At the month’s program for the MMA 2021 Leadership Series, Katena Cain from Nonprofit Network shared a slide of people and bikes to illustrate the difference between equality and equity. The people shown included a person with a mobility impairment who used a wheelchair, someone who was tall, a seemingly typically sized person, and a small child. In the first image, all four had the exact same bike. As you can imagine, that did not work well for the person with the mobility impairment, the tall person, and the small child. In the second image, each person had a type of bike that seemed better suited to them.
The slide reminded me of another set of images I’ve seen showing the difference between equality and equity. In the equality image, several people of different heights were standing by a fence on crates that were all the same size. The tallest person could easily see over the fence and everyone else less so depending on their height. The shortest person could not see over at all. In the second image, the same people were standing next to the same fence, but the crates were all different sizes to bring everyone’s height to the same level. Everyone could see over the fence.
The first time I saw the fence comparison, it really resonated with me. I am relatively short, so I am familiar with the sensation of not being able to see over something. But the simplicity of the illustration doling out the same solution for a problem experienced by multiple people really hit home and I have thought of that image often.
The slide that Katena showed resonated with me in a different way and started a discussion that has continued in my own mind. Of course, it illustrated the same principal as the fence image in that giving everyone the same thing is not going to guarantee the same outcome. However, the use of bikes just hit me differently, because it was a more complex solution than the fence image. In the fence image, the solution for equity was to give everyone a different sized box. Besides the height, all the boxes were the same. In the bike image, the solution was really four different kinds of bikes. That is a much more complicated and challenging solution.
I am not the only person who saw that complexity, because an exhibit designer on the call brought up the issue of scope and capacity. Their comment concerned the very pragmatic problem of trying to create multiple processes and formats with limited resources. The idea of being able to create and provide four different bikes seems obvious, but the application is more challenging.
This is the third time I’ve written this column. I started it two weeks ago, shortly after the session by Katena, but I couldn’t figure out a conclusion. I started a different column, but came back to this because I was still thinking about it. Again, I couldn’t get to a finish. So, I spent some time this morning watching it snow and thinking about why I couldn’t finish. I didn’t have a conclusion because I wasn’t done thinking about it.
Discussions of equity are extremely challenging for a reason - equity is challenging. If it weren’t, we would not be having this conversation. I think the IDEA of equity can be easy, but actually achieving it is difficult. I can look at all the slides I want about different heights of boxes and different kinds of bikes, but that doesn’t mean I can look at my own life or work and clearly see the solution. Even if I can see the solution, it doesn’t mean that I know how I can make four different bikes using the resources I think I have.
Lisa Craig Brisson
Despite the pandemic crisis, the MMA Board of Directors was very busy in 2020 in a way that I believe will change our course and ensure the long term-sustainability and effectiveness of the organization. Most of what they did related to finances, but there is one other effort that gets me so excited!
A major goal for the organization, identified in our least strategic planning process, was the need to increase and diversify our funding sources so that we can have more infrastructure to support the Michigan museums community. You already know that we made some changes to the membership structure for this year, which will increase our capacity and membership revenue. You will hear more about a new long-term resource later this year, which was the second financial project. Both these changes are steps in the right direction for MMA and they will make so much possible moving forward.
The other effort of last year seems less glamorous, but to me it is the core focus of who we are and what we do, so is one of the most important decisions made by the MMA Board in decades, if not ever. In the fall of 2020, the MMA Board of Directors approved a set of goals and objectives related to the professional development we offer. The goals were developed after many hours of discussion by a small board team, and then approved by the full board after additional discussion.
I have been involved with MMA programming since 2010, and this is the first time during these ten years that MMA has made a commitment to any particular focus in terms of professional development. And honestly, I have not seen any documentation in MMA records to a previous commitment. Instead, the organization has worked towards a more general goal of providing what seemed needed.
I am all for being spontaneous and responsive to members, and this is something that we strive for, but not having any particular focus for our professional development efforts has felt like a burden to me. It is really saying that we will be all things to all people. This would be a challenge for any organization, but for one as small as we are, it caused a lot of inefficiencies and wasted resources.
I have long advocated the need to commit to what we are trying to do. If we know the path we would like to be on, we can set smaller goals and measurable outcomes. If we have set measurable goals, we can know if we have met them and if not, adjust accordingly. If we know what we are trying to do, we can ask the museum community to help us in our efforts.
