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March 21, 2009


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Having been in the same webinars - I have a few thoughts. First, it is serendipitous that Hancock Shaker Village has a story of significance that fits directly with these economic times. What can places like Newport Restoration Foundation do at times like these? Talk about how the Vanderbilt's gave out extra bread to their staff? Most house museums and other historic sites were founded based on the idea the former inhabitants were important and "apart" from ourselves, therefore they deserved a museum. In this time, there will be those who want escape and don't want to even think about the money not in their pockets. There are also stories that can connect the present to the past.
Having said that - museums were just beginning to recognize that in order to survive they had to make their stories relevant. Now they have an chance to climb the Mt. Everest of crisis opportunities. Some will do well and some won't. If those that fail aren't around in 15 years, it can only be good. This is the time where "keep the doors open" is not an acceptable goal. Although I am all for museums, those that are entrepreneurial and who respond to market forces instead of "waiting for it to all be over" will thrive.
This is related to the idea of utopian workplaces, really. Here goes:
One of the pivotal moments of my learning was listening to a presentation from the B&O railroad museum's ED about their disaster 10 years ago - the roof of their roundhouse caved in in a snow-hurricane. They didn't have a disaster plan. But, what i took away from that is this:
Weather(and economic meltdown)does not happen only in the block over your museum. It is widespread and also affects staff, emergency responders and others who might help in time of crisis. Each of these individuals is also dealing with their own crisis (no power, injuries, impassable roads, - economic meltdown) and you cannot expect that your staff will report to work 24/7 to rescue the museum from disaster.
Moral of the story: in this time, if our museum workplaces are to be Utopian communities, we need to be honest about our struggles and seek help from our communities. The staff will not pull the museum out of disaster by itself. If the place is going to survive these times, the community must invest and show that the museum is important. Museums must also accept that help. Even in the case of HSV - they can only do so much teaching and modeling. Eventually (and i think that is built into their plan) they must participate EQUALLY with their audience in creation of utopia. If this idea really is going to work, we will have to lose some our museum/expert authority. Refer above to the idea that museums were created for "others" who were separate. We, the staff, cannot become the new "others" in existing museums. We can't separate ourselves from our community partners - especially at times like this or we'll become irrelevant. If some of us are already irrelevant, our work to get out of the tar pit is that much harder.
Good workplace, like everything else in the museum, depends on a great mission. Matching track suits aside, it is important that we all believe in our mission. And that our mission is worth believing in. We need to have a reason to stand together every day. For me that reason comes from what our community thinks about our common experience in the institution - not from "hey- museum visitor - we're doing great stuff - come and look at it - (after you've paid admission)"


So my question is how can we operate internally in a way that avoids dysfunction and arrives at a place where we are capable to respond?I am not suggesting a literal UTOPIA that will change the world, just a work dynamic that is a model that incorporates the things we are not doing widely that make sense.

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