There were a few things missing from my conference experience:
We are excited for the chance to share the 2020 MMA Annual Report in this issue of the MMA Review. We have been building toward having a “real” annual report to share for many years. It started as a verbal presentation about the year so far at the annual fall business meeting, and then became a set of infographics shared at the conference. A few years ago we shifted to sharing infographics for the whole year in January, and now this version includes more detail. I expect that the format will continue to evolve over time until we settle into a report that we think works best. We want our members and supporters to have a good sense of what we accomplish each year with the help of so many donors and volunteers.
Putting together my section for the report meant I had to go back and look at my calendar for the year and my notes for all of our projects and activities. You’d think that 2020 would be burned into my memory, but it was actually just the opposite. Most of the year is just a blur to me, and the farther we move from it, the smaller it all seems. Unlike watching my children grow up, I have no desire to hold on to memories from a year that was so stressful and challenging for so many.
On the other hand, I appreciate all that I am taking with me from that time. If life is a road trip, the museum-mobile is filled with the colleagues I had a chance to connect with for the first time or repeatedly during the year via Zoom. The trunk is filled with boxes of new skills and the results of many experiments that have helped us build our online programs into something that is now a permanent part of MMA. Tied to the roof are bins of strategies and plans that the board was able to focus on even as their own organizations were in crisis.
I am not sure I have ever been quite as happy to watch something disappear down the horizon as I am the year 2020, but I will be forever grateful for the way the Michigan museum community and MMA came together.
I have been talking to lots of different members about their ideas for conference session proposals, which is very exciting. There are lots of great session topic ideas going around and I know it’s going to be a great conference. But most of the conversations I’ve been having started with something else besides big ideas about the future. Many conversations began with sharing the stress and often trauma of what people have gone through since last March.
It seems like now that there is a light at the end of the tunnel or, more accurately, that we seem to be coming out of the tunnel, people are ready to start to articulate more about how hard this past year+ has been. It is hard to hear, but it is so important.
I think I have mentioned before that I have been seeing a therapist for several years. I have struggled with anxiety and depression for much of my adult life, especially when my kids were little and when my mom was sick with Alzheimer’s. When my daughter left for college in 2017, I had a really hard time. I had tried therapy before, but either I couldn’t afford it or the therapist wasn’t a good match. Fortunately, a few different things came together at that time and I was able to connect with someone who could help. Now, I feel better than I have in decades.
I am not sure why I shared that except to put it out there that if you are struggling with managing your feelings and experiences as we come out of the crisis (or at anytime), it is OK to seek help. And honestly, I highly recommend it if you can. We can’t provide mental health services at MMA, but we can be a place for you to find people who will listen to your story. We are going to try and focus on the future at the conference, but we will also provide space to come together and grieve what has been lost. And we still don’t know exactly what the crisis has meant for the Michigan museum community in the long run, but we will still help each other figure it out.
By now, you have heard that the 2021 conference will be online. I’m not going to lie, I was not excited about the idea of an online conference. I am sick of being at my desk all the time and I want to SEE people. I have been literally counting the days until it is over and I can get back to planning the fun kind of conference.
The more we get into planning though, the more I am excited about figuring out the neat ways we can make this a great experience. Since this is such a change from an in-person conference, it’s fun to have a chance to try new things. I can’t imagine that I will ever feel like a virtual conference is a substitute for being together in person, but there are so many things about it that are new or different or, dare I say, better? It’s going to be a great conference!
One of the things that is REALLY different about this conference, is that it’s up to you to decide how you will experience it. At MMA, we spend as much time thinking about how we come together, as about what to focus on when we do. We pay attention to spaces and flow and possible distractions, and try to make your experience focused and seamless. For the online conference, you are the one who will control your space and focus and distractions. I hope that you will take on that role and try to carve out the space you need this fall to BE together with the rest of us. We will do our best to help you, but in the end, you will make the choice about how engaged you are.
Here are some of the things I AM excited about:
More Focus. Every MMA conference has a theme, but most of the time it is either just a holding place for a graphic identity or an idea that is threaded throughout the program and not necessarily dominant. Because of the short planning time and the opportunity to cover any topic we want during our regular online programs, we decided that this year we would really HAVE a theme. So all of the speakers and sessions will focus on What’s Next and looking forward. Within that theme we will look at three specific areas – what is coming in leadership, social justice and Michigan museums. I have already started having conversations in the different member communities about what they think is next and I can see the wheels start turning. I think we are going to have some great discussions and perspectives as we contemplate where we are heading. It feels good to think about moving forward, doesn’t it?
More Access. We work hard to make the MMA conferences as accessible as possible, but time, distance, and money are always a barrier. This year, no travel time is needed and we shortened the conference so participants will only need to carve out about 24 hours. Obviously, distance won’t be a factor because the conference is literally at your desk. Finally, because we don’t have to pay for food and AV equipment and all of the other things we need at an in-person conference, the registration rate will be minimal. Because registration is minimal, our wonderful scholarship fund will cover more people, so cost should not be a barrier either. I hope this means that we break new records for participation and have people joining us from all over the state. Fingers crossed.
