Sunday, 26 June 2022

Emerging, Submerging, Sinking or Swimming: Career cycles and trajectories in the GLAMs

As they say - this is a long post that I didn't take the time to make short. It meanders through a group of musings about career progression, with a long digression into Brazilian jiu jitsu. It's an effort to get these ideas out of my head, and back into the habit of sharing. 

* * *

A few weeks ago I attended the CAM-D (Council of Australasian Museum Directors) and AMAGA (Australian Museums and Art Galleries Association) meetings in Perth.

I'd been nervous about going to CAM-D. This group is made up of the leaders of the state and national museums in Australia and Aotearoa. Because the pandemic struck when I was just 3 months into my role at Te Papa, I had only met a few of them face to face before becoming Tumu Whakarae. 

For nearly two and a half years then, I've been joining Zoom hui with this group, always feeling a bit of of my depth. These are really seasoned professionals. Most have at least one, sometimes two (possibly three) decades of experience on me. My nerves about joining then were exacerbated by losing my bag on the flight to Perth, meaning I'd had to do an emergency shop to get clothes for the first gathering. At least that gave me a topic for small talk.

As it turned out, of course, everything was fine. No-one treated me like the little kid who didn't belong at the grown-ups' table (that's my internal narrative playing out, and it's also running out: I'm 42 now, rapidly moving past even "youth-adjacent"). It was magical to spend time with a group of people used to working and thinking and managing at significant scale in my sector. We had shared challenges, and many shared aspirations. We're balancing similar tensions, and competing priorities. I felt surprisingly at home very quickly.

AMAGA was completely different. Hundreds of people, compared to about a dozen. A council and organising committee that favours younger / newer professionals in the sector. And an explicit activist spirit, one that is very familiar to me from earlier in my career but not a space I occupy much now: of kicking against accepted practice and pace of change.

The conference was strongly flavoured by emerging museum professionals (a loose definition would be "people in their first ten years of museum practice"), and the strengths of these regional and national EMP networks was obvious. Listening to their presentations and talking to people between sessions, I found myself feeling my age in a really specific way, which I spend a lot of time thinking about. At 42, generationally I sit right on the cusp of Gen X and Millennial. I often feel like I'm in the middle, holding hands between the Boomers and Millennials - able to see both sets of perspectives and life experiences, not feeling settled in either camp.

Which led me to tweet this during one of the talks:

I've got to hat-tip to Megan Dunn for the "submerging" bit, which she coined in this 2013 essay for the Pantograph Punch. Megan there is talking about the flip side to the emerging artist, who is taking off on a career trajectory: the submerging artist, who slid off the ladder of career progression.

When I was a baby PR at City Gallery Wellington - my first full-time job - one of the things I had to do was write media releases. One of the clichés that gets rolled out high up in these releases is the status of the artist. It looks something like this:

  • Emerging
  • Rising talent
  • Mid-career (the trickiest)
  • Established
  • Senior
  • Renowned

This is reductive, of course. There are those artists who emerge later in life; those who were overlooked for chunks of their lives; those whose work or impact wasn't recognised within the mainstream gallery system but were fully formed outside it. But the key to it is that the only way is up. There's no resting spots, no plateau, no in & out flow. And there's definitely no wind-down. 

Te Papa employs approximately 600 people. A percentage of these are long-standing professionals (across a range of practices) who are coming to the end of their full-time or paid working lives. The negotiation of the final period of your working life inside a museum is, I think, worthy of as much attention and support as that emerging / entry period. And yet it is something that is rarely discussed out loud. How to accommodate, enjoy the benefit of, and celebrate people who are late in their careers, who are going through family changes, health changes, financial changes, and for some a massive change in their identity, as they contemplate leaving a career (and sometimes a single institution) to which they have dedicated decades' of mental, physical and emotional energy. Not to mention the subtle (or unsubtle) pressure of the generations behind these people, who - frankly - want the jobs they currently hold. While there's a lot of emphasis on internships, promotion and career development, there aren't similarly strong shared frameworks in place for how to reduce working hours, responsibilities, or shift the emphasis from producing outputs to transferring knowledge.