The downside to committing to one direction is that we are committing to NOT go in another direction. That is frustrating to me because of course I want us to help anyone who needs us. But I also know that the reality is we can only do so much. If we focus on just a couple of areas at a time, we can do a better job there and hopefully be able to focus on something else later.
You can find more information about our professional development goals and objectives on the MMA website, and I would love to hear what you think of them. But in a nutshell, MMA commits to:
I believe that orienting all we do to commit to these three areas will give us a better compass as we continue to move forward and grow. They are still relatively vague goals, but the objectives and possible strategies we’ve identified will help us get started. I can’t wait to see where these goals take us, and I hope you join us on the journey.
Lisa Craig Brisson
I always appreciate the chance for a fresh start at the beginning of the year, and to make some resolutions. My work-related resolutions this year include continuing to work on my productivity, make my office a space that feels calm and inspiring, and learn lots of new things.
In case you are thinking of some work resolutions this year too, I’ve put a little list together of some possible resolutions and how MMA can help with those.
Invest in relationships
MMA Member Communities help you develop ongoing relationships with colleagues related to professional development goals. Current groups focus on Productivity and Time Management; Historic House Museums; Upper Peninsula Museums; Diversity, Inclusion, Access and Equity; Exhibit Designers; and Disaster Preparedness. Other possible groups under discussion relate to development, all-volunteer museums, and users of Past Perfect collections software.
Take the Lead
Everyone can be a leader regardless of role or authority and MMA’s 2021 Leadership Series will help participants better understand their own leadership strengths and challenges. Register for the entire series or one session at a time. Scholarships are available and the deadline to apply is Thursday, January 7 at noon.
Solve Ongoing Issues
MMA Ask an Expert programs are designed to help museum staff and volunteers connect with experts in specific areas. Experts are selected based on member requests and emerging concerns.
Have More Conversations
MMA Colleague Chats provide the chance for members and other to talk about specific topics related to their work. The format is informal and follows the path taken by participants.
Listening to colleagues talk about their work can often create a spark of creativity or inspiration, or can be a few moments of respite from the intensity of daily work. MI Museum Spotlights let MMA members share projects and lessons learned.
Stay on Top of Things
The MMA Weekly arrives in your inbox every Monday, and is full up new information, upcoming events, and other opportunities. Look for it to get all the latest news.
Take Some Time to Reflect
The MMA Review provides a monthly “look back” on what’s been happening at MMA and in the Michigan museum community. Designed to be a longer read, it provides the chance to take a break and see what’s been going on.
Invest in MMA
There are several ways that you can make MMA stronger. Besides participating in programs, members can serve as volunteers to do projects and plan programs and events. Two appeals each year (spring/summer and year-end) provide direct financial support to make our work possible.
There WILL be an MMA conference in 2021, though it will likely look a little different. We will do our best to make it safe, convenient, and affordable. Although the realities of 2021 might make it a challenge to attend, try to do it anyway. We will have some scholarships to make it more affordable. We will choose a location that is relatively close to as many members as possible. And we will design it to accommodate social distancing and COVID-19 best practice, in case that is still needed. We will do what we can to make it possible, but you may have to work harder to find funding (MCACA mini-grant, anyone?), travel a ways, and make some accommodations. But it will be worth it, we promise. And won’t it be wonderful to SEE each other for real?!?
MMA has a new Business Directory on the website, and we are excited to add our regular business members, as well as our new consultant and university members. Check out the directory when you need to find someone who really knows their stuff.
The MMA website is evolving to be a place to find broad and specific information. Many have visited the website for information about dealing with COVID-19, but we are also working on making it a resource for many areas of museum work. Pop over to explore, and feel free to provide feedback for what you’d like to see there.
The success of the Michigan Museums Association depends completely on the willingness of the Michigan museum community to participate. We have just listed eleven different ways that you can be part of it, but one of the most critical ways for you to ensure the impact of MMA is to join as a member. MMA memberships provide a regular stream of financial support to allow us to plan and commit to you. Your membership gives you the opportunity to commit to us.
I hope these have been helpful and have sparked some ideas for your resolutions, even if you don’t turn to MMA to help with them.
