An Ode to Lake Street Minneapolis

Lake Street.

It sits across the broad girth of Minneapolis like a belt. It cinches the city from the bluffs of the Mississippi River to the shores of its largest lake: the sparkling Bde Maka Ska. Like a belt, it forms a middle boundary between a top and a bottom. Like a belt, it keeps the pants up over a swelling belly. Like a belt, it has a buckle and that buckle is the intersection of Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, the throbbing commercial heart of Minneapolis’ primary artery, the epicenter of the Minneapolis polis, so perfectly emblematic of the city’s dazzling civic diversity, and, not incidentally, the epicenter of the days of rage incited by the police murder of George Floyd.

There are many great streets in Minneapolis. Some are longer, others are more beautiful, but none of them running precisely on an east west axis cleave through the same range of citizenry. In both the present and the past, Lake Street is a core sample of Minneapolis through every strata, rich and poor, immigrant and native, queer and straight, creative, entertaining, routine and prosaic, sacred and profane. It’s length bears witness to births and final resting places. It is both a way to get somewhere and a final destination. It spans the virtues and failings of the metropolis which, like all great cities, struggles continuously to invent and reinvent itself.

clientstories_client_hobt-maydayp2-1-56_2Working at the Minnesota Historical Society it was my pleasure to know the street more deeply through an exhibit we produced called Right on Lake Street. Originally conceived by my colleague Benjamin Filene and completed by Ellen Miller, Earl Gutnik and others, the core concept was a threeway partnership between the Minnesota Historical Society, In the Heart of the Beast Mask and Puppet Theater, which is an institution at the heart of Minneapolis, and the History Department of Macalester College. Public history students selected locations along Lake Street to research by interviewing people in the community to portray their stories. These stories debuted in public places along the corridor. The artists at Heart of the Beast built whimsical models of the various landmarks portrayed by the students for an exhibition at the Minnesota History Center and the student’s interpretations illuminated this ersatz cityscape.

21arightonlakestreetThe exhibit, which opened in 2007, was like Lake Street itself. A little funny, a lot funky, and it represented the relentless change the avenue has witnessed. There was the story of the porn theater closed by community initiative. There was La Mexicana. There was the Schatzlein Saddle Shop and Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Gifts and Foods. There were landmarks long gone like the Wonderland Amusement Park and Nicollet Park, the home of the Minneapolis Millers, the long defunct minor league team. We had an opening celebration that was well attended by our partners and the public. There was an online exhibit: 21A – Right on Lake Street (21A is the bus route that traverses Lake Street and the interactive exhibit allowed users to virtually follow the route.) It was an interesting experiment. Some of the work wound up adorning the public spaces of the newly renovated Lake Street Sears store which was transformed into the Midtown Global Market an institution that now is like a microcosm of the street on which it stands.

Lake Street Damage Map 05302020Someone made this custom Google map showing the damage left in the wake of the uprisings of the harrowing last week of May, 2020. Zooming out, the icons symbolizing protests, fires, and looting cluster along the length of Lake Street. These blemishes  splatter the street like open wounds. The scale is inconceivable.

Today, after a night of struggle, anxiety and vulnerability, I want to remember the Lake Street that will survive to rise again, that will once again celebrate May Day and awaken the earth. The Lake Street that bustles with energy and irresistible lifeforces. The Lake Street that is tough, resilient and welcomes all. The Lake Street that has seen it all and will rub the smoke out of its eyes to see more clearly next time. Lake Street symbolizes everything I love about Minneapolis because it is made and remade by and for the people of Minneapolis. It has endured many indignities in the past, but it will never be destroyed.

Long live Lake Street.

Museums: Essential or Non-essential?

My Mom, who happens to live today in a senior community hard hit by Covid-19, had an aphorism for us when her children were coming of age: If you want to keep a job, make yourself essential.

In the aftershock of the novel coronavirus pandemic, if you’re a museum employee, you probably learned over the last two months whether you are considered “essential” or “non-essential” in a crisis of survival. Essential in the topsy-turvy world of disaster response has a very specific meaning, it turns out.  When a museum tries to hit the pause button and hang on for dear life in a state of suspended animation until the emergency passes, essential, unless you are in the midst of planning a funded project, probably means you don’t work in the core programs charged with mission delivery to the visiting public. Essential probably means security, building maintenance and crisis communications. When survival is at stake, the most basic functions emerge as the prevailing priority.  Like the human body when stricken by hypothermia, it’s surprising which functions shut down first and last.

Clue: The essential work is not reflected by what essential workers are paid

If we scan the landscape of America today, something similar is happening in every corner of work and life. Essential now means something surprising. The service workers who distribute our food and medical supplies, who take care of our elderly, the hospital workers, those who teach our kids, who provide security and maintenance, who butcher meat, who provide public transportation, who deliver mail and packages, who so often occupy the lower rungs of the income ladder, are the people still coming to work. Very often that work puts them at a higher risk of infection by the virus. It takes a crisis to reveal how much we rely on them to sustain our lives and yet nothing about the way we’ve treated them in the past is indicative of that vital importance. Imagine what pay structures would be like if workers were paid according to how essential they are to sustaining civilization? Ironically, millions of other workers, often in higher paid jobs, languish in uncertainty.

Essential institutions begin with essential values

We’ve started to become familiar with the stories of a medical system in extremis, where desperate life or death decisions are made by triage. But, in the early stages of this crisis, we’re also seeing critical values surface, values that until now were lurking below the cognitive surface of our decision making processes, values that guide triage outside of the medical system and will rock institutions to their core including museums. All of these values have rationales that existed well before the pandemic hit, but there’s nothing like an emergency to surface the baseline values, those guiding beliefs, commitments and assumptions that we hold to be essential. On some deep level, those values represent a kind of emotional solace, a code of meanings to be derived from the indiscriminate destruction of the viral outbreak. Our values are a story we will tell ourselves to both survive, attach meaning to this experience, and heal. But those values should also cause us to reflect on what is really important. Though this may sound at first like a process of introspection, as it no doubt must be in part, as public institutions, museums should be revisiting these values in the public sphere. Most importantly, part of the scope of finding the future of museums should include questioning the very values we thought we adhered to before a pandemic turned our world upside down and changed our notions of what it means to be essential. 

Perhaps the process should appear to us at first not as a series of answers, but as a series of questions. This is a time that will challenge us like never before to find creative adaptations and solutions, but the search for solutions begins with identifying the challenges. Without wisely defining the problems, the solutions will not be solutions at all.

Innovation, creative disruption, adaptation, “thinking outside of the box,”  until now were thought of as optional novelties in museum work, a corner of the field for dabblers and dreamers. Now, with a startling clarity, we are literally locked outside of the box for an unknown period of time. Adaptation is no longer optional. Museums, as notoriously plodding institutions excelling in continuity, are suddenly forced into a place of dramatic disruption which is not of their choosing. As a colleague once said, calling the pace of museums glacial is unfair because glaciers move too quickly. Museums today are a little out of shape to start outrunning glaciers.

One driving desire in our collective recovery is to try to claw our way back to where we were as quickly as possible, to try to repair the damage and regain the “normal.”  Another is to circle the wagons, retreat to the Alamo, retrench to a place of familiarity, safety and relative comfort. These are natural human impulses. We see it already represented not only in how our colleagues are identifying essential and non-essential staff, but also in the preliminary schemes outlining the adaptations necessary for reopening. We will design visitor services systems that support social distancing. We will remove the things that might promote the spread of viruses (hands on activities, auditorium programs, guided tours, etc.) We will, as Nik Honeysett said in a recent Zoom confab, find “performative safety” protocols that telegraph to our public the concern we have for their safety and well being, albeit with less than perfect certainty that all is actually safe.

As much as I can respect the motives behind these strategies to get back to normal, at first glance they all have three things in common — a willingness to settle for a much reduced quality of museum going experience, an assumption that the old normal is worth recreating in a diminished form, and a habit of mind that our museum going public are consumers rather than active partners in the creation of museum experiences. At a higher level, before we accept this fate and make it the new covenant we have with the public, we have to ask if this is where our values need to guide us. We need to go back to something essential to actually be essential. 

What does the public want? 