That's what I actually meant by "submerging" in that tweet, rather than the people who have trialled a museum career and decided it's not for them (that was me, by the way - I left City Gallery vowing I would never work in a gallery, and look how that worked out). Or, to put another spin on 'submerging', the people who feel like they are stalling in their career. 

We tend to think of careers as ladders, patterns of progressions. One speaker at AMAGA suggested that they should be thought of more as jungle gyms, where you might move laterally as well as vertically. New Zealand has a government careers website, which lists a wide variety of models

I've not got the insight to propose a different model. And I'm not sure I want to promote a bell curve theory, from emerging to peaking to submerging again on the other side. Or a seasonal one, moving through Spring to Winter. What I want to explore is more the micro-phases within your career journey, that play out repeatedly as you take on new roles, or new life experiences alongside your working life. And I'm thinking a lot in sporting analogies.

This year, I've gone back to jiu jitsu. I've been training since August 2012, but I took a long patch off over the past two years; a combination of lock-downs & Covid restrictions, a bad ganglion cyst, and also just feeling overwhelmed in my new job and not having mental space for a sport that is literally all about being up in someone's face. 

BJJ has a belt system: white, blue, purple, brown, black. While there is a syllabus, every club interprets this differently, and awards belts differently. But let's say, roughly, that each belt represents 2-3 years of solid training, skill acquisition, and a certain kind of commitment to your club and the people you train with.

I'm a brown belt. But I love going to beginners classes. I like to help out, supporting new people, especially women. It's also soothing, running through basic techniques that you know well. And as with most disciplines, you find yourself learning so much more about what you already know through teaching it to a diverse range of people.

So one night recently I was paired up with a fairly on-to-it newbie, a smaller dude who could listen to the instructions and to me. And next to me on the mat was a pair of the most exemplary munters. Fresh off the street, muscular dudes who quite likely watch UFC in the weekends and listen to the Joe Rogan podcast. 

It's important for context that you know that everything you do in BJJ is done with a partner. There are no kata, like karate. From your very first class you are paired up with another person, doing something that looks like full-body, floor-based peaknuckle. People either love the intimacy and the intensity of being thrown into such close physical proximity with a stranger (or even worse, your mate who came along with you, and now has his face planted in your groin area because your first class happened to be triangles) or it freaks them out and they never come back. To begin with, it can feel a lot like being assaulted. You have no idea what's going on, and another person is trying to hurt you. 

So, these guys were just a picture to behold. Rigid as fuck, because they were so uncomfortable being wrapped in each others' arms. Hyper-aroused, flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals, they could hardly hear the instructor because of all the brain chemicals rushing around. Because they've learned that strength is a virtue, every move was being performed at 200%, which meant nothing worked properly. BJJ is full of weird specific movements and you get taught them piecemeal, so these guys had no context in which to place the particular technique they were being taught. And they were so self-conscious that when other people tried to help them, they either couldn't hear the advice, or had all their barriers up against being told how to do something better.

And watching them, I realised that this was the exact parallel of my first two years as a CE. So hyper-aware of being watched I couldn't remember what it felt like to do something naturally. Loads of advice coming in, but no existing experience to place it into context. The rushing white noise of expectation and fear of failure in my ears. And the crushing experience of simply being very, very bad at something and having to be okay with doing it poorly for as long as it took to learn how to do it well.

The thing with jiu jitsu is that it's a lot like swimming. When you learn to swim, you start from the point of drowning. Learning to swim is the process of getting better and better at not drowning, until magically, you're swimming, not drowning, when you take your feet off the ground. Then you learn to take breaths, to experiment with different strokes, to dive under water, to turn flips. You can't remember what it felt like to not be able to swim. You also can't - without quite a bit of reflection and practice - effectively coach someone else how to transition from not-drowning to swimming.