Best wishes for a Happy New Year!!
Lisa Craig Brisson
I’ve been thinking a lot about the word catalyst lately. The term was added to the MMA mission when it was revised as part of our most recent strategic plan, but I didn’t really give it much thought until this year. According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of catalyst is “a substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions (as at a lower temperature) than otherwise possible” or “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action.”
When the MMA board selected the term catalyst, they were looking for something to explain the role of the organization in making something happen for the Michigan museum community. The use of the word catalyst was a way to say that we are an agent of change, but not the change itself. It puts the role of the organization as one that supports movement, but is not the movement. The change or movement we seek is for museums to thrive. We can discuss what that means at another time, and especially what that means during a global pandemic, but it is the change we seek to support or bring about faster. And being a catalyst for that inspires us all.
What I have really come to appreciate this year is that a catalyst can only exist if there is something to catalyze. It has no meaning without the elements that do the actual changing. In a literal chemical reaction, I am not sure the elements involved have any choice in the matter. But, for an organization that seeks to be a catalyst, the elements have to choose to be part of the formula.
By all accounts, MMA has had a good year. Not to say it hasn't been a horrible year, which it definitely has been. But we have never had such a high level of contact with such a broad spectrum of the Michigan museum community. Honestly, we didn’t do anything radically different this year. We still focused on expertise, engagement and advocacy, just in a different format. Sure, that format was super accessible, but we have had other formats that were also free or local, and we have never had such a strong response proportionally. We are in the middle of a crisis, so many more people are seeking resources and connections, but the museum community has been in crisis before. Museums are in crisis on a regular basis, but people have not looked to MMA for help on the scale that happened this year.
So thank you, elements, for letting MMA be a catalyst in the Michigan museum community. Thank you for participating in Colleague Chats and attending other online programs. Thank you for calling or emailing with questions. Thank you for visiting the website for jobs or information. Thank you for joining member communities, and serving on volunteer teams. Without you, we wouldn’t be a catalyst.
Lisa Craig Brisson
‘Tis the season to express gratitude, and as hard as this year has been, I am finding my list longer and a little different than usual.
Generosity – I love the Mr. Rogers quote about when there is a crisis we should “look for the helpers.” I have been practicing that for a long time and with the pandemic, there are so many places I have seen them. The Michigan museum community is no exception. Right from the start, I saw examples of generosity from our colleagues. For some, like our COVID Crusader Award recipients last week, that meant raiding the collections supply closets to find extra gloves and masks to bring to local hospitals, making masks to share, or helping at food banks. For others, like the Colleague Champions, it was stepping up in a certain way to help the museum continue to serve the community even when closed or to support a co-worker who was struggling.
For me, there were three ways I got to “see the helpers” in action, and it was such a privilege. One example was the response to the call for help in Midland. I was concerned that the holiday weekend and COVID-19 would make it hard for people to be able to respond. Silly me. I should have known that a global pandemic is nothing when a museum person knows the clock is ticking to get items out of a high-humidity situation.
Other “helpers” I saw were all of the people who attended, and continue to attend, the Colleague Chat programs. I know that the primary motivation for most who join the Zoom calls is to see what everyone else is doing, but on those calls, people have been so quick to share what they know and resources they have found. I stopped counting the times that people told me that a Colleague Chat made a huge difference in helping them deal with the crisis.
Finally, there were several groups of MMA members who served on various teams this year, and they made all the difference in MMA’s ability to support the community. They helped figure out online programs (online programs team), hosted fun events (online events and awards teams), strategized about funding sources (revenue team), and made the hard decisions that had to be made (MMA Board of Directors).
As I pondered my gratitude for generosity related to the pandemic, I thought of so many other ways that the museum community is generous to and through MMA. I think that generosity is literally the glue that holds the Michigan Museums Association together.
Another thing I am grateful for this year is resilience. Museums are a tricky business, and not for the faint of heart, in my opinion. Funding on a good day is a monumental challenge. In a crisis, it is a nightmare. Also challenging is stewarding a collection when you are working from home, serving visitors who cannot come to you, and managing volunteers who cannot be onsite. I am sure each of you can add several items to this list. However, we could also put together another list of all the ways people have tried to address these same challenges – shifting fundraisers online, hooking up computers so collections software can be used remotely, creating Facebook live tours and educational programs, and finding new things volunteers can do from home. It has been an amazing experience to see in action, and it is what makes me feel optimistic about the ability of museums to get through this crisis.