The devotion shown to us by our public will be the first test and, unlike so many other tests museums traditionally face, this time the test will be existential. In a time where perhaps 1 out of 4 or 5 American working age adults are out of work, and are not paying taxes, and for whom survival is the first concern, and where the very kinds of pleasant social activities they used to enjoy now come freighted with menace, there is a lot that will seem superfluous. In the same way that doctors have to make triage decisions about who is worth the investment of medical attention when medical attention is scarce, so our constituencies will be faced with agonizing choices about what matters, what is essential to living their lives. Whether or not a museum is essential might be expressed through things as large as state or county budget decisions made under duress, a redirection of the sustaining charitable foundation’s resources to bread and butter community needs, or as granular as a thousand family leisure time decisions made when the bank account is empty, or simple inattention because the museum in town is the last thing to cloud our more limited mindspace right now.  

Don't Touch 2Audience researcher Susie Wilkening has already done excellent service in gathering first impressions about what the public are thinking about returning to museums after the pandemic. Colleen Dilenschneider has also contributed quick and revealing work.

Not surprisingly, the thoughts of culture goers are not monolithic. To summarize, the good news is that there are many people who can’t wait to get back to the museum within the next 3 months, and some of them are not particularly concerned about risks. On the other hand, there are a greater number of cautious prospective museum goers who are going to be keenly safety conscious and for whom a novel coronavirus vaccine would provide the most reassurance. At first glance, the challenges facing museums will not be as steep as the performing arts, and outdoor institutions like zoos, botanical gardens and sculpture parks might actually experience a boom.

What visitors can’t tell us right now is whether the new museum experience, however that devolves, will continue to be attractive. They might imagine, as we would, that there will be less in the way of safe hands-on activities, but they are unlikely to imagine what it will feel like to look at exhibits, objects and art while trying to maintain distance from other museum goers. They might already be familiar with the anxiety of food shopping with other customers who are oblivious to safety, but we need food to live; food is essential. Do we need museums enough to overcome the anxiety of sharing space with strangers? Museum goers may not imagine yet how needing to buy a timed ticket well in advance might affect their motivation.

So exactly how we reopen prompts worthwhile questions, but these are primarily functional problems producing stopgap, functional solutions. 

What matters?

18 years ago now, Stephen Weil urged us to make museums matter. Though Weil, who died in 2005, might never have imagined a time when so many museums at once were imperiled by the double threat of a pandemic and global economic crisis, he certainly argued that there is a kind of covenant between museums and the community of support necessary for the museum to thrive. Museums, he believed, could prosper in a virtuous circle as long as the public and the museum were in a reciprocal relationship. Museums had to “earn their keep” by being for someone, not merely being about something. He argued for a museum of purposes, not functions, and those purposes are public facing.

Clue: The multitude of red flags, portents and bellwethers

UnevenThe rippling financial pressures which are now bound to unfold are simply exacerbations of the issues swirling near the surface for years. There have been many canaries in the coal mines, many, many instructive examples in microcosm offering a glimpse of what we now face writ large. Few are the museums fully recovered from the shock of 2008-09, an event that accelerated trends already gnawing at the heels of museums since at least the 1990’s.

In 2015, the Illinois State Museum in Springfield faced a state budget reduction so severe, it had a near death experience. What was striking was not so much that this sort of radical act of defunding might happen in a conservative government cost cutting move, but that public outcry was virtually nonexistent. Instead, it took the actions of the state employees union, rallying on behalf of their membership, to salvage the fate of the museum. After languishing in limbo for nearly a year, the museum has since been slowly creeping back to some semblance of health, but only by charging the first admission fee in its 139 year history. In the process, the staff who were state employees kept their jobs. Their managers were the ones who ultimately proved to be non-essential.

Last year, where I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, a ballot initiative for a modest sales tax increase to alleviate a growing shortfall in countywide support for arts and culture organizations, including museums, was defeated. This might be surprising unless you knew that only 15% of households in the county ever patronized those organizations with their attendance. In anecdotal conversations I had with fellow Charlotteans, I heard many express feelings that issues like affordable housing, gentrification, and economic disparity were more pressing concerns than paying out of pocket to support arts and culture. In the case of Charlotte, a sense of funding scarcity for basic human needs, in a city not incidentally redolent with a great deal of wealth, did not play out in the favor of museums as voters saw it as a choice of one over the other.

In contrast to Charlotte, the Detroit metro area made the opposite decision in 2012 voting to increase a millage tax to support the financially troubled Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Later, in 2014, when the city of Detroit went bankrupt, for a moment it looked possible that the collections of the DIA might be auctioned off to help satisfy the beleaguered city’s creditors since those collections could be seen as city assets. The philanthropic community and the state of Michigan rallied to pay a handsome ransom in the hundreds of millions to the city bankruptcy manager to keep the collections in Detroit. In effect, Detroit as a community doubled down on its support of DIA by acquiring its collections all over again.

These are just some of the instances where the public has signaled loyalty — or lack of loyalty– to the museums it sustains when the crisis comes. Key here is to understand what institutions like DIA in Detroit do that museums in Springfield and Charlotte do not.

Several days ago, in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney called for the elimination of the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. The perception that arts and culture as the broad umbrella under which museums so neatly fit, are superfluous and non-essential, is pervasive and will be hard to shake in a crisis of this magnitude. How could this be so? So many red flags and critical indicators have been lurking there for years with just a little hindsight. By now we all know many school systems never fully brought back museum field trips after the last budget catastrophe of 2008-09. Many of them zeroed out classes in music, art, theater, languages, even history and science, as the drive to focus increasingly scarce resources on the tested subjects of reading and math and No Child Left Behind became paramount when system budgets dwindled. Many schools let the salaries of their teachers stagnate and were distracted by the tugs of magnet and charter school competition. The overall predicament of public education was one of many meaningful, slow burning harbingers of cultural triage in an atmosphere of scarcity and austerity. If public schools were allowed to crumble, why should we expect that museums would enjoy any special privileges? Now, we learn that New York governor Andrew Cuomo is calling on Bill Gates and his foundation to help the state “reimagine” education in the fall. We can only imagine what that will mean.

TicketsMuseum sustainability has been the chief anxiety of museum leaders for more than a generation. The number of museums that command more resources today than they did 20 years ago is vanishingly small. Far more numerous are the institutions who have been slowly backed into staff and service reductions, cost saving measures of all sorts, and ever more desperate attempts to generate revenue. In nearly every significant category of support: individual, corporate, and private foundation philanthropy, national, state and local government subsidies, the overall trend has been down. The pandemic crisis is a precipitating event, a tipping point, in a long series of events that were already well underway. 

What is to be done?

Before we find answers, we have to ask the right questions. A certain clarity about the moment is required. In a rapidly shifting social environment, we are learning about the allure of wishful thinking. Oh, how we wish this was all over and we could just carry on as we were! The power of positive thinking will find hard limits on the frontiers of remorseless reality. In a pandemic, wishful thinking can literally have fatal consequences.

So let’s not be deluded. We shouldn’t be at all surprised to find ourselves in a fight for existence, a fight I’m afraid that some of us, too many of us, will ultimately lose. The future of museums is not preordained or guaranteed in a situation like this. Museums are by no means a sacred institution any more than newspapers, higher and lower educational systems, the music industry, the norms of governance and checks and balances in a democracy, the secular pillars of science, truth seeking and rational discourse, the preservation of the commons, public lands and spaces, good manners, common human decency and decorous behavior, and so on. All of these things hang in the balance right now along with our treasured museums. All of these things turn out to be things we have to decide to fight for if we are to keep them, or that must be reinvented to find new relevancy and life. They can no longer be taken for granted. There is no room for complacency.

Going into the struggle, the institutions that cultivated strong support networks and reciprocal traditions in their communities will have advantages and allies in the near term that might make the difference between survival and oblivion. Some will wear the protective armor of handsome endowments that, if they can’t entirely insulate a museum from external shocks, at least protect the corpus from complete liquidation. Other institutions, being lean and nimble, creative and resourceful, with few immediate debts and obligations, will be able to pivot quickly by cultivating new alliances and shedding the fatal encumbrances of the past. Museums that never saw the point in being community-centered, or tamped down innovation and initiative, that lacked a vision beyond the most perfunctory continuity strategies, will be the most vulnerable. Though we should take time to properly grieve our losses, nostalgia for what we once had will be of limited utility going forward. We’re not going to have a lot of time for sentimentality.