BJJ's like that. To begin with on the mat you're drowning all the time. Then the moves start to connect together. You learn sweeps and counters and escapes, as well as attacks. You learn that if they do a, it's likely heading towards b, and so you can prep to do c, and if c is unsuccessful, you can transition to d - in fact, maybe you'll feint d in order to pull off an e. You learn to breathe through pressure. You distinguish pain from actual threat of injury. And once you've got some experience and perspective, a body of knowledge, some resilience, you might even graduate to self-awareness: an insight into the impact your actions have on your partner, how you can be a helpful training partner by considering their needs as well as your own, how you can pace the speed or intensity of a roll to bring out the best in an encounter for both of you. 

This year, I feel like I graduated from white belt as a CE. I reckon most days, I'm hitting purple. Enough experience to see the patterns playing out, to draw on a decent repertoire of techniques, predict outcomes, and be conscious of the people around me. Some days I find myself acting like a white belt and its crucifying, but only because it hurts my ego. What I need to remember though (and this is easy for me, because I am lucky to have a really strong natural growth mindset) is that black belt is still a long way away, and on the way I will have to ride out and push through several plateaus and some complacency. And as my coach says - once you hit black belt, you turn around, and you learn it all again from the basics right up. 

That was a long tangent. But what I wanted to illustrate with it is that throughout your career, you're likely to regularly spend time in microcycles, going back to white belt as you take on new responsibilities or roles, and growing through them. I like this way of thinking much more than impostor syndrome (this article has been so influential on me on this topic): you are thrown back into the beginning of a learning cycle, and so logically, things will be harder until they get easier.

So if we think of a career more as a series of looping coils than a straight line tracking up, what might the stages be? Like Tuckman's theory of group development, there might be storming, norming and performing. But there's also the bit after you've gotten to performing - or competence, or mastery - where you plateau. And that's where I think we could spend some time flipping up our mental models.

Years ago, I learned about the Gartner Hype Cycle, a theory of the adoption of new technology:

Gartner Hype Cycle.svg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gartner_hype_cycle

I think there's something there in that plateau point. To think of it not as stalling, but as your most productive phase in a particular role. You have mastery, you're comfortably meeting the expectations, you're receiving the pay off for the investment of extra energy you put into learning these new skills: so what are you doing with it? Maybe less a plateau than a prairie - loads of room for you to range.

In my own career, this plateau stage is when I typically move into teaching (whether that's been workshops or blogging or some other form) or volunteering (enough mental space to take on governance roles or help out with conferences and networks and such like). I can comfortably perform the role asked of me, and from that base, I can push myself in other ways. For me, that's always naturally about getting externally involved, rather than developing deeper mastery in the technicalities of my job. Then when I transfer to a new role, for a while I have to give all this up: I'm fully occupied learning how to do my new mahi.

That's where submerging comes into it. I'm a Peacock. I thrive on being noticed and working with people. If I'm very honest, I get some hurt feelings when I'm no longer seen as an emerging talent, or an expert, and instead I go below the radar. A big part of my motivation comes from that visibility. And while (yes, get out the world's smallest violin) it's been lovely to get as many invitations as I have over the past 2.5 years to do talks and interviews on being a woman in leadership (only a woman, mind you, I don't think I've done a single non-gendered event) I miss being asked to do stuff because I'm really good at something. Or because I'm leading new thinking. And let's note here - I don't think I'm ready to be invited to pontificate as a CE yet for those reasons. I don't think I've achieved anything like enough to warrant that. But I also wonder if that time in my career is behind me.