I am also grateful for advocacy. I have seen so many people advocating in one way or the other for the museum community. Some joined calls with state legislators this spring to share how the pandemic was impacting museums and how MCACA funding is so critical for many. Others sent emails to state and federal legislators about NEA, NEH and IMLS funding and asking for additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program. I have even seen people on Facebook promoting the fundraisers of other museums, or of Museum Store Sunday coming up.
Another way I have seen advocacy in action is through so many who have been very vocal about social justice and racial equity in museums. This is an area where museums and the museum community often fail, and is something that not everyone considers a priority or is comfortable talking about. But I have seen more push back and action this year than ever before and, for the first time in my career, I see signs that change may be more than cosmetic.
My final point of gratitude is for those who came before and what they have done to leave a strong foundation for those of us here now. For Michigan’s museums, that meant endowments or millages or investment accounts that could provide funding streams when earned revenue was not possible. It was volunteers and staff who had created a culture and mindset that meant a museum could respond quickly to new needs. And it was leadership who built strong relationships with the community so that new forms of support could be found.
One of the reasons that MMA is able to be so resilient and responsive right now is because generations of the museum community have worked tirelessly to build a strong organization. I love reading the minutes for MMA board meetings ten, twenty, thirty and forty years ago. All of them record conversations about how best to serve the Michigan museum community and what will help the organization grow. All of them include discussions about how to fund MMA and what will help the most in the long run. Because of all of these things, instead of having to hunker down or spend all of our time trying to figure out how to get to the next month when the crisis hit, we could invest in new technology and try new things to serve the community. Those that have served MMA in the past left a strong foundation, and when storms blew away the sides of the house, we stayed in the basement (and jumped on Zoom – lol).
There is so much more I could say about generosity, resilience, advocacy foundations, and especially gratitude. I hope you are able to see examples of all of these things in your museum and your life and I am thankful that we can see so many here at MMA.
Lisa Craig Brisson
This is the first time in fourteen years that for me, fall has not meant being together with my museum friends and colleagues at the MMA conference. In fact, there have only been nine years since 1994 that I’ve missed it completely and I have been at every conference since 2007. I participated as an MMA member for several years, and then as an MMA Board member and part of the conference planning team another few. Since 2012, I have been MMA’s executive director. With each role, my involvement increased exponentially. For the past eight years there has been at least one month of intensity leading up to the event, followed by a glorious and energizing chance to see friends and friendly faces, and to meet new people and hear about amazing things happening in Michigan museums. The void this fall has been enormous.
I have no regrets that we cancelled this year’s conference. Since the board made the decision, I have watched many conferences online and talked with my state museum association colleagues about their experiences in hosting virtual gatherings. I have no doubt that, despite reduced capacity for all due to the crisis, the stellar MMA volunteers and Claire and I could have pulled it off - and it would have been a great conference! But I also know it would have taken all of our energies and we would have been able to do nothing else, which would have been awful. When I look back at what we have done since last March, it is pretty amazing. I have never spent so much time with members and the Michigan museums community. While we could have done a virtual conference, I’m really glad we didn’t because it meant we could do much more. Again, it was the right decision to make and we have served our community better because of it.
But agreeing with something doesn’t necessarily mean you are happy about it. And as almost anyone who has talked with or seen me in the past month will know, I am NOT happy about missing the conference. It has been a challenge to set my disappointment aside, and I have been surprised by how much I’ve struggled with motivation without it. Although I will continue to whine about not basking in the experience of being in the midst of so many people that I admire and respect, two recent experiences have reminded me that there is more than one definition of being together.
First of all, last week’s Annual Meeting via Zoom was amazing. I wasn’t sure how many people would attend. One state museum association colleague said they had seven people for the annual meeting they hosted online this year. I knew we would have at least 16 because board members, Claire, Yitzack and I all had to attend, but I wasn’t sure if anyone else would sign up. Imagine my delight, then, when we had 65 people on the call. Of course, it was not the same as being in a room together, but it was pretty fantastic to get to scroll through all the screens and see so many faces and names. Also neat and unexpected was the use of the chat function! People regularly made comments and showed their engagement in this way. So while it was a poor substitute for being together in person, it still felt together.