The values 

Let’s return to values, the things of mission statements, boardroom battles and internecine struggles, the basic conceptual building blocks upon which institutions are said to rest and wrestle. In our experience, most museums will make a nod to preservation (of material culture) and service (to the public) in their mission statements. Few, however, will openly acknowledge overriding, deep attachments to such over-my-dead-body values as connoisseurship, prestige, research and scholarship, revenue generation, social justice, service to schools, interested stakeholders of every stripe, donor cultivation, political expediency, and any number of conflicting and divergent values that only surface in the crucible of an emergency and are sacred cows incredibly hard to even question, let alone slaughter. It is with some sadness and resignation I say that it is probably better that we decide together which cows will go to the abattoir than have others do it for us. But I should also add that there are no sacrifices worth making that don’t also provide at least the potential for real gains if wisdom is exercised and the guiding values are relevant.

An incomplete set of framing questions in search of creative answers in no particular order:

  • Who do we need to include to find a common future? Who are our allies? Who have we left out to our detriment? What advice and support will we need from them? What can we offer in return? Are we prepared to listen in ways that will change us? What do new reciprocal models ask of us and our partners? What’s the coalition going forward?
  • Who do we serve and what makes us essential to them? How do we find out? Is the value of that a basis sufficient to survive? If not, and failure is not an option, who do we need to reach and what new values need to be cultivated instead?
  • Are our baseline values out of step with the times? How would we know? What can we do about that? Who are the friends who can tell us the truth we need to hear?
  • Who are the as yet unacknowledged leaders among us for whom the time is ripe to step up? How are they identified and cultivated? What skills, tools and support will they need? What adjustments to our own prerogatives will be necessary to support their growth as leaders? How do we embrace the messiness and ambiguity of learning on the job in a crisis situation without crushing initiative?
  • What are our anxieties? How are they limiting? How do they offer us directions to grow? How do we make anxiety, which is inevitable and appropriate under the circumstances,  useful instead of an obstacle to moving forward?
  • If we are to survive, how do we earn our place? What is an appropriate amount of civic space to earn given the landscape of emergent community needs? What is the new covenant of reciprocity?
  • What support can we offer to a community that is grieving many losses and is grappling with a multiplicity of new challenges? How do we earn compassion by showing compassion? How can we be both the change people need and the stability people crave?
  • How do we support our colleagues in this crisis, emotionally and financially? How can we respond to the strain humanely and with compassion? How do we assess the risks to their health and well being and do something affirmative about it? How does everyone become essential in new ways, if essential is elusive in the old ways?
  • If everything has changed, how have we changed? How must we continue changing? What are the milestones on this journey? How do we grow into change without it destroying us and the museums we steward?
  • Are there experiments we can conduct to find answers to these questions? What are the avenues of inquiry? What tools and skills do we need to cultivate? What’s the low hanging fruit? What will require a longer trajectory and larger sources of support?


A Post-Coronavirus Museum

In the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, after a moment or two of hesitancy, museums everywhere closed down. There can be no doubt this was a prudent measure. By all appearances, museums as enclosed public spaces, with a variety of air handling systems, spaces that accommodate crowds and very often encourage high levels of interactivity, on first blush seem to be rather ideal environments for a virus that spreads most efficiently from person to person through breathing infected breath and touching infected surfaces. Conversations on museum professional social media threads started with a flurry of questions about how best to sanitize surfaces, then quickly transitioned to discussions about delivering programs through online media as museum after museum closed its doors to the visiting public, often well in advance of shelter-at-home orders from local authorities.

Covid CoupleFollowing with lightning speed was a wave of announcements of staff and contractor layoffs and furloughs. In a matter of days, thousands of museum people working at every level, throughout the nation and the world, were suddenly cast into an ambiguous future. At this writing, their fate, (and as a museum consultant, my fate) is completely unresolved. Already the first wave has been joined by others as institutions have been forced to narrow the scope of who can be considered “essential”, and the recognition grows that contending with this new reality will likely be a struggle lasting months or years not days.

The very financial viability of scores of museums now appears to be in real jeopardy. By all appearances, we have arrived at a major turning point for the field.

Many museums, though they are closed to the visiting public, have found ways to serve their supporting communities in other ways, outside of the galleries. It has been encouraging to see how quickly museums have used their public service ethic as a springboard to adapt quickly. The Museum Group was able to rapidly aggregate a list of efforts that include using a museum site to directly deliver services to the community, such as virus testing, to the delivery of myriad virtual online programs. Nevertheless, the museum galleries themselves are closed indefinitely. What I will address here is the web of issues surrounding museums as a destination, comprised of real, tangible spaces, filled with real people.

What future?

Panic CarefullyI’ll start by saying there is nothing about my particular experience that gives me any advantage as a forecaster for the future of the museum as a cultural form. I will not make sweeping predictions here. As a museum professional, my only analytical qualification is knowing something about where we have been and where we were before disaster struck. Nor am I suggesting anything like a passive approach. Even if we feel helpless in the face of this crisis, what we do about it is something we figure out, not something we must accept fatalistically. We are not, in fact, helpless. We have agency and decisions to make. So what follows is one first stab at a framework for making educated guesses, finding some direction and some attempt to pull signals from a great deal of noise. I can’t do this alone, so I will pull examples already emerging from the stress and strain of the immediate crisis and I invite everyone to join the chorus of voices to work on this together.

First, a few analogies I find useful for thinking about dramatic change:

Punctuated Equilibrium

Punctuated equilibrium is a theory in evolutionary biology pioneered by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. Summarizing as a layman for other laypersons, the basic idea is that evolutionary change isn’t always as gradual as one might imagine. Rather, in the fossil record, there exist long periods of stasis where little or no change in a species happens, punctuated by short periods of discontinuity, “sudden jumps” in which change happens rapidly.  These abrupt changes are explained by how certain populations of a species occupy niches on the periphery of an ecosystem. The relatively extreme survival conditions on the periphery intensifies natural selection and divergence from a more static lifeform. A change to the larger ecosystem can cause a peripheral lifeform to suddenly move into an environmental niche previously occupied by another lifeform that may have thrived without changing for a long, long time, which then suddenly, for whatever environmental reasons, could not adapt and survive. 

Extending the punctuated equilibrium analogy, in the present moment, there are many institutions, a subset of them museums, which have been existing in a state of relative stasis and continuity, but under the strain of this particular moment, will not survive and will give way to new variants which, until now, have existed and adapted rapidly on the periphery of the mainstream. Indeed, with hindsight, it could be said that many of our bedrock, foundational institutions in the secular, democratic, market oriented societies of the world, have been under strain for some time. The coronavirus pandemic is only the triggering event that brings the crisis to a head, revealing the vulnerabilities in the systems that have appeared to maintain continuity. 

Science Fiction

Sci FiImagining a possible future contains opportunities for delight and dread in more or less equal measure. A common feature of science fiction is to identify a current trend, often one that is rather latent and not highly obvious, and extrapolate, often to an extreme degree, speculative versions of both possible or wildly implausible futures. In this way, science fiction has a very interesting track record for imagining a world of new technologies and social forms that often set the course for research and development ambitions. These imaginings can be optimistic, dystopian or neutral, some reach a level of fulfillment (e.g.: robots, space travel), others remain elusive (e.g.: flying cars, time travel). We can ask, given where we have been going, what is the culminating future development indicated? Are these developments positive, negative, or just plain different? What do we want to cultivate and what should we avoid?

A flip side to discontinuity, a science fiction approach to the future of museums might emphasize looking at those nascent trends peripheral to the “core” work museums have been doing and extrapolating there for potential adaptations given the new reality.

Paradigm Shifts

Thomas Kuhn coined the term paradigm shift in his landmark book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. In summary, the key idea is that, in the history of science, there is a discernible  pattern of innovation. At any point, scientists in any discipline or domain work within an accepted theoretical framework or canon, and most of this work is additive or incremental, building, as Issac Newton once said, “on the shoulders of giants.”  When that shared canon no longer provides avenues for inquiry, or cannot provide satisfactory answers to perplexing emergent research questions, a domain is ripe for a paradigm shift. A key feature of an historical moment ripe for such a shift is a great welter of competing ideas. As Jay Rounds once told me, until the new paradigm emerges and its efficacy becomes better established and embraced as the new canon, one idea is as good as another. This helps explain why there is always resistance to the new paradigm before it is embraced. Once the new paradigm does become established, it represents a new theoretical framework in which scientists can work and build upon each other’s ideas again.

It might be said in retrospect that the established museum paradigm (or paradigms) had reached a point of instability before the coronavirus hit. On a financial level, certainly, sustainability was seen to be precarious across the board. Moreover, the traditional academic disciplines and taxonomies around which museums were organized (science, natural history, history and art) were not only no longer mirroring the actual work of researchers in leading edge domains, but were also proving constraining to the creation of relevant exhibitions and programs for the general public. In recent years, an efflorescence of entirely new museums dedicated to previously neglected subjects or stories, seemed to show that traditional institutions and their domain constraints had begun to frustrate the forward movement of the field.

