights the assets and strengths museums bring to the public conversation - working against the scarcity mindset that plagues our field. All of us have recently been part of conversations driven by a desperate sense of competition - “How will we survive in the pandemic environment? What is [insert institution] putting out? We need to get this out fast, before [insert institution]! We need to grab that SBA and PPP and CARES money before it runs out! ” This project aims for collective contribution, explicitly encouraging participating organizations and individuals to freely share their work under a collaborative identity while highlighting what makes them and their teams unique. It pulls from the idea that we need not compete for visitor attention, but rather, that we can create a sense of abundance by focusing on the field’s work as culture bearers.   

Moving at the Speed of Trust 

Once the project launched on May 6, we stood back a little stunned at what, with our first-round contributors, we had all just created. It had come together so quickly and in such a satisfying way. There was something about this that felt different from many of the projects we do as museum workers. Because we knew one another and respect one another’s work, we were able to go into it with a high level of trust, and (as trust has been shown to do) that gave the work speed. 

Off the Leash (Or Giving Ourselves Permission) 

We also reveled in the project’s independence. There was a heady sense of freedom in being able to create something that required no approvals, no vetting, no organizational buy-in - we just did it, with no need to ask anyone’s permission. Rarely do museum professionals get to enjoy such profound nimbleness.

It helped us to better see the strengths and weaknesses of institutional review: there are times it really does help to have lots of eyes on a project, to expose it to critical views, to vet it for representation and other equity needs, and to invite wider shaping influences. But that process also can come at the cost of experimentation. Here, we got a chance to try working leaner and more iteratively; instead of trying to get it perfect out of the gate, we worked with it responsively once it was out in the world, making tweaks as we went and observed how it was being received. There’s a good chance museum workers will be doing more of this in our new environment of short-term planning horizons. It’s a good muscle to exercise. 

The non-hierarchical nature of our relationships was important as well.  With no one “managing” the project and no one “reporting” to each other, the initiative moved forward as the product of a team of equals. We made decisions by consensus and saw a surprising degree of alignment in our working styles, values, and preferences - especially given that none of us had worked together before.  We, as Sarah’s mom says, “threw spaghetti at the wall” and were happy to move forward with whatever stuck. Because none of our professional reputations were at stake, we were okay with whatever mess the spaghetti made. Perfection was not our aim.  

It’s All About Resilience 

#MuseumSurvivalKit is more than a set of how-tos. It’s an affirmation of human resilience. From the beginning, we defined “survival” expansively - as Melanie Adams said, “it’s not just about canning and butter churning. I think of people sitting with their community and making a quilt together, giving emotional support to one another.” So far, #MuseumSurvivalKit contributions have included things like wild foraging and natural rope making - but people are also using the hashtag to talk about Black hair care, conflict resolution, zine-making, and mixing historical cocktails. Survival is just as much about telling stories, providing mutual aid, making music, getting along with one another, and collective problem-solving as it is about finding food in the forest or boiling maple syrup. Every person and every community and every historical era has something to teach us about surviving, and thriving, in challenging times. And we can use all the knowledge they are willing to share. 

And as museum professionals, the project was an exercise in resilience for us, too. It was good to spend time together and be creative. In a time of seemingly unending bad news, for the culture and particularly for our field,  it felt good to focus on positivity and to design something our colleagues might find joy in. 

Next Step: Museum Survival Week

The project is continually evolving, as we learn from our experiences. To spark the next round of participation, we have created Museum Survival Week, June 1-7, 2020.  During this week, we encourage everyone to take part, not just museums. Are you an individual who’s learned something with, in, or from a museum? It’s your time to shine! You’ll find all the participation details here, and please follow #MuseumSurvivalKit during the first week of June to see what others share. Together, and drawing on the rich resources of our cultural heritages, we will get through this.  

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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