Another wonderful thing that has been happening this fall has been the awards. We decided to forgo the usual program this year to really focus on acknowledging the unique circumstances of 2020. And instead of just giving a few awards, we decided to honor as many people as possible. We won’t have the official celebration of the awardees until next month, but I got to notify the recipients last week and it was lovely. People have been so grateful and excited. It makes me grateful and excited and helped me see how connected we all are even when we are apart.
Both of those experiences helped me shake off my personal pity party and notice the other ways we have been coming together, despite not being together. I have had multiple volunteer teams helping me navigate this crazy year and those regular meetings have been wonderful. Our idea to form different member groups around professional development goals has started to take root, and it is great to see these groups connect with each other and form relationships. And reporting out at the Annual Meeting has helped me reflect on all that the MMA Board of Directors has accomplished this year. In addition to their regular bi-monthly meetings, strategic planning team meetings meant something going on every month for them. And even though all of their own organizations have been in crisis, we have been able to do so much to set MMA on a strong path forward. That’s a lot of togetherness for a group that didn’t actually get together.
I wish I could end this piece talking about the joyous reunion we will have on a certain date and in a certain place next year. I wish even more that I knew exactly what next year’s conference would look like. But alas, we are still driving through fog and I have no idea when or where we’ll be when it lifts. Until then, I will keep focusing on what we ARE able to do, and all the ways we are still together.
Lisa Craig Brisson
Submitted by: Megan Osetek, Kalamazoo Valley Museum
The advent of the pandemic brought about many challenges for museums. Few of these were universal; each museum had its own unique tribulations. However, a common issue that many small to midsize museums had to confront was digital initiatives. Now that visitors were not allowed onsite, museums had to figure out ways to connect with patrons. The obvious answer was digitally. However, many institutions were not equipped to pursue ambitious virtual exhibits and programs. The Kalamazoo Valley Museum, likewise, did not have a digital strategy already in place. Nevertheless, something had to be done.
As a result, the museum created a podcast entitled The Kalamazoo Valley Museum Interpretive Hour. This piece of digital adult programming has a core mission: “The Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s Interpretive Hour podcast provides engaging, thoughtful, quality, meaningful, and inclusive content on the field of interpretation to adult museum and park professionals, volunteers, goers, and students. It will do so through open conversation between moderators and professionals on various facets of the interpretive profession. The podcast will cement the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in the museum community as an interpretainment leader and enhance its outreach to diverse institutions and peoples.”
But how did the team come to this mission? What was the process?
Although it may seem daunting, any museum can and should create a podcast. This popular medium, which streams audio shows through different platforms and applications, is on the rise. According to 2020 stats provided by Discover Pods, a website dedicated to information on podcasts, 51% of Americans have listened to a podcast at least once in their life, and 32% of Americans have listened to a podcast within the past month. In the group of Americans who listen to podcasts, 82.4% of them listen to podcasts for more than 7 hours each week. That is a large demographic.
But with such a big demographic, an institution has to find its niche. After listening to Your Museum Needs a Podcast by Hannah Hethmon, interpreters Jacob Wolf and Gray Willson, as content creators, concluded that interpretation would be their niche. At that time, no podcasts explored such a topic; therefore, it seemed important to tackle. Megan Osetek, as Interpretation Manager, supervised the content, and interpreter Joshua Higginbotham, with his years of recording experience, became the audio engineer. But it took several months before the podcast launched in September. These months included a proposal to the Museum’s Director, episode re-recordings, approval from Marketing for design decisions, guest recordings, a delayed microphone order, and many more tribulations. Nonetheless, the team persevered and launched their first episode on September 16, 2020.
So now it is your museum’s turn. Our team recommends reading Hannah Hethmon’s book, Your Museum Needs a Podcast, and consulting several videos and other museum podcasts. Find your niche! And remember, it will not be easy, but the results will be rewarding and valuable, during and after the pandemic. To learn more, follow the podcast on Apple, Spotify, or the KVM website.
DiscoverPods. “Podcast Statistics and Figures 2020.” Accessed May 27, 2020. https://discoverpods.com/podcast-statistics/
Hethmon, Hannah. Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits. 2018.