When I was at the height of feeling needlessly sorry for myself, sometime last year, I listened to an episode of Adam Grant's Work Life podcast that has really sat with me. It's titled Career decline isn't inevitable, a phrase taken from one of the central interviewees on the episode, Arthur Brooks, who in 2019 published an article on The Atlantic titled 'Your professional decline is coming (much) earlier than you think'

In the intro, Grant says: 
Let's be honest, we all have peaks and valleys in our careers, times when we hit our stride and do our best work, and times when we're in a slump. Most of us are worried that as we age, our physical and mental skills will decline and we might enter into a permanent slump. And that fear is compounded by the fact that age is seldom seen as an asset in the modern workplace.
And then Arthur Brooks says:
I mean the number one myth is that, you know, particularly in certain professions, like, let's just say yours and mine, which is coming up with big ideas and sharing them, that that'll never go into decline. Why? Because it doesn't require, you know, strong biceps, and yet there's overwhelming evidence that in idea professions people experience decline as well. They just don't expect it.
And I was like - holy shit, that's me. I could blame it on pandemic brain, but at my very core, I could feel that effortless, effervescent mental energy of my 20s and 30s fading. I hadn't just paused jiu jitsu - I'd also given up blogging, stopped clearing my feedreader, stopped following a lot of professional coverage across the sectors I was interested in. I could feel myself slowing down and it terrified me

The podcast covers a range of things, including countering the idea we're fated to decline. But the idea that really resonated with me (because it felt like a life-line) was the concept of fluid and crystallised intelligence. Here's Grant introducing the concept:
What happens to our cognitive abilities as we age is not straightforward. It actually depends on what kind of mental skills we're talking about. Psychologists have long distinguished between two kinds of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is your raw processing power. It's basically your IQ, your innate capacity for learning and problem solving.

... A common refrain in Silicon Valley is that young people are just smarter. When it comes to fluid intelligence, that's generally true. But the story changes with crystallized intelligence, your acquired ability to solve problems by applying your knowledge and experience. 
The concept dates back to the 1960s and a psychologist called Raymond B. Cattell. It suggests fluid intelligence the innate ability to think fast and flexibly, to draw inferences and connections, to apply reason and come up with new conclusions and insights. And it falls away by your 40s, when - according to the theory - it's replaced by growing crystallised intelligence, the ability to apply your learned experience and knowledge to your thinking. 

https://www.simplypsychology.org/fluid-crystallized-intelligence.html

What Grant and Brooks argue is that if your 20s and 30s are about raw insight and invention, your 40s onwards can be about making way for a new generation of powerful thinkers, and adapting yourself into more of a role as sounding board, coach, and providing the context and experience to support that emergent thinking. In tandem, in theory, you should have the best of both worlds. 

I'm instinctively wary of any Western academic or scientific form that has measures of intelligence wrapped up in it. But I think the shape of this idea is really helpful for reflection. It reminds me of a quote from Aristotle which I am very fond of (again, something that I've never read in the original Greek and therefore have only a mangled and personalised grasp on): that there is intelligence, and then there is wisdom, which is having the judgement to apply intelligence well. (Here's an HBR-style take on that idea.)

I think the combination of the CAM-D and AMAGA meetings really made me think about all this, because the two environments were so characterised by these qualities: the activist fluid intelligence of the cohort I was spending time with at AMAGA, and the crystallised intelligence of the CAM-D group. And me, sitting in the middle - relinquishing the fluidity but only just beginning to crystallise - could see both the potential and the frustration on both sides. Energy and experience, when you looked at it through one lens, and ignorance and fossilisation through another. Millennials and Boomers.

By virtue of having an accelerated progression through a range of roles with rapidly growing complexity (from managing a web team of two at 30 to a national museum of 600 at 40), I feel like I've been gifted with the opportunity to develop that contextual knowledge faster than a lot of my peers. At 42, I find myself in my career peak. I hope though I'm only in the foothills of my wisdom. 

