‘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
Moving online has brought about many realizations for us at the Michigan Museums Association. One is that we don’t have to be together in person to help you connect with each other and resources. We can’t wait to be able to come together in real life again, and we are already making plans for how we will do that. In-person activities will always be the best way that MMA serves the Michigan museum community. But now we know that we can serve you online too and so we need a long-term online strategy for professional development. It’s been exciting to think about what that might look like and we got some ideas from the intense online engagement while museums were closed.
As you joined the various online programs throughout the spring and early summer, a new understanding was forming. We observed that there seemed to be three general goals you had when looking to connect with colleagues and information. Some people joined programs because they needed information about something they didn’t know much about. Another group of people had very focused and high level expertise in certain areas, and joined to hear from other colleagues with similar high levels of experience or knowledge. Finally, a third group joined programs because they were looking for a way to bring about change.
The three groups had a lot of similarities, but their needs are really served in different ways. Novices need to be connected with external expertise. Focused professionals want to be connected with other focused professionals. Do-ers need help setting common goals and organizing. At the same time, all three groups would be well served by building relationships and connecting on a regular basis.
These observations led to the idea of creating different types of professional development “communities” focusing on Learning, Practice, and Action. We talked about this idea internally with board members and MMA volunteers, and it seemed to resonate. Right now we are testing the idea with several groups that would fall into the different categories to see if we can develop structures that fit the varied needs, but can be applied to multiple different groups within each type. In other words, we are creating some templates that can be used with each type of group with different sets of members.
There are several things about this idea that are most exciting. One, it allows MMA to help members from all over the state and different institutions develop relationships. We know that MMA members love to get together, but if you’re not already connected, I think sometimes we might feel a little cliquey or intimidating. This new model would bring people together around professional development goals and would be a vehicle to connect and serve new people in a concrete way. Second, it could provide more focus to our programming. As we develop resources and opportunities for each community we can offer some of those as programs open to everyone and again, hopefully connect and serve new people who are looking for information.
We are still in the testing stage of this idea, but so far every step has been working well. If we continue to have successes, we hope to get a formal project ready for approval from the board this fall. In the meantime, feel free to ask many questions, offer resources or other similar models you are aware of, or start thinking about what type of professional development relationships and experiences you might be interested in. We’ll keep you posted!
Lisa Craig Brisson
I have mentioned here that I am a big fan of a plan. I think strategic planning is fun, and in a crisis the first thing I do is evaluate the situation and map out my plan. But of course there is no planning during COVID-19. As a result, I am now in month three of planlessness, with no end in sight. There are many ways this is wearing on me, but mostly I just find myself feeling discouraged and focusing on how much I don’t know. But something came to me as I was working on my current jigsaw puzzle. I had all the pieces laid out on the table and it looked like chaos. I looked around and noticed a fence, so I gathered all those pieces and started fitting them together and I was off and running. I didn’t plan how I would put the puzzle together. I noticed something familiar and took the first step.
I realized that I could apply my favorite jigsaw puzzle strategy to work as well. Yes, there is a lot I don’t know about how things will move forward over the next few months. However, I do know SOME things about where we are headed. I don’t have to know the whole plan, or even what the picture looks like. I just have to take the next step. Whew. My enthusiasm has returned.
There is another situation that I find overwhelming, and I’ve realized that focusing on the next step is helpful as well. As with many of you, I find myself questioning my life choices, especially about racism. I have long considered myself someone who is strongly in support of racial justice and equity. But when I look at how I live my life, I don’t actually see any action that would reflect that. I am afraid that I am actually one of the white moderates that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about, and that is a devastating realization.
In thinking more about my inaction, I keep coming back to planning. One of the reasons I like to have a plan is because I hate to make a mistake. I want to use the right words and talk to the right people and look purposeful and like I have my act together. I want to make people feel happy and empowered and I don’t want to say something that would do otherwise. So if I can plan everything, I can avoid all of the “wrong” things.
But planning can be a form of procrastination and avoidance too. When it comes to change, “working on it” doesn’t cut the mustard if there is no action. Clearly, there needs to be action. I need to be taking action. I don’t want to think of myself as in support of racial justice and equity. I want to BE anti-racist. I find myself feeling overwhelmed by my discomfort and insecurity. But my fear and self-centeredness is not a good reason for inaction, and I need to get past it.
To do this, I have been focusing on taking a next step every day. Sometimes a step has been to learn more. Sometimes it has been to reach out. And sometimes it has been to speak up. So far, none of the steps have been in my comfort zone, and I feel that several of them were likely not well done, but all of them have been a step, and all of them have been about action. I don’t know where I am going, and I don’t know what being anti-racist in my life really looks like, but I am going to keep taking steps until I do.
I don’t think MMA has shown a lot of action about being anti-racist either. There has been considerable talk about inclusion, equity, access and diversity on the inside, but that inside is very white and very little of that conversation has been evident on the outside. The action that has been visible has not resulted in a sustained culture change. Some of the personal steps I mentioned are related to MMA, and I know I am not alone in experiencing self-reflection and a raised awareness of the need to learn, listen and, most importantly, act. I hope that moving forward you will begin to see more action, and I will continue to work on the next steps to make that happen. Though I am aware that I need to be doing my own work, I am happy for company on the journey if you'd like to join me.
The Michigan Museums Association is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.
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