Coronavirus: First Flush Challenges

Challenge: How Long Will This Pandemic Last? The Hammer and the Dance

Children’s Discovery Museum closed due to coronavirusNo one knows how long this will last, or how long museum galleries will have to be shuttered. The current energy directed at “reopening” the economy as soon as possible is motivated by wishful thinking rather than sound epidemiology. Blogger Tomas Pueyo writes in his series “Coronavirus: Learning How to Dance” that, rather than a quick return to “normal,” the experiences of other nations show that we are in a cycle he calls “the hammer and the dance”. The “hammer,” with strict social distancing, is the lockdown period we are in now. The hammer is the severe period necessary to cut down infections which, in turn, reduces the number of cases flooding the medical system. That’s why public spaces like museums are closed to slow the spread of the disease. But after the hammer comes a period Pueyo calls the “dance.” No one knows how long the dance lasts, but it is not a return to business as usual. As the lockdown inevitably relaxes, smaller, localized outbreaks will flare in a series of waves. The new normal requires highly organized vigilance, testing and containment in order to keep these local outbreaks from infecting large populations that are not yet immune to the coronavirus. The size and severity of each successive wave in the dance will depend to a great extent on our behavior. Moreover, a lot of hopes are riding on the herd immunity that humans might develop when a large proportion of the planet’s population has become infected or immunized once a vaccine is introduced. But experts are warning us that this virus is mutating rapidly. An effective vaccine is not a certainty. Even if a vaccine can be developed, if coronavirus becomes more like the seasonal flu, it could require a new vaccine each year.  

Unfortunately, for museums, caution will have to be the watchword. “Normal”, if we see some semblance of it again, is a long way off. If we are to survive and reopen, adaptations will need to be found now.

Challenge: Museums as Social Space

One of the greatest realizations of visitor research in the past few decades is understanding the degree to which museums, in their real world, destination form, with tangible, immersive spaces, are primarily social spaces. Few people visit museums alone. The museum gallery has been revealed to be a kind of conversation piece. The discernments and interpretations of curators are one facet of the museum-going experience, but the meaning derived by the experience is highly dependent on who a visitor is, whom a visitor is with, and what they make of the experience together.

KUWAIT-HAWALLI GOVERNORATE-CORONAVIRUS-MEDICAL TESTIn its unwitting and confounding way, coronavirus has found the perfect hack into our bodies through human nature. It replicates and thrives on the human need for social contact. The glue that holds so many of our social bonds together naturally requires shared intimacy, closeness, and touch. Compassion and empathy, consolation, shared grieving, celebration, worship, rites of passage, courtship and sex, weddings, live entertainment, dining, dancing, storytelling, teaching, learning, a myriad of cultural forms, are built on our natural desire to be together with others. These behaviors are not only the most human, but also the most humanizing. With horrible irony, the very behaviors that humanize us as social beings appear to render us vulnerable to illness and death. A tragic dimension of this reality is that the isolation steps we need to take to protect our bodies also gradually degrade our mental health and well being.

Museums have used the awareness of their social nature to employ all manner of creative adaptations. A convivial museum has been suggested by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock, a place whose exhibits, programs and public spaces are welcoming and convivial, putting human needs at the highest priority. Museums have been described as “safe space” for gathering and transcending social differences. Elaine Gurian has depicted museums as a rare, special social zone where strangers can come together and interact. Lois Silverman and others have argued that museums do social work. Nina Simon has shown how museums can catalyze existing and new civic spaces for gathering and socializing. Museums increasingly have played a role in advocating for social justice and helping to heal historical trauma through bringing a diversity of people together. The preponderance of this work is predicated on the assumption that the museum is a destination, a place, where you can go and socialize freely without fear.

But how can museums thrive in the future if they are not safe to visit?

Closed PlaygroundPaul Orselli of POW! has suggested that the days of the germy, hands on, tactile museum may be over, forcing a complete reassessment of the programs of the interactive museums, especially children’s museums and science centers. At least, Orselli argues, coronavirus might create new constraints that can spark creativity, even as it spells the doom of all the make believe supermarkets and other mediocre, widely imitated exhibit cliches for children. One museum I’m aware of is already discussing plans to pull all interactive activities from its exhibits in anticipation of reopening.

Call me old fashioned, but personally, I’m not willing to give up the ghost just yet; the idea that children’s and other museums might either revert to static displays like the ones I grew up with five decades ago, or shift to high tech interactives employing hands off gesture, AR or VR technology exclusively, seems like an experientially barren future for museum-goers. For kids especially this is sad since, for more than a generation already, they have faced an ever-shrinking and parched desert landscape of free, unsupervised play outside of museums. Museum visitor researchers know that the caregivers of children show keen sensitivity to the cleanliness of museums. As one microcosm of the pervasive “helicopter” caregiver anxiety impinging on the risky play of childhood, that hygienic worry has yet another mortal threat to contend with in coronavirus. A key future challenge will be to find new recipes for safe interactions in the museum. How this is done without the sheer physicality of embodied learning is a monumental stretch.

By singling out interactivity, however, we may be missing the forest for the trees. There’s a distinct possibility that infection picked up from interactive surfaces is not the foremost risk to the museum-goer. As I’ve stated above, all the evidence seems to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic spreads most efficiently from person to person through breath, and that infection through touching contaminated surfaces is a secondary, far less direct and common pathway. If that’s true, merely asking the public to come indoors and mingle poses a threat to public health as well and this could be the worst news of all for the bricks-and-mortar public destination museum. Several reports from the front lines of the pandemic are sobering. In a South Korean case, just one “super spreader” infected scores of fellow parishioners at her megachurch. The rapid spread of the virus in enclosed, heavily peopled environments like cruise ships, nursing homes and prisons is well-documented and underlines the problem. Other reports suggest that unlucky proximity to air handling systems might spread multiple infections. Before we focus on eliminating infectious surfaces, we’ll need to secure the entire physical environment — a daunting task.

DistancingAnticipating this hard future, Andras Szanto, writing for has suggested that indefinite closure is not an option. He argues persuasively that museums are mission-bound to serve the public and reopened museums will be absolutely necessary for rebuilding and healing traumatized post-coronavirus communities much as they did after 9/11. In this article he lays out a series of strategies museums might implement to make museums safe. With a keen analysis, he notes that even if we were able to overcome the actual danger of infection in the gallery, we’d still have to overcome a public perception that museums are not safe. Showing concern for public safety by, for example, providing masks and hand sanitizer at admission, is not only a way to limit the spread of the virus, it also signals to the visiting public that the museum puts their physical well being at the highest priority. Sacrificed in the Szanto proposals, however, is close interaction among visitors, and strict limits on attendance, with pulsed entry to avoid crowding. Ultimately, under this scenario, access to the most popular museums might become as scarce and expensive as tickets to a Hamilton show. This would surely deal a heavy blow to the values of pluralism and accessibility driving so much of the mission discourse and work of museums. An unexpected consequence of surviving the pandemic could be increased exclusivity at the very time when museums have been striving to be more inclusive.

Challenge: Financial Sustainability

The first wave of reports coming in from the museums and culture sector are alarming. Hitting the pause button on a museum triggers significant complications for immediate financial sustainability, but the depth and breadth of the impact is likely to vary considerably depending on a number of factors. Small museums, like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, subsisting to large degrees on admission and store revenue, and lacking cash assets or big endowments, are particularly vulnerable to the rolling crisis affecting museums across the country. A lot of these small museums and other arts and culture institutions are signaling that they are in a fight for survival and will not make it without major investments of relief. Pausing, even for a short time, cannot be sustained. It’s an immediate existential crisis. We will have to accept that many of our most financially precarious museums will not recover and a massive shakeout will occur with all of the devastation that implies, to collections stewardship, the public commons and careers. It could be argued that, in the broadest possible sense, the museums that survive, will be highly dependent like never before, on the commitment of the communities that have sustained them. After several generations of discourse about why it is necessary for museums to cultivate and serve community, we are about to find out whether that relationship is truly reciprocal. For the museums that fail, the answer will have been no.