Link round up

 This weekend Aotearoa marked the first Matariki public holiday - the first public holiday in the world to honour indigenous knowledge. In the lead-up, E-Tangata re-published a 2012 essay by Tā Hirini Moko Mead, Understanding Mātauranga Māori:

Mātauranga Māori is thus linked to Māori identity and forms part of the unique features which make up that identity. Because this is so, it also means that mātauranga Māori is a unique part of the identity of all New Zealand citizens. 

Some citizens may deny it, some may not realise it is there, some may reject it. But a good many will embrace it and be proud to be part of the revival process.

The Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums Project, sponsored by the Scottish Government and coordinated by Museums Galleries Scotland, was commissioned to "recommend how Scotland’s involvement in empire, colonialism, and historic slavery can be addressed using museum collections and spaces."  

The recommendations have now been delivered to the Scottish Government. A brief outline here; the full report here:

The conditions of the last few years have created an unprecedented global and national focus on systemic racism: a need to collectively name it, and to try to understand what it means for all of us in practice, and how it continues to shape and define our world order. Scotland can become a country that reckons with its history with responsibility and maturity, working toward a more fair and equal society. Through the implementation of these recommendations, museums can be part of that change.

Aaron Straup Cope's latest post sometimes expectations happen to you is, as always an opus, both dense and freewheeling, and has at its core a recounting of the story of the Cooper Hewitt Museum's "Pen". I link to it partly because it introduced me to a phrase I've not heard before but which is so powerful, from historian Margaret MacMillan, author of The Uses and Abuses of History (which I have just ordered because obviously I should have read this):

The past keeps changing, because we keep asking questions of it.

"I'll be quite honest ... it was the misogyny". The Guardian pulls quotes about the political environment she had to cope with from a podcast with  Liz Ann MacGregor, reflecting on her two decades leading the MCA Sydney.

A tweet thread from Alice Te Punga Somerville about not being lazy with your academic citations

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Moe mai rā e Luit: Luit Bieringa, 1942-2022

It was strange to walk up Tory Street tonight after work, and realise I won't be bumping into Luit Bieringa anymore, out roaming in his hood.

I have always felt a kind of kinship with Luit (as with Jim Barr) because we all kicked off as young(ish) directors of a regional art gallery. With Luit, it was the Manawatū Art Gallery, which he led from 1971 to 1979. He must have been about 29 or 30 when he took on the role, and oversaw the replacement of a converted house that acted as an art gallery to the purpose-built centre. As he recalled in 2017:

The main thing was to try and change the context in which the gallery operated to becoming a fully-fledged public institution that the community could relate to. We had people's support and if you think of the time, the early 70s, we'd only just moved out of the rugby, racing and beer environment.

I have always loved the Art New Zealand article about the opening of the gallery. I often share it as an example of "guys - they've been doing this for ages". A fundraising team raised about a third of the building costs. Luit "deliberately tried to make the gallery as accessible as possible to all the people of the Manawatu, whether their interest be in functional pottery or conceptual art." At opening, there were looms and a potter's wheel on the ground floor for people to try out; Woollaston, Driver, Albrecht and Wong nearby; a "touch" gallery that people entered blindfolded then felt their way through an array of objects; then upstairs a show by conceptual artist Bruce Barber, including a video work. The original something-for-everyone: hands-on, tradition, new media, recognised quality, defying categories, emerging artists. I always found that inspiring. 

Likewise this beard:

Bearded man's face next to sculpture of a man's face
Luit in 1974, from the Manawatu Heritage site

It was at Manawatū too that Luit produced the landmark touring exhibition of contemporary photography, The Active Eye, a touchstone of any history of photography in Aotearoa (and history of any exhibition controversy).

Cover of The Active Eye, from Te Ara

In 1979 Luit left Manawatū to take on the National Gallery that was. So he must of been about 37 when he took that on, and he committed for a full decade. His legacy includes bringing that enthusiasm for photography and an exquisite eye to the development of the photography collection, and enrichment of the archives (including as a voluminous correspondent). 

