Tuesday 1 December 2015

Trying to figure out what "my practice" might look like.

There's been an inevitable attack of the doldrums over the past month as I've returned to normal life after my trip to the States and two weeks re-immersing myself in all things museum-web at Museums and the Web Asia and the National Digital Forum.

I took five weeks off work (or off normal work, at least), and that is the longest break I've had since leaving university. What I didn't appreciate until I got back into the office was how, away from the everyday nudging of people and projects and issues that makes up running an organisation, and away from the always being on that I feel as a director, this extra level of smart opened up inside my head. I was able to see and learn and question and observe and absorb and draw connections with an intensity my real-life brain doesn't seem to have the capacity to do.

I've really struggled with this through November. It feels like the salt has come out of my working life: the good bits haven't shone as brightly as they usually do and the bad bits have been suckier than normal.

In an attempt to hold on to that intellectual excitement of September and October I've been spending more time here on my blog, trying to think through and articulate my responses to the things I see as I canvas my sector every day on the internet. I've also been making a quiet effort to foster opportunities for newer members of the museum sector, especially those who are writing and publishing online - because that's how I got my break.

Last week I attended the Auckland Museum medals ceremony, where senior researchers are honoured for their contributions. One of the awardees was Anthony Wright, long-term director of the Canterbury Museum but even longer-term botanist (a fact of which I was shamefully unaware). He began his botany career at Auckland Museum and has contributed over 16,000 specimens to its collections. After the awards I had dinner with Ian Griffin, director of Otago Museum. In addition to running the museum, Ian is an incredibly prolific science communicator and astro-photographer, and the soon-to-be-opened Planetarium at Otago Museum has been driven by his passion, knowledge and intellectual output.

That really go me thinking. These guys are running two of our biggest cultural institutions, but are still finding time to do what they got into this business for: Science. Actively undertaking research and adding to a corpus of knowledge and being part of their community.

I got my first team leader role in my late 20s and ever since then I've felt like I've drifted further and further away from the things I am good at: my equivalent of making things by hand. It's not astronomy or botany, but my ability to gather and wrestle and interpret and create an experience from information and imagery is something I really treasure - and something I feel I only get to do these days in a rushed or prosaic manner. I badly miss the pleasure of sitting down for an afternoon and just doing something I am good at.

This in turn got me thinking - what does my practice look like? Those abilities found their best expression in my work on web and social media projects when I was working at the National Library, and on a project with Chris McDowall a couple of years ago which has now gone offline. I've never been a curator, a designer, a writer or editor - I've been a coraller, a synthesiser, a presenter. And it's harder to do those things (or at least in my own experience it is) without an external impetus. I really miss my old project work these days, and the clarity and satisfaction of tasks like the extra-curricular editing jobs I used to take on.

So it's time to pull out of this silly little nosedive and snap this problem to the grid. Instead of treating this blog and my Wikipedia editing as extras that I just carry on out of habit, or things that I do when I should be doing other, more important things, I'm going to try thinking about them as my practice. My contribution to a body of knowledge and a community. I'm 29 posts away from 1,500 entries on this site and have made over 1,100 contributions to Wikipedia. If I think of these posts and edits as specimens or astro-photos, maybe I'll start feeling more convinced in myself of the value of what I put out into the world.

And I'm keen to support others who are trying to make things too. If there's something I can help you with, I'd love to hear from you.


RoyAGC said...

I just wanted to identify with the notion that at intervals through a career we all tend to be drawn away from things we love doing ... and that part of the joy of doing things we love doing is the contrast with the things we love doing less.
As a distinguished colleague here put it recently, in the course of a talk about dialectic perspectives: "a sponge cake covered in marzipan is a sponge cake contained within marzipan; marzipan is the transitional space between cake and no-cake."
I feel the same way about "normal" - as in "normal life" ... it tends to be a general experience that the only things that are "normal" are the things (people?) we don't know very well. Which leads me to feel that marzipan could also represent the space between "normal" and "extra-normal".
Reflecting on the de-compression that you have been experiencing, I guess I would offer the thought that it could be exciting to focus hard on the marzipan - the space between what was and what is; to consider the ingredients that make marzipan the confection that it is; and to adduce what will be.
It takes time to pass through marzipan, but I can feel that you are nearly there ... and I can't wait for your talk.

chris said...

Our project may no longer be live, but it lives on here: https://web.archive.org/web/20130227060813/http://auchonwater.com/

Thank goodness for the Internet Archive.

Courtney Johnston said...

Oh, wow. I had completely forgotten Uncertain Rainbow.