New York City Institutions Close To Public Amid Coronavirus ScareIt would be an illusion to think that the impact has reached only small institutions. Yes, large museums have certain advantages: generous support from national, state or local government, large endowments, cash reserves and other assets, excellent donor and foundation relationships, high attendance and other forms of public patronage. Yet, those institutions also have large expenses and, like small museums, are often highly reliant on earned revenue. Fixed costs entail basic heating and cooling of closed facilities, with baseline security, building maintenance, skeleton crew planning and communications comprising the “essential” workforce necessary to make it through the lockdown. The vast majority of museums have been forced to make layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts to contain hemorrhaging expenses. With depressing familiarity for anyone who has weathered the grueling parade of economic downturns of the last for decades, these cuts have usually been made in traditional fashion by separating “essential” from “non-essential” employees. Unprecedented, though, is the scale of the pandemic cuts, in some instances entailing indefinite layoffs of over 80% of staff. 

Still, not all museums are handling the staff reduction crisis in predictable ways. MASS Action has quickly rallied with a manifesto providing alternative strategies for absorbing the financial blows of coronavirus. Among other things, MASS Action encourages museums to take burden sharing steps that sustain staff across the board as much as possible, to make reduction steps equitable, and to exercise transparency and inclusion in the development of response plans. A silver lining of the pandemic might be that it affords museums an opportunity to explore new and lasting models for weathering institutional crisis and hardship in ways that are consistent with equitable values rather than with the usual brutal, utilitarian, bottom line strategies typical of the business world.

On other fronts, the inflexibility of dedicated endowments has come under scrutiny. The board of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has suggested that, under the pressure of the pandemic, it is prepared to loosen its rules for the use of endowments to support emergency operations costs where previously such moves were taboo. While it’s clear that AAMD has no real binding legal authority to permit this, the fact that a pandemic can provide the jolt necessary to second guess an important ethical constraint on endowments says a lot about how a crisis causes widespread discontinuity in a relatively static field. Indeed, critics have targeted museums with large endowments who have laid off staff, suggesting that binding donor intent is a poor excuse for not dipping into restricted funds when human needs are at stake in a global emergency. 

Before museums raid the endowment piggybank, even if the relevant laws allow it, it bears pointing out that the investment portfolios comprising endowments have taken a massive hit in the collapse of the financial markets in the wake of the pandemic. Most market observers agree that the volatility will continue and, given the future possibility of a recession rivaling the Great Depression in scale, these investments might not have bottomed out yet. Counter arguments will be made, probably by board fiduciaries, that cashing out endowment portfolios at the bottom of a bear market is a bad idea, indicative of irresponsible financial stewardship. Still, we’re seeing how unstable times can force drastic changes in the ordinary guiding principles if the struggle is for survival.

Museum StrikeThe layoffs and furloughs have had a way of surfacing some eye-catching realities of museum staffing and employment practices. Prior to the crisis, museums had already been following a number of emergent trends corresponding with the growth of the “gig economy” in the rest of the American workforce. Gig workers, e.g.: freelancers, contractors, consultants, adjunct faculty, independent self-employed earners, etc., now comprise over ⅓ of all American workers. Even as museums increasingly dealt with financial pressure by borrowing business-oriented strategies for reducing staff costs, employees in some places showed increasing interest in organizing unions to build bargaining power in their relationships to management. Following the first shock of museum lockdowns, in a report on layoffs of museum educators at the Museum of Modern Art, it was revealed that these educators were contractors, not regular payroll employees. While the outsourcing of certain museum functions has been a trend for some time, particularly in exhibit design, retail and food service, audience research, IT, marketing, planning consultants, and client representation and construction management for capital projects, the contracting of educators indicates an expansion of the outsourcing trend to yet another critical museum role. One may wonder whether curators are next. 

For museums under steady pressure to sustain themselves, it’s easy to grasp the bottom line rationale behind a practice that relieves ostensibly cash-strapped museums of the cost burdens of the benefits, office accommodations and other responsibilities necessary for employing full-time salaried professional employees. But if the trend mirrors the growing exploitation of adjunct faculty in colleges and universities, it might portend an evermore prevalent practice that museums become the kind of employers that entirely shed their responsibilities to fairly compensate and sustain their workers, reducing their contributions to a kind of professionalized piecework. In a time of intense financial crisis, it’s easy to see this trend accelerating even faster and the collective compensation and job security of museum professionals degraded even farther.

It would be extremely disappointing if museums were to become just another unprincipled bottom line employer to join the race to the bottom, further exacerbating the wage gap in the American economy, but a struggle for survival can pose severe challenges to even the most fundamental principles. This is an equity issue, but it also has implications for the quality of mission delivery. If contractors are seen as superfluous and can be excluded from the core operations of museums, relegated to plug-and-play integers easily contracted and dumped at will, it shows that the mission purposes these affected roles represent are regarded as extraneous as well. If respect for the museum educator profession can be degraded in this way, how can museums seriously regard themselves as educational institutions? The answer is, they can’t.

In this sort of exploitative employment relationship, it is impossible to see how a museum optimizes the accumulation of intellectual capital and expertise of its workforce. The contracting relationship also has the effect of separating the creation of the products from the served public. A full time staff professional lives and learns iteratively from their work. A mercenary, no matter how dedicated, knowledgeable and skilled they may be, is excluded from this privilege. As the corpus of what we know as “the museum” shrinks to a skeleton crew of administrators buying services, and with no workplace culture of expertise, commitment, vision and initiative, we see the prevalence of the “zombie museum” emerge. Without the the traditions, the values, the soul museum professionals bring to practice as full time salaried employees, you have zombie museums that don’t know what they don’t know and the museum profession reduced to peonage. 

A danger of the of the Covid-19 moment is that it forces a spasm of downward pressure on the compensation museum workers depend on to survive. If temporary pay cuts are allowed to become fixed, if laid off employees are replaced by low wage, piecework contractors, museums will have made the least of the crisis.

Stay Safe



Over the Transom: Why Is History Important?

Before I left my position at the Minnesota History Center leading the gallery program there, I used to get plenty of unsolicited communications “over the transom”–phone calls, comment cards and letters with praise or criticism, suggestions for exhibitions and programs we just had to do, offers to partner on a project, or requests for informational interviews were the most common. Sometimes, I would get a whole packet of love notes from students who enjoyed their field trips. Other times I got apologies from students whose teachers or chaperones felt they had been too rowdy during a visit.

Because I think museums have a deep responsibility to serve the public with respect, I always tried to follow up as best I could. One thing I experienced over and over again was how surprised a messenger was that I took the time to reply, which made me realize how many people who reach out to museums expect to be rebuffed.

Sure, a few of the calls, comments and suggestions were pretty far out. However they went, more often than not, the exchange was limited to one message and one reply or a brief conversation.

But, occasionally, these incoming messages from complete strangers led to review and revision of exhibit content, a change in program direction, meaningful phone calls and face-to-face meetings, extended relationships, and even major initiatives.

Over time, I came to understand that the efforts of these strangers were a gift it was my privilege to receive, even in those instances when reading or hearing what the messenger needed to express was humbling and painful to me. When we are prepared to listen, messages over the transom from strangers help museum professionals stay grounded and focused on what really matters.

One of these exchanges stands out for me. Maybe it’s because it happened fairly recently, but I also think it’s because the questions of a 7th grader made caused me to revisit my career and, by extension, my sense of purpose. It also made me think about how I could explain something so meaningful and important to me to a kid.


[Received as a letter by mail.]

September 12, 2016

Dear Mr. Dan Spock,

My name is Jay M___. I am a 7th grade student at Hmong College Prep Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. We are trying to decide why it is important to learn history.

Two ideas we discussed are:

  1. History helps us understand what it was like before we were born.
  2. History helps us understand past and present culture.

We are writing to people who Mr. M_____ thinks need to know history to do their jobs. I have two questions for you:

  1. Why is history important?
  2. How do you use history to do your job?

I hope you are able to respond to this letter, but I understand if you are not.


Jay M___


[Sent as a letter by mail.]

September 29, 2016

Dear Jay,

Thank you for your thoughtful questions about history! You can probably imagine that I LOVE history and I’m happy to tell you why. I’ll start with a story about my dog.

I had a wonderful dog named Milo who died a few years ago. He was a good boy and did everything you would want a dog to do. He would fetch sticks, point at rabbits, bark when somebody came to the house, did some cool tricks and was always friendly and kind to me and everyone he met. Still, there were times when he could not resist doing something he wasn’t supposed to, like stealing food off the table, or sleeping on the couch. If I got upset, you could tell he felt bad about it, but if he had the chance to do it, he would do it all over again. The thing is, he could never really remember anything after a minute or two. And that’s OK — for a dog.

