There is an idea in my head, a little glimmer of revelation - I think that we are in a crisis of imagination. When this first occurred to me, I was surprised, but then things started to fall into place. Before this idea, I had been thinking about changing people’s minds. Actually, I had been TALKING about changing people’s minds. Over the course of only a few days, I had conversations about how the role of museums as education organizations has changed, how to get people to wear masks and get vaccines, approaches to racial equity, and how to get my sixteen-year-old son to explore an interest in anything besides video games. I didn’t see the connection between them at first, but in all the conversations we landed on the idea that to change someone’s mind they needed to see what that change meant. We could talk and talk and talk about facts, or values, or steps all we wanted, but ultimately what is most effective is helping people imagine what that change might look like, in a good way.
This epiphany reminded me of a story I heard at my first Museums Advocacy Day. I was at the session for first-timers, and the presenters were trying to help me understand that advocacy is a long-game. That we were going for change over time, not immediate results. The story they told was about marriage equity for the LGBTQ community. The story I remember is that a group of people in the LGBTQ community were hitting a wall in terms of the legal movement toward gay marriage. After a number of legal losses, they were trying to figure out how to move the issue forward. They decided that one of the problems was that most people “didn’t know” anyone who was LGBTQ. Of course, this was not accurate, but was a common perception at the time. This group decided that if people “saw” members of the LGBTQ community, and especially in stable committed relationships, they would be more likely to support the idea of legal marriage. As a result, the group started working to include LGBTQ people in television shows and movies. Long story short, they did, and over time majority sentiment shifted significantly and gay marriage is now legal. I’ve simplified the issues significantly, but the point is that there has been big change, but over a long time.
The point of the advocacy story is that it takes a long time to bring about change, but the idea that has stuck with me is that people need to see it to believe in it. That reminded me of a project I worked on when I was doing freelance work before my job here at MMA. I was the project manager for the Cheboygan Area Public Library for hosting the Museum on Main Street exhibit Key Ingredients. The library was using the program to show off new public spaces after a major renovation, so we did a year’s worth of programs leading up to the exhibit and started planning even earlier than that. On the planning team was a smart, creative, and insightful woman who worked for one of the partner organizations. She had initially seen information about the project and suggested the library apply to host, so she was invested and involved in the project from the beginning. I loved working with her and we had a wonderful time coming up with all kinds of programs in the lead up. Every time we talked about the actual exhibit though, the brainstorming slowed to a trickle and I felt like I was the only one with any ideas or even enthusiasm sometimes, which was frustrating. Regardless, we had a fun year and then the exhibit arrived and we set it all up. As we were gazing upon panels with photos and text and some artifacts in cases here and there, my partner exclaimed something like, “This is so nice! I just couldn’t picture it in my head.” I was stunned. What? We have been talking about this exhibit for almost two years and she had never really understood what it would look like? How did I not realize that?
So where am I going here? After pondering these examples and ideas, I landed on imagination. Sometimes, people can use their imagination to see things in a different way, but sometimes people cannot. Maybe some people just can’t imagine how museum visitors are the actualization of their efforts to be good stewards of artifacts in the collection. Maybe so many people in my town can’t imagine that wearing a mask and staying away from people can save lives and speed up the end of a global pandemic. Maybe some people can’t imagine a world where we build equity into our society instead of maintaining systemic racism. And maybe my son can’t imagine that taking a walk outside will fire up the same (or more) neurons than when he is running around virtual worlds.
This new thought has given me a lot to chew on. How does the idea of helping people develop their imagination come into play when I want people to change their minds? Thinking about change this way makes me feel more hopeful and it feels concrete. Something I CAN do. At the same time, though, I have another little glimmer of revelation, and that is my own lack of imagination. I have a sneaky suspicion that as I consider more deeply how I imagine a world without systemic racism, that I will discover that I too do not know what that would look like. Maybe my lack of action or my sense of helplessness is about my own lack of imagination. I think I have some work to do.