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.
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