There are people who can’t remember anything after it happens, but it isn’t normal like it is for a dog. Most of us will know someone like this someday. When a person can’t remember things, they can’t take care of themselves, work with other people, can’t make decisions or plan for the future. They don’t know who they are or where they are going. They can only react to things in the moment. You need memory to understand yourself and the people around you who influence your life. When you get older, the memories of things that have happened to you become a source of wisdom for making good choices, that experience guides you and grows through your entire life because you keep it in your memory. When you lose your memory, you become helpless. It is a disaster for you and everyone who knows you. The word for it is dementia.

Now think about people living together in your family, in your neighborhood, in your country, in your world. History is the memory of all those people put together. It gets saved on paper, digitally, or as places and other things so we can learn from other people’s experiences, even when we don’t have that story in our own life. This is a gift that gives us amazing advantages. When we learn history, it helps us understand others, where we have come from, and helps us make smart choices about where to go in the future. Without history, our communities, our country, become like my dog or someone who lost their memory. Without history, we just react to things in the moment because we can’t understand what is happening or why. Without history, we can’t learn from the past. The worst part is that when people don’t know history, they can misunderstand people who have different values, cultures, life experiences and histories. Terrible mistakes like war, prejudice and violence are usually caused when people don’t understand the history of other people or don’t know their own history.

In America, we are fortunate that we get to vote for the people who will make important decisions that will change our lives. When we know history, it helps us choose leaders who are wise. When our leaders know history, they are much, much wiser than leaders who don’t. If you learn history, you also learn that the greatest leaders in history learned from history too. A country full of people who don’t know history is like a person without memory — and that’s a disaster! The bigger and more powerful the country is, the bigger the disaster will be if too many people don’t know their history.

Sometimes I hear people say, “Why should I learn history? It won’t help me get a job!” I think that’s pretty ridiculous. If you use your brain for making a living, history will always give you an advantage. If you are a lawyer, knowing the history of law will make you better at your job. If you are a scientist, knowing the history of science will make you better at your job. If you are a car mechanic, knowing the history of cars will make you better at your job. If you are an architect, knowing the history of architecture will make you better at your job. If you are a designer, knowing the history of design will make you better at your job. If you are a musician, knowing the history of music will make you better at your job. If you are a coach, knowing the history of your sport will make you a better coach.

When I was a kid, I got interested in history by getting books out of the library that had a lot of pictures in them or by visiting old historic places where it felt like traveling back in time. When I read books, my favorites were biographies because I liked the stories of other people. It was especially cool when the biographies talked about someone famous when they were just a kid. My parents and grandparents also told me lots of stories about my family and I loved to hear about what they did in the past. I would think about somebody in the past and try to imagine what it was like for them. One important thing I learned was that everybody has a difficult time at some point in their life. I learned that you can make terrible choices, fail in front of everybody, but still bounce back. That meant a lot to me, because sometimes I had a hard time in school. When I was in 7th Grade, I already liked history, but I didn’t think I’d ever work in a history museum. I thought I would be a cartoonist! I spent a lot of my spare time drawing cartoons with my friends. When I went to college, I got my degree in art. I got my first job after college as graphic designer in a children’s museum. I found out that I liked to design museum exhibits even more than I liked drawing cartoons. I didn’t work in a history museum until I was pretty old — almost 40 — so it took awhile, but my interest in history really paid off. Now I get to run one of the coolest history museums ever.

When I think about running a history museum, I try to remember the things that interested me as a kid. For me, the facts and dates aren’t the most important part. For me, the stories of real people are the thing I feel are the most meaningful, that most people coming to the museum can relate to. I like to think about my museum being a big house of memories and stories for everyone to share.

Good luck Jay! It was really fun for me to figure out how to answer your questions.


Dan Spock, Director, Minnesota History Center Museum


[Received as an email.]

From: Jonathan M______

Date: Jun 9, 2017 3:15 PM

Subject: An Overdue Word of Gratitude

To: Dan Spock

Dear Mr. Spock,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to my student’s questions at the beginning of the school year. I very much appreciate you taking some time from your busy schedule to answer Jay’s questions.

Of all of the letters I received, yours resonated the most with my students and was one of a handful I plan to re-read to future classes (with your permission, of course). Speaking of which, I hope to bring future classes by the MN History Center next year!

Your response–along with the responses of 43 professors, politicians, non-profit leaders, writers, and others–helped provide a multitude of reasons for my students to actually care about history. Further, your explanation of how you use history to inform your own work helped my students appreciate the real-life applications of the class content.

On the final day of class, my students were tasked with providing their own answer to the question of why history is important. Here are some of the highlights:

  • “History is important because it teaches us about the past and why things happen or why something is like it is. And it also teaches us to respect the older generations that went through harder things to create our country, and our society.”
  • “History is important because it helps you understand why people behave in the way that they do. It helps us understand more about our own Hmong and Karen cultures, too”
  • “History is important because we can learn from our mistakes and we are able to find out why things happen in this world. And we can really understand someone’s background more if we go back through time to see what they’ve been through.”
  • “Learning history is important because understanding history allows us to make decisions that positively affect people.”

As educators, we are constantly seeking ways to engage our students in a meaningful way with our content area. Your letter helped me do just that.

With gratitude,




Exploring the Emotional Landscape of Risk and Failure

The following remarks were delivered in October 2016 at the invitation of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. The occasion was a fascinating symposium on the subjects of risk and failure bringing together museum professionals, academics, researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. With the benefit of hindsight, I had a lot on my mind at this point in time: a growing sense of unease about the direction of the 2016 presidential election (the election was just days away), and a dawning realization that it might be time for a major change in the direction of my career. The zeitgeist shows in the thinking, I only hope it still proves relevant today.

I’m going to start with a story. A few decades ago I was recruited as a team leader to create something new — a museum of creativity. It was supposed to be a museum devoted to the creative process rather than the products of creativity.

The supreme irony of this effort is that it failed. Yes, we utterly failed to create a museum of creativity.

With the benefit of hindsight, this was a transformational experience. I could not know it then, but our complete failure would inform my professional perspective for the rest of my career.

For one thing, this brief detour provided me with a crash course in creativity theory. We studied history, neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, anthropology, all manner of -ologies, in a desperate attempt to glean enough insight to render “the process” into meaningful and engaging museum exhibitions.

As the project went on, panic set in.

It was like trying to put a pin in an amoeba. Every time we thought we had creativity nailed, it turned into something else. The struggle got so stressful, that it haunted my dreams. I had a dream one night that I had reached a creative breakthrough. The breakthrough was that we’d do exhibits on people named Fuller. Specifically, the exhibits would be on R. Buckminster Fuller and Alfred C. Fuller, who, in case you don’t know, was the man who founded the Fuller Brush Company.

After fully feeling the elation of that creative insight, I awoke to bitter reality.

After a little inspiration and a lot of perspiration, our team was finally beginning to hit its stride at the precise moment our patrons lost interest. One day, after Christmas vacation, we were all canned.

In nearly every field today, experts talk about creativity as desirable. Economies are fired by it. Needs are satisfied by it. Entire regions are desirable to live in because of it. If you run a business or an institution, you better want it, or risk running aground on the shoals of relentless change.

Still, creativity is not a commodity that you can buy. You can hire creative people, but they will require care and feeding when they fail, and attention and resources when they succeed. Just as a creative person must be resilient and resolute in their pursuit of a problem, the complex system of support behind the creative person must also be resilient and resolute. Few are actually prepared to pay the full price of creativity and its uncertain rewards.

We talk about tolerance of risk and failure in the abstract, but little attention is given to the dominant attributes of risk and failure: the emotions of fear and shame. Let’s admit that we experience risk and failure as feelings — and those feelings can be crippling. Innovation nearly always swims upstream against a steady current of internal and external anxiety. Better get an appetite for ambiguity, or get out while there’s still time.

At the Museum of Creativity, one approach we took was to develop exhibits that were case studies. One of these cases was the Wright Brothers.

Superficially, you might think of them as risk-takers. After all, who in the world would trust their lives to a primitive flying machine?

But actually their breakthrough was due to a creative response to risk. While other powered flight pioneers like Santos-Dumont and Langley tried to hurl their machines into the air, the obscure bicycle mechanics put most of their focus on what they would do once they got into the air.

They’d watched their source of inspiration, Otto Lilienthal, plunge to his death in a glider, and they were anxious not to follow his example.

Their successful problem solving approach attacked the source of their anxieties head on. The secret to powered flight wasn’t merely how to get a technology off the ground, but how the hell you could control the thing once you got up there so you wouldn’t get killed.