MMA Member generated content focuses on topics relevant to the Michigan museum community. If you would like to learn more or submit your own, please contact Claire Johnston.
I woke up to some serious fog this morning, and I realized as I was driving through it, that it felt familiar. I have been in a bit of a funk this week and sort of struggling to find an anchor. There is much in my family life that is different from usual this fall, so I’m a little disoriented and disappointed. At the same time, I am missing the conference. Normally, this time of the year I would be very busy and likely stressed, but anticipating being in the midst of a great gathering of MMA members and others. I would be inspired, see friends, and bask in the glory of this amazing community. Instead, I am spending time trying to choose online programs for the next few months and plan what we will be doing next year.
As you all know, though, planning is not the easiest task at this time. It’s difficult to even anticipate what is coming up more than about 5-6 weeks in advance. Spending time trying to guess the scenario a year from now is really just impossible. My head hurts with the effort.
So, when I was driving in the fog this morning, it seemed so familiar to the current situation because of COVID. I could see enough to move forward, but not enough to see what was ahead. I also had no clue how long I’d have to navigate in it. I could be driving in dense fog the whole time, the fog might be part of the whole drive but at least lighten up so I could see a little farther, it could go away completely, or all of the above at different times randomly. See what I mean?
Once I realized the analogy, I started to feel a little better. I thought about how even though it was foggy, I felt confident that I was safe to be driving in it. I wasn’t going very fast, but I was still moving along. I couldn’t see very far ahead, but I could see enough to have time to respond to anything unexpected that might appear. I would prefer NOT to drive in the fog, but I know I can do it.
I still don’t have a clue how to plan for next year. And I think we are all going to be doing a lot of guessing. However, I will remember one other thing about driving in the fog when I get discouraged; when I am IN the fog, it seems like there is nothing out there and there never will be. Nevertheless, as fog dissipates, it is usually replaced by sunshine, and even though there’s no way to really know when the fog will lift, if I just keep driving, it eventually will.
The Michigan Museums Association is a membership organization. This means that we exist out of a desire for people within the Michigan museum community to come together in a formal and structured way. Above all, this is the most important aspect of our organization, and one that is central to what we do and why we do it. Members, who provide direct and sustained financial support, are both the why and how for MMA.
Not everyone who is part of the Michigan museum community chooses to be an MMA member, and that’s OK. It’s sort of like public radio and television – a core group of people make it possible, but everyone has access to the results. We try to show the value of a membership in our actions, and work hard to be a welcoming and open community. Our hope is that over time those who are not members will choose to join us to help ensure that we can continue to serve others as well.
We have had many conversations about members over the past months. Before the pandemic hit, we had started discussions of how to restructure memberships to connect more directly with some groups within the Michigan museums community. We also hoped to provide vehicles for increased revenue. Our goal is for paid memberships to fund a full-time benefited staff position.
Once the pandemic arrived, our member discussions also focused on that. How could we support people in the Michigan museum community who were suddenly working from home? What could we do for those who were laid off or furloughed? We considered the membership renewal process and how that could be an additional burden in a time of crisis. As a result, we created online programs, a temporary COVID membership, and suspended the renewal notification process.
The pandemic isn’t over, and we might not understand the true impact for the Michigan museum community and our members for many more months, but we decided as the last quarter of the year approached that it was time to get back to some semblance of normal, and keep moving forward with our plans. As a result, we started to formulate long-term strategies for our online programs, we got caught up with membership renewals, and affirmed COVID memberships. We now know what kind of funding we have to wrap the year, and are well on our way to a new vision for online programs.
The most exciting member activity in the past several weeks, though, has been the approval of a new membership structure by the board. We will share more about what this will look like at the Annual Meeting (to be held via Zoom on October 23), but for the most part it tightens up some of the institutional memberships, and adds more options. Many members won’t see a change, but there will be more choices about how members can support MMA. We are excited to share the new plan with you.
We are grateful for the support of our members every day, but especially over the past several months. At time of crisis it is good to be with others. And even though we can’t come together in person in 2020, the Michigan museums community has certainly come together.
I recently read an article about “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets, and it has me thinking about museums and COVID-19. A fixed mindset, according to Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., believes that abilities are fixed, but a growth mindset believes that abilities can be developed. I realized after reading the article, that the way that people and organizations are dealing with COVID-19 seems similar to the attributes to those mindsets.