And in the 1980s Luit led the charge on Shed 11, the offsite project space that is now the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. By the time I was studying recent New Zealand art history in the early 200s, this was the stuff of legend. The exhibitions between the two sites ranged all over the place. Barbara Kruger came to New Zealand. Cindy Sherman too. Content / ContextWhen Art Hits the Headlines. And didn't he look like a legend doing it.

Luit outside Shed 11, from a post by Catherine Griffiths

I wish I'd known him then. But - as I sometimes remind the people who still pull me up at art openings and berate me over the closing of the NAG - I was born the year Luit started working there. Which means I got the joy of knowing him in the second half of his life and career, with that odd frisson of meeting people in real life who just the week before you'd be reading about in Tina Barton's ARTH 301 paper. 

Photo snapped in Luit's archives last year

By the time I got to know Luit well, he had repurposed himself as a film-maker, working alongside his wife Jan. They produced documentaries on Ans Westra, the Tovey generation of art education, Peter McLeavey, and most recently Theo Schoon. We were lucky enough to be at the premiere of Signed, Theo Schoon last year, and join Jan and Luit afterwards, with all their friends. Ans was there. Luit bantered at her for not paying attention during his speech. It was wonderful.

Over the past two years I've had a few chances to talk to Luit a bit about his career (not very interested in talking about that) and way of working and making films (much more interested). He loved every aspect of it: the relationships (as exasperating as they might be at times), the arguments, the storytelling, the documentation, the romance of the archive, visual punch, emotional heft, the precious, precious stories of people's lives.

Luit, of course, was a vocal opponent of the dissolving of the National Art Gallery in the creation of Te Papa in the 1990s, and a staunch critic of the way Te Papa has collected, shown and served art since opening. At the same time, he could critique because he showed up; he was a frequent user and annotator of those archives; and a friend and encouragement to staff. He was a critic, because he cared deeply and he had strong opinions. Would that we all had that kind of passion.

Luit Bieringa. He was just a really cool cat. He and Jan have always been incredibly kind to me, first with my first husband, William, and now with Reuben. When I moved to Tory St Luit became part of my neighbourhood, and I'd bump into him often at the lights on the corner or at breakfast at Prefab. This part of Wellington will be quieter without him. While his death does not come as a shock, we all have to get used to this new gap in our environment, that space that will gradually heal over into memory.

All my love to Jan, the kids and their whānau.

Jan and Luit in the 1960s, from an Instagram post shared today by Stuart McKenzie

The official Dominion Post obituary, written by Mark Amery in collaboration with Luit, Jan, family and friends

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Link round-up: AMAGA-inspired and related

 This past week I attended the CAM-D (Council of Australasian Museum Directors) and AMAGA (Australian Museums and Art Galleries Association)* meetings in Perth, also a chance to see the new WA Museum Boola Bardip and the first time I've left Aotearoa since 2019.

It felt like waking up. Like a big lungful of fresh air. Thinking at scale again, meeting new people again, get out of the usual conversational grooves and organisational concerns we all tend to slip into, but have stayed in longer over the past two years of the pandemic.

One of the many things I realised while I was away is that I miss writing. I write so much in my day job that since joining Te Papa, I've barely put any thoughts down outside the course of my work. It's time to ease back in.

So, as a baby-step, here's a round-up of things that I read throughout the week (conference related, and just chronologically aligned).

