It’s hard to begin my conference reflections when I’m not on a plane.
But these days our lives are virtual.
Like many of our peers in the museum world, over the last two weeks Lori and I have been living double-lives. We are very much still at work, but also at #MCN2020 VIRTUAL, an online version of the Museum Computer Network’s annual conference, this year at 800-attendees strong. On top of that, we’re doing the emotional labor of simply being people surviving a global pandemic. Attending a conference is never an easy commitment, especially during a year like this one. Yet it felt more important than ever that we reconnected with this community and learned from the daily shows of resilience that all of our museum colleagues—whether employed or laid off—are bringing to the field every day.
There were many philosophical threads of MCN, as well as hard skill learnings and retoolings. An undercurrent of indignation mixed with resilience ran parallel to the workshops and the deep dives on tech tools. I kept hearing over and over again, in different ways and different words, starting with the first session I attended and percolating through meet-up groups and other sessions: we need to make digital work better for the people who work in digital.
And who are the people now working in digital?
We’ve now settled into a world where virtual content is the only way to safely engage with our audiences and customers. For many industries, this means that the greater orb of “who makes digital products” is greatly expanding. But in museums it presents a unique set of challenges. Team members—from conservators to curators to volunteer docents—who previously were extremely far from the digital landscape have now been forced to engage with online-only workflows and content creation. The sincere interest and need for help from these colleagues has overwhelmed museum digital teams at a time when museum doors are closing and all eyes are shifting to them. Now countless museums have slashed their staff numbers in unprecedented layoffs. Over 30% of the museum field was laid off (as of October), according to a recent Wilkening Consulting survey. It’s inevitable that number has increased, and will continue to as institutions shut down again.
On top of the shock to those who have been laid off, this has put even more pressure on those who remain behind to “save their institutions,” both within digital departments and those who are newly digital. Our social media managers are exhausted; our front-line staff who are in the buildings working are feeling less valued than the objects that their museums house; our digital directors are tired of pivoting; and our IT teams are done with Teams.
We can do better.
1909 DIGITAL likes to say that we’re a team who augments yours. We also like to work smarter, not harder. These value propositions have become even more aligned with the field’s needs after our many conversations at MCN. I deeply connected to MCN’s conference theme of Sustainability: Preserve/Progress. My time at 1909 began only after my own museum position was eliminated a few months ago. At 1909, we care about the process and continually making progress. As an agency entering our second year, we’ve focused on making our own internal workflows and our own Agile project management more nimble and successful. We are an all-remote, 10-person, 5-state team working with 10 external clients. Building a culture of digital collaboration, trust, and partnership is key—and we’ve managed to do that, despite the fact that many of us have never met face-to-face.
Beyond our work with clients, the 1909 team is focused on building a culture that works for us as digital humans. Our internal motto is “Family First-Health First-Mental Health First.” The reason we are family-focused is because our workflows and processes are built with safeguards and check-ins. Our internal Agile process is one that promotes openness and transparency about workloads and capacity, where we can visualize and plan efficiently and effectively.
Spread the love.
Working with some of our external clients, we have helped museums’ communication teams work better as their teams became all-remote. We are intentional about our own internal processes of remote work, and we translate that to our client work as we help set up workflows and processes. Being “at” MCN and hearing from others about their great cataclysms in our field in 2020, it became more clear that we need a greater awareness about the processes behind our work.
We need each other. But we also need to be intentional about how we’re doing the work, and what we are asking of each other. A pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. Museums are not first responders. The work we do is essential, but being physically open is not. The people who work in museums, on the other hand, ARE essential. Nothing should be more important to a museum than keeping its workers safe, physically healthy, and mentally sound in avoiding work-related burnout. In order to ensure that cultural workers will be here when the crisis has waned, we need to build sustainable systems and processes for the people who are doing the work.
So what’s next?
Keep an eye on this space as Lori and I process some of our deeper thoughts about #MCN2020! In the meantime, remember that museums are not their collections but rather the people who work in museums. Use this weekend to take some time for yourself, especially if you happen to be in the cultural sector. The museum community needs you.
As the museum field faces unprecedented layoffs, 1909 supports the work of the Museum Workers Speak relief fund, which has raised over $70,000 to support laid-off workers. You can purchase great museum worker merch inspired by #MCN2020, a fundraiser for Museum Workers Fund and the MCN 2021 mutual aid fund.