Still, the native caution of the Wright brothers almost proved to be their undoing. They were so suspicious of others infringing on their patent, that for years after achieving flight, they refused to demonstrate their machine outside of the closest circle of trusted associates.

The Wright’s claims were widely derided by skeptics around the world. It took them five years of fruitless and stubborn struggle before they finally traded off their anxieties and demonstrated their aircraft to the public. The acclaim that followed was deserved, but in the meantime others had seized the limelight. Claims of who was first to fly have been contested ever since.

What we have in the Wright’s example is two approaches to risk, one productive and the other not. One channels anxiety towards curiosity, persistence and solutions, the other allows anxiety to block progress, recognition and results. Innovation can fail at any one of those stages.

When we look at today’s technology, one important way we work through our anxieties is through science fiction. Science fiction typically extrapolates from some worrying aspect of our contemporary society and imagines how that might be elaborated when taken to the extreme. Orwell looked at the rise of Totalitarianism around him and imagined Big Brother in a not-so-distant future.

Now Big Brother has arrived.

But what Orwell never anticipated was that our natural desire–our feelings–for human connection and community would compel us to sign up for Big Brother voluntarily.

I did. I’m sure most of you did too.

What Orwell also couldn’t imagine is that the natural restiveness of human beings would produce a vast, international subculture of renegade hackers and leakers, bitcoin, insurgent recruiting and The Dark Web.

He couldn’t imagine that the totality of available personal data would be scattered across an vast cloud of vulnerable server farms, that the power of Big Brother would be dispersed, pluralized, growing like a mold in the back of the fridge rather than held in the iron fist of one autocrat.

We now live in a world where all can be watched, and all can be watchers. As they used to say in high school, it’s all on your permanent record. Big Brother, it turns out, is all of us together.

What’s interesting to me is, not so much the rise of the surveillance aspect of the information society, but rather the incredibly blithe assessment of personal risk by nearly everybody who joins in.

We feel we need the purchasing power and legitimacy of credit and debit cards, the social cohesion and belonging of Facebook and Twitter, the convenience of Amazon, smartphones, the 24-hour news cycle, and online porn. And we need these things more than we need privacy.

Psychologists have noted that humans are generally terrible at accurately assessing risk. And this has everything to do with how we process fear. Terrorists and demagogues have made an art of this. We are distracted by the spectacular and limited act of violence, while the pot billions of us live in is slowly brought to a boil by global climate change.

Fear is a perfectly natural response to certain kinds of external threats. We are told that our fear response is an ancient adaptation for survival. It is prehuman and subcognitive, lodged deep in the animal part of our brains.

We experience fear before we are even consciously aware of it or put a name on it.

The emotion of fear cascades first from our amygdala, then through our central nervous system. and then our entire body. Our heart and respiratory rates climb. We grit our teeth. Our throat swallows hard. We flush and break out in a sweat. Our guts churn. The sensation overrides our rational faculties at first. We become aggressive or defensive, run away, or are simply paralyzed.

All of this is perfectly appropriate if you spend your days eluding sabretooth tigers. But this survival gear is hardwired into us every day, when we go to work in our office cubicles, conference rooms and executive suites. As creatures, these responses have evolved to become a critical part of our social interactions with other people. We experience fluctuating anxiety all day long to such an extent, that we are scarcely aware of it.

In my experience, it is not the rational assessment of risk or a considered aversion to failure that stops creativity cold.

Instead, it is the prevalence of fear in our response to the challenges creativity represents. When arousal becomes fear, it has the power to blot out curiosity, critical thinking, introspection, persistence, and resiliency…in short, all of the tools necessary for creative problem solving. Fear will always be with us. Fear can convert anticipation of success into a dread of public shame for failing. It is a part of being human. The question is, can fear be managed? Does it have to dominate our thinking, particularly when we seek to create and foster an environment in which creativity thrives?

Can we develop the insight necessary to identify and interrogate our anxieties so we can channel them towards the appropriate problems and problem solving strategies? Can we lean into anxiety instead of running away?

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes that a flow state occurs in a groove of deep concentration between anxiety and boredom. When our challenge is suited to our ability, we are not overwhelmed, nor do we find it tedious. We can concentrate, solve problems and be productive.  Sheer terror might exist on the end of a continuum beginning with attention, arousal and anxiety, but, at some point, for certain people, arousal becomes deep curiosity rather than fear. For some people failure becomes an engine for renewed curiosity, persistence and resiliency rather than shame and discouragement.

These people have the capacity for creativity.

I don’t think it’s a matter of vanquishing fear. Instead, I think we can look at anxiety as a perfectly natural–if not rational–alert system. The alert is trying to tell us something. It’s trying to tell us that, if we listen to it, and interrogate it, we just might learn something new. It might teach us something in the way of self-knowledge or something about the external world. It might teach us to pay attention to something we missed until that point in time.

Educator and philosopher John Dewey believed that learning was a byproduct of perplexity. When we encounter something new, it unsettles what we believe we know, or believe is true. Perplexity can feel like a threat. Many reflexively react to perplexity with resistance, hostility or denial.

When we look at museums today, we can talk about innovation, but in doing so we have to acknowledge something deep in the mindset of museums that makes innovation incredibly difficult.

In truth, the mission of every museum is a version of the Chicago Police Department motto: We Serve And Protect. As a cultural form, museums are designed to protect assets, and to provide cultural continuity. In this sense, our instincts are profoundly conservative. We love policies and resort to them in periods of uncertainty. Our fear that assets might be destroyed or that continuity might be disrupted drives our decisions far more than we consciously realize.

Why should this be so?

It’s not that we simply fear change. It is rather that we fear the loss that change represents. We can sense that creative destruction destroys the past. This engenders grieving for what is lost and nobody grieves loss more than museums.

Bob Dylan once said, “museums are cemeteries.” This might be unfair if it was just intended to describe a repository of dead things.

But another way of looking at this is the consolation the cemetery provides for those who are mourning. Museums in particular are a hedge against the obliteration of human meaning making, striving and achievement by the ravages of time. Because our inclination is to hold on to so much, there is terrific anxiety about what we might lose.

In museums, we grapple with technology in ways that betray our ambivalence towards technology’s change power.

We worry: Will it irrevocably change our relationship with the authentic object? Or with the public? Will it distract people from the important things? Will it undermine our authority? Will someone poke a hole in an artifact with a selfie stick? What about copyright infringement? Will people learn anything? What about, what about..?

Well, this conversation is already moving on without museums. We are living in the Anthropocene Age. This means that no matter who or what you are, you are living on a planet that has been irrevocably designed and changed by humans. A few years ago, an exhibit called Massive Change posed the question this way: Now that we can do anything, what will we do?

Fear of new technology is often revealed in the early forms it takes. An automobile first appears as a horseless wagon. A television appears in our living room disguised as a credenza. These nostalgic echoes give us consoling, psychic space for the new. It might take a generation or two before the technology is allowed to be what is really is in our lives. Until that time, technology masquerades as the familiar, a Trojan horse for change.

When it comes to technology in museums, we have to accept that it is here to stay. We have to push away our inclinations, driven by anxiety, to seek consolation in the familiar, to tack technology on as a glowing screen version of the hoary old object labels and audio tours. Or, conversely, to fall for its seductive siren song without really listening to our anxieties.

There is more computing power in my pocket right now than there was in the entire world I was born into 57 years ago. Think about what that means and ask whether an extended object ID label is a creative use of that technology in museums.

We forget that museums are themselves something relatively new. They have only become ubiquitous in the last century or so. In spite of their outward gravitas, there is no guarantee that they’ll be any more durable than department stores or newspapers. We might ask, what have they been masquerading as? What are they a Trojan horse for?

There is no turning back. As the slow-moving tortoises of the cultural universe, museums must ask: what is our niche? If we are eager to move forward, what will be give up? What can we destroy? Will that destruction be intentional or unwitting? Can we risk it? Can we see the promises ahead? Who are the leaders prepared to take the necessary risks? Can we support them in failure as well as in success? Can we bear the public shame of failure as a lesson for redoubling effort? Can we see our anxieties as avenues for exploration rather than as threats to be avoided at all costs?

Time will tell.