Mike Dickison linked to two articles this week that I found really interesting:

University of York archaeology lecturer Colleen Morgan's The Outrage Machine, about dealing with the Daily Mail publishing an "outrage-bait" article about her (and others') use of content warnings in their course materials. Morgan's strategy basically boils down to "don't feed the trolls". She notes:

As an academic you really want to set the record straight, to potentially educate the journalist, or perhaps the public, but it doesn’t work that way. With outrage bait articles they are not looking for a reasoned response. They don’t want you to convince them, they want you to be the dumb woke academic mollycoddling our fragile students. They want column inches and maybe a photo of you for their right wing audience to mock. Give them nothing. I’m writing this during the furore, but will likely post it only after things have died down.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History curator Mark Carnell on How and why to cite museums specimens in research. In this post, Carnell describes how poor or overlooked citations of museum collection material create more work, don't show the value of museum collections to research, and amount to trash science:

For many natural history museums, although we work with a range of audiences, scientific publications using our specimens is one of our key measures of success, justifying our staff and existence to local, national and international funding bodies. We’re ecstatic when publications using the collection come out because it’s one of the reasons we are there in the first place. We’re actively keen to promote your research on our collections to our audiences through exhibitions, online and social media. All we ask for in return (and often this is on one of those forms you sign) is that you let us know when you publish, give us a copy of the paper or book and cite the specimens properly.

Somebody at the conference linked to Elizabeth Merritt's (Center for the Future of Museums) latest post In Praise of Mission Creep. In it she notes that the phrase "mission creep" originated in military operations, and that sometimes carrying language over without scrutinising the underlying thinking and context (most of us are not literally running aggressive, politically-charged, life-or-death operations) can be unhelpful, inappropriate, or make our thinking lazy:

Looked at from a different perspective, “mission creep” is often a side effect of the mission itself. This happens, for example, when missions create artificially narrow constraints by focusing on the mechanisms of the work (collect, preserve, interpret) rather than on the change an organization wants to make in the world.

As a relief from all those quite long articles, here's a tweet from the conference by Michael Parry that summarises a concept we need to communicate better about our sector: 

One of the talks I missed was by ACMI's Lucie Paterson and researcher Indigo Holcombe-James; luckily ACMI has long (under Seb Chan's leadership, in a way many of us did in the (g)olden days but few of us - including me - still do): How to increase your museum's digital literacy.

I'm putting this tweet here simply because I know I'm going to want this as a metaphor for so many things in future

Tristram Hunt at the V&A in London is one of the few museum directors (in English, anyway) who blogs frequently and with a argument (rather than anodyne statements that do not court controversy). I respect him for putting his arguments out there. His posts often leave me feeling unsettled - often professionally grumpy, if I'm honest, with a tendency to write them off as pleas for a status quo and assumption of privilege that I think Western museums should be recognising, reconciling and reinventing for an equitable future. 

His latest post, The Enlightenment and the Universal Museum leaves me wondering - as I so often do with his writing - whether I'm just being chippy in seeing it as an exercise in yes-but-still-ism. In it he accepts that the Enlightenment (and the museums that emerged from it) was a beautiful dream based on racism and sexism. He writes:

the challenge for museum leadership is to unpick such toxic legacies and then seek to re-imagine the mission of the Enlightenment as an egalitarian, empowering, and transformative project.

 He then writes that the museum needs be a 'cultural and psychological resource' to help individuals 'transcend inherited identities'. That in order to retain trust, the opening of authority in museum collections and interpretation to previously excluded communities and experts must be 'additive to the essential role of museum curation by experts in the field'. He concludes:

Finally, we need to move from the Universal Museum of the Enlightenment to the Cosmopolitan Museum of the 21st century. The racism of the Enlightenment needs to be replaced by a much richer understanding of how the construction of European identity was always a global endeavour. This necessitates a continued reckoning with the imperial and colonial past and, with it, new strategies around restitution and repatriation based on reciprocity, humility, and shared professional endeavour with colleagues in the Global South. The post-war hierarchies must be dismantled to shape a truly cosmopolitan public sphere. 
That is the modern calling of the Enlightenment – which endowed so many superb cultural institutions that have, in turn, transformed so many lives over the years. It still matters.

I don't know. I'm getting a weaselly feel off the phrase "Cosmopolitan Museum". I recently (I wish I could remember where) saw someone refer to cosmopolitanism (celebrating immigration, diversity, complex histories) as a possible alternative to biculturalism. Becoming cosmopolitan does not feel to me like decolonising, or deep-reaching re-purposing and reinvention. It feels like a more acceptable face on an old idea.  I'm going to have to mull this one.