I was so surprised when businesses and bars near where I live in Northern Michigan seemed to be unprepared for the Governor’s announcement that they could reopen this spring. The announcement came just a few days before the restrictions were lifted, and there was much scrambling to learn about and address reopening guidelines. I assumed that everyone had been spending the shutdown getting ready for when it was over but clearly at least some were not.
I made this assumption because of my experiences with Michigan museums last spring. Even before museums were closed I was getting phone calls from people asking what colleagues were thinking about in terms of dealing with COVID-19. The first time I heard a museum person bring up “reopening strategies” was literally the day after we were shut down, and the number of people planning for reopening grew each week. By the time museums were allowed to open, many Michigan museums knew just what they were going to do.
So clearly, there were different ways that businesses and organizations approached dealing with the shut down. It made me wonder if there was something in particular about museums that made their leadership and staff more likely to jump into preparing for reopening in a way that others didn’t. And then I read the mindset article and I had an “ah ha” moment. I think the difference between the museums I was hearing from and the businesses in Northern Michigan were about mindset.
The original definitions of the two mindsets related to abilities but I think it can also apply to how a person or organization functions. People and organizations with a fixed mindset seem to focus on how things “are” or “have always been” and those with a growth mindset tend to see “what is possible”. When COVID-19 hit, those with a fixed mindset waited to respond, maybe thinking they would hold out until everything went back to the way it was. People and organizations with a growth mindset, on the other hand, seemed to respond by thinking about what was possible despite all the changes.
I know that not all museums began preparing for reopening even when a date was in sight. It may just be that those organizations and staff with a growth mindset were the ones that sought information and opportunities to connect with others. But I also think that the museum community tends to attract people with a growth mindset, perhaps because the museum community attracts people who tend to be outliers in one way or another. Perhaps the field gathers those who look beyond what is set and stable, and push into other territory.
I remember when I started working in museums that I felt like I had found my people. All of my non-museum friends thought my interests in history and food stories were quirky. But with museum people, I found many who shared those interests and more. The MMA Member Happy Hour last month reminded me of that, when social conversation amongst my museum colleagues revealed much more in common than our work. So perhaps the experience of forging our own paths on a personal level has given many in our field the experience of looking past what is obvious to seek new experiences and people who are a better fit.
Or, as does tend to happen, I could just be biased. It wouldn’t be the first time I took attributes that I find positive in many museum people I know and apply them to the whole museum community incorrectly. As I type this I can think of so many ways that museums and museum people represent a resistance to change or a commitment to the status quo. I will admit that one of the things that made me want to work in museums was a perceived sense of consistency and stability in the field. But maybe mindset and comfort with change are not the same thing? Maybe people who are resistant to change still embrace it when it is part of a growth mindset.
I regularly encounter museum people who are so determined and focused on their purpose or mission that they persist beyond what most others would do. I see this in small museums with very little funding that take on bigger projects expecting that it will work out (and it often does). I see this in museums with a very narrow scope or collection that find a way to use that to address bigger ideas (and they do it well). And I see this in organizations that are trying to better represent and connect with people of color and despite not having success, they keep trying (as we all should be).
Maybe I am just showing a “tad” of a bias toward museums when I claim a growth mindset for the whole community. But I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking that many museums and their staff have been proactive in addressing the many trials of COVID-19. Maybe this is because museum people tend to have more of a growth mindset because we are “quirky” and need to think differently to find our people. Maybe museum people tend to have more of a growth mindset because we have more experiences seeing roadblocks as opportunity, rather than barriers. I obviously need to do more than read one article to really understand how fixed and growth mindsets work, and whether there is a tendency to one or the other in the museum community. But it is definitely something to think about, and makes me feel hopeful.
As we approach the fall and another set of new challenges related to the pandemic as it seems to drag on endlessly, I am feeling more discouraged. It’s harder to push past bad news and stay focused on the part where we get to the other side of this. But I know that growth mindset is what will help us all get through, field-wide or not. There are a lot of “cannots” right now and I think a few more to come. But staying focused on the “can” or at least “how to find the can” will get us farther that just stopping a waiting for the “cannots” to go away. Hang in there!
Lisa Craig Brisson
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