Museums, Romance and the Elusive Attentions of the Museum-goer

Last summer, I was drawn into an interesting conversation around a session for the 2017 American Association of Museum’s annual meeting. The session, initiated by Richard Rabinowitz, sought to “…critique the notion of attentiveness that has been an unspoken criterion for museum exhibits and programs…[to} explore whether the techniques developed by interpretive designers in the past generation— narrative, dialogue, interaction, simulation, role-playing, and other modes of experiential learning—can successfully meet the challenge of new cognitive styles brought by new and more diverse audiences…[and to] weigh in on whether museums need to and can develop new techniques, perhaps employing social media and multiple learning paths, and thereby redefine what we mean by an attentive audience.” In short, the question could be distilled this way: Is there an ubiquitous attention deficit disorder in the digital information age which has profoundly changed the way museum-goers learn? And, if so, does this demand a change in museum practice?

In the discussion, fellow panelist Alice Parman drew our attention to the writings of Alfred North Whitehead who theorized (way back in 1929) that all learning progresses through three stages, the first being romance in which the learner’s interest is aroused by some life experience igniting a curiosity and passion for further and deeper learning. Alice’s contention is that museums are particularly well adapted for inspiring this romantic stage of learning. I completely agree, and what follows are the remarks I delivered at the session elaborating on Alice’s timely reminder.

There is always a tension between what people find intriguing (or distracting) in the present and a more universal set of human wants and needs. In the moment, it can be hard to pull them apart. We can talk about what we perceive as new, but let’s also remember what is old. Museums have always been about seduction and we have to admit that our success as museum-makers in this regard has always been limited.

Think about a date with a cold, emotionally distant and didactic boor who only wants to talk about himself. Is that the guy you want a relationship with? Sure, some people wind up marrying that guy because they see the good in him, like how Elizabeth managed to warm up to Mr. Darcy. But that courtship took a long, long time to develop, a luxury most museums can’t afford.

There have always been a large number of prospective lovers who have resisted the amorous advances of museums. I do believe we need to go to charm school as a part of our practice. We need to be lovable or risk being loveless. Otherwise, who will care for us when we are old?

All great romances are built on reciprocity. Museum-goers love museums when museums show love in return. Ultimately, it’s a symbiotic relationship. In this culture and at this time, if we are to fall in love, the primary precondition is that we must be free to choose our lover. By the same standard, all the knowledge and good intentions in the world cannot cause a person to learn in the museum because the superpower of the museum is that the learner is completely free to take it or leave it.

How about we think of museum-going as a playful activity? Like loving someone or loving what you do? Courtship is a series of playful encounters when the process captures your imagination. It involves empathy, a fundamental imaginative process where we seek to understand what it is like to be another, making room for another in the space of your life. Museums might court their patrons as assiduously as people court each other.

Piaget defined play by two critical attributes: voluntary participation and doing it for its own sake: for pleasure. By this definition, it’s a misconception that play is the opposite of seriousness. This duality is rooted in a kind of secular Calvinism, in other words, an utterly unnecessary glorification of suffering. If we take Piaget at his word, a biologist who is motivated by sheer curiosity about the natural world, is playing. The historian who revels in detective work as they try to imagine and recreate the past by piecing together the scraps of evidence, is playing. The artist or writer who is absorbed in introspection and a desire to express what they find, is playing. It is not an accident of language that we “play” music or go to the theater to see “plays.” And this is something very serious.

If play has an antonym, it is not seriousness. The opposite of play is drudgery. In other words: doing shit because you have to, instead of doing it because you want to.

This helps explain why museums undercut their missions when they design approaches that feel obligatory, where museum-goers feel trapped, lectured at, hectored, or even shamed or scolded. Who wants to have dinner with a boor? Even a whiff of coercion is enough to end a romantic encounter. It’s a buzzkill. And the same goes for museums.

It’s useful to unpack pleasure while we’re at it, since pleasure is so often conflated with frivolity. Pleasure isn’t always something naughty or frivolous, nor is it simple. We humans experience pleasure in an awesome variety of ways, many of which can be pretty specific to us as individuals. Pleasure is terribly complicated. Sometimes we are attracted to a romance that is dangerous, unsettling, rationally inexplicable. On reflection, it becomes obvious that pleasure isn’t limited to warm-and-fuzzy sensations. Shakespeare’s most popular plays are tragedies, but 500 years later many of us still pay good money to have our feelings stirred by their moral dilemmas and ambiguities. Pleasure is often tinged with anxiety, wonder, sadness, astonishment, grieving or the realization of a new insight. Isn’t that strange and wonderful?

So let’s unpack the new, the current predicament we find ourselves in.

Are museums just a bunch of losers? Failures at romance? Wallflowers at the dance? Is anyone paying attention? Is the thrill gone? Does everyone have their noses stuck in the tiny screens on the supercomputers they carry around in their pockets to the exclusion of all else? Have attention spans grown too weensy for anyone to truly appreciate what we (museums) have to offer?

It is true that we live in a time of many distractions, but by most measures museums are still busy places. In 2017, just try getting a walk-up ticket at the National Museum of African American History and Culture or the Yayoi Kusama show at the Hirshorn.

As museum-makers, we forget that we serve human beings beyond the narrow confines of the prefrontal cortex. I’d like to pose some rhetorical questions that could help us focus on the things that help museum-goers focus.

Museums are a medium that can encompass every medium known to humankind. Did we think about which media delivery vehicle might optimize the experiences of a diversity of museum-goers? Did we consider a wow? Or two or three? If variety is the spice of life, museums are part of that variety. Here’s a t-shirt analogy: Did we give people a range of things to look at from XL down to XS? Did we go beyond objects and labels to think about the settings and the tangible and physical ways to interact? If we hoped people would linger, did we give them a place to sit down? Did we provide the physical and psychological conditions conducive to attentiveness? Did we reward attentiveness?

Did we show things that have stories? Not a thesis, but drawing some perceptible and compelling connection to the lives of our fellow human beings? Were these people from all walks of life? Did we give consideration to the variety of people who come and pick stories that might resonate for many rather than for a select few? Do we think about the stories museum-goers bring with them and might later tell about their experiences with us? Did we think about who museum-goers are today and are likely to be in the future?

Did we stage things as a kind of drama where museum-goers participate, not merely as audience members, but as roleplayers? Was there an opportunity afforded to express oneself? Or did we stop at thinking only about what we wanted to express?

Did we study methodically by watching and listening to our guests? Did we honor what we learned from them and find a way to respond? Did this encounter change us as practitioners?

Did we recognize the social nature of museum-going and find ways to reinforce and reward the natural desire to see, talk, share, and learn with others?

Curiosity begins as a feeling. Inspiration is a feeling. Romance begins as a feeling. Did we reach people emotionally as well as cognitively? Did we plan and design for that? Did we think about what might cause someone to stop and pay attention? Did we try to inspire curiosity, or did we merely throw stuff out there with no thought to the potential impact?

Museums are better at prompting curiosity than satisfying it. Were we disciplined label writers? Did we anticipate the questions visitors are most likely to have?  Did we pile on too much written information with labels starting above the head and nattering on below the knees? Did we write for our colleagues rather than for our guests, using insider language to exclude, knowingly or unwittingly, a broader swath of readers? Did we bury the lead, relegating the most interesting tidbit to the fourth paragraph? Did we acknowledge the mystery inherent in every discipline?

Did we buy that app just to pile on more information in addition to the info on the wall labels?

Our date might appreciate it if we buy them a pizza. It could get a little awkward if you buy more than your date can eat. But we never expect a date to consume the entire pizza with one mouthful, right?

If any of these questions are unfamiliar to the museum planners among us, I would suggest that we haven’t done everything we could to attract attention and generate romance.

Attention is a form of energy. We wake up each day with a fund of it, and we begin spending down that fund the moment we open our eyes. It is human nature that this fund is limited and must be restored. We have known for over a century that museums can be exhausting. It takes a lot of strength and endurance to love a museum.

We can squander energy on so many irrelevant and irritating things.

We have to be mindful not to beat the energy out of people. Our mission is to sustain the delight and playfulness inherent in the relationship.

Yes, romance can be stoked by the grand gesture, but it is also nurtured by a thousand small considerations; empathetic acknowledgements of our partner in the affair. Courtship means conceding some of our own prerogatives to show we care about someone other than ourselves. A little empathy. Is that so hard?

When a person invests their energy with us, it is an expression of romantic hope. People don’t very often come to museums closed to the experience any more than we go on a date with someone appealing without anticipation. The museum-goer is already in a receptive frame of mind. They tell us that by showing up. With all the competing distractions, they picked us! Wow! Imagine that.

Museum-goers want to fall in love with us. They really do. They want to laugh and cry, reflect on their lives, raise children with us and grow old together. Let’s not leave them looking for love in all the wrong places.