*No-one knows how to pronounce either of these acronyms. That was one of my favourite parts of the trip.  

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Museums, media and public trust: National Digital Forum opening, February 2022

I was delighted to be asked (along with Honiana Love from Ngā Taonga, Rachel Esson from National Library, and Stephen Clarke from Archives New Zealand) to give a short presentation at the 2022 NDF conference this week. 

I've been engaged with NDF for such a long time now - as attendee, Board member, conference organiser and speaker. It always feels like going home.

This year I felt extra lucky to be asked to introduce Anna Fifield, editor of the DominionPost, for her keynote lecture, and then conduct a Q&A afterwards. This gave me an opportunity to examine some ideas I've been mulling for awhile now, about the connection between museums (and the wider GLAM sector, but museums is my knowledge area), the media and public trust. It was fuelled by that old adage, "the news is the first draft of history" and my addiction to that peculiarly specific genre, the media commenting on itself (like the legendary Mediawatch). Over the last few years we've seen the media critically engaging with its own histories and practices - one of the reasons Anna was asked to present was Stuff's Our Truth: Tā Mātou Pono work - in much the same way museums and cultural institutions have looked at their own histories, ignorance and damaging actions and sought to do better. I was keen to draw out these connections.

Stuff have also made an explicit commitment to public trust as their key performance metric, as described by owner Sinead Boucher in this interview with Duncan Greive. Trust is a topic the media canvasses regularly (see this Mediawatch segment from last year). It's also a topic museums are regularly gathering data on. My particular area of interest is where trust and expectations of neutrality collide. 

In my framing talk, I returned to a section of a presentation I gave in 2014 at NDF, looking at a piece of research conducted by the British Museums Association into what the public expected from museums. Asked to rank a group of purposes supplied by the museum sector, workshop participants rated collecting and caring for national heritage as the core and most important purpose of museums, and social change / care for vulnerable people as lowest priority. Seeking to tackle controversial topics or shape opinions in any way was seen as counter to museums' purpose and undermining of the trusted position they held. 

Looking at recent research from Britain, Australia and America, in my talk I touched on this ongoing tension between trust and neutrality. In the era of Covid, mis and disinformation, the current anti-mandate protests in Wellington and the rising antagonism towards the media in Aotearoa, this felt like a fruitful place to start a conversation about what our sector and the media could learn from each other.

Resources that informed this presentation and the Q&A with Anna Fifield:

Museums Association, In museums they trust 2013

Britain Thinks for Museums Association, Public perceptions of - and attitudes to - the purposes of museums in society, 2013 [referenced in talk]

Nina Simon, Seeking clarity about the complementary nature of social work and the arts, 2013

Courtney Johnston, Museums and social work: a year of changing thinking, 2014

Dr fari nzinga, Public trust and art museums, The Incluseum, 2016

American Alliance of Museums, Museums and trust, 2021 [referenced in talk]

Western Australian Museum, Value of museums demonstrated during Covid-19, 2021 


Democracy 2025, Political trust and democracy in times of Coronavirus, 2021 [referenced in talk]


Museum Next, Museum curators amongst most trusted professionals, 2021 [referenced in talk]

 

Edelman Trust Barometer 2022



Anna Fifield, Letter from the editor: On choosing what not to cover, Stuff, 2021 [referenced in talk]


MediaWatch for 19 December 2021, RNZ, 2021 (featuring Hal Crawford, see below)


Hal Crawford, RIP centrism: Why Stuff is gradually moving left while the Herald inches right, The Spinoff, 2021


Anna Fifield, When did our public servants get so arrogant, Stuff, 2022


Andrew Ecclestone and Simon Wright, How the media can improve the toxic dynamic with government, Stuff, 2022