New Ideas. I have been SO impressed with how Michigan museum people have met the challenge of meeting mission in a different way during the pandemic. The museum community took some very big lemons and made so many different kinds of delicious lemonade. I am excited to see how MMA members do the same with the virtual opportunity. We can’t have concurrent sessions in meeting spaces together, but we can still have lots of different choices for how to learn from each other. In a conference room, we were limited by that space, but online we can go anywhere. I am excited to see how people apply their creativity to session proposals. I hope we will see our typical formal presentation, discussion, and hands-on formats for sessions, but what else can be done with a camera? Tours? Live interviews? Demonstrations? Dance Party? I don’t know! That’s up to you. (The Call for Session Proposals will be out in June, FYI).
Again, there are definitely some things about an online conference that can’t be the same and aren’t better than an in-person conference. Honestly, it’s sort of like comparing apples to oranges. It’s hard to really come together when we are all sitting at our own desks. The dynamics of speakers and conversations are, well, flat online in a way they aren’t in person. I could go on. I have a list. And I suspect that by the time the conference comes around we will be so used to our reemergence after the pandemic that me might have a moment of asking, “why are we doing this virtually, again?” Actually, I’m sure of it, and it may already be happening. It is what it is, and this too shall pass. Next year we will confer in person, but for now, this will be helpful, inspiring and fun in a different way.
I’ve found that the deeper we get into putting together this virtual experience, the easier it is to let go of trying to replace the regular conference, and the more excited I am about seeing what we can do better this way. I can’t wait to “see” you all and talk about What’s Next. It’s going to be a great conference!
Lisa Craig Brisson
April is usually an intense time of year for me on all fronts – A busy time for me at work, for kids in school, for the house and yard, for my spouse at work, and with many family birthdays. Except for last year, when April merged into the flatness that was the COVID shutdown, I have to go back at least a decade, and maybe several more, to find an April calendar that wasn’t a wall of items.
Of course, this year there are several more layers added on top of the usual because of COVID. Everything listed above is still going on, but COVID adds at least one more layer of complexity, and several to this week in particular. It’s exhausting and overwhelming, but I know it’s not just me. Almost every Zoom meeting I’ve attended for weeks started with a general acknowledgement of exhaustion by all.
Times like this are especially challenging for me, and I think many of you, because I take decisions seriously. Some might say that I am an over-thinker, and not in a good way. However, I like my goal-oriented analytical tendencies and see it as a super- power that helps me be the person I want to be and get things done. I will concede, that it can occasionally get in my way and the constant scrutiny can actually slow me down and wear me out. I have been working for a while to be more mindful and to learn new skills to help me have more balance in my approach to making decisions. COVID has been very helpful in that department.
The uncertainty of these times has helped me let go of thinking too far into the future about what I need to do now. One of the mantras I have been repeating, sometimes every 15 minutes it seems, is “What is the next step?” I learned that from David Allen in his book Getting Things Done. The book offers a very specific process for productivity and many tools, but what resonated with me the most was the permission not to think through every little thing. Know what you want to do, identify what you need to do next to work to get there, and then do it. You don’t have to worry about the step after that, because as long as you know where you are going, that will be clear when you get there.
Apparently, I need lots of reminding, because I recently discovered another productivity expert and her process that has reinforced that message. Lisa Woodruff’s Sunday Basket system, which I heard about in the MMA Productivity and Time Management member community, is based on the idea that you focus on what is right in front of you and give yourself permission to set many things aside and figure them out later.
The two different approaches still embrace goal setting and planning, which are both central values for me, but they cut out the part where you try to see into the future and think about things you can’t really know about. It has been such a relief to let go processes that didn’t seem to take me anywhere.
I have really been languishing through this month. At work and at home, I am starting to experience what I think of as the After Times with more commitments and a return to activities that have been set aside for many months. I am also still very much experiencing the uncertainty and frequent changes of the pandemic crisis, as well as the awareness that my personal behavior can have an enormous impact on the lives of others. These are all things that can transform my analytical super-power into kryptonite, and so I have been leaning heaving into the next step.
I share my April challenges right now not to get sympathy, but because I think many of us are struggling in the same way. It is very exciting and wonderful that we seem to be moving out of the crisis. At the same time, this current transitional stage might be the hardest yet. We can set goals, or they are being set for us, but it’s not at all clear how we are going to be able to achieve them.
If we revisit my fog analogy from last year, I think it is clear that the fog is lifting. We can see the sun shining up there somewhere, and we can see far enough ahead to see exit signs as they approach instead of when we are right on top of them. We still can’t see much beyond that. And we may not be able to tell how close we are to our destination or even what it will look like when we get there. At least we can see a little, and that is all we need right now. What is the next step? That’s all we need to worry about. We are moving forward and we know where we are headed. It is OK not to know exactly when or how we will get there.
Safe travels on this crazy journey. I can’t wait to be with you again soon!
Lisa Craig Brisson
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.
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.
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
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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