All This Thinking is Counter-Productive

Yesterday’s work day was simultaneously one of the best and worst work days ever. Our network was completely down (and remains largely down today), giving me a very limited subset of tasks I could work on. Simple tasks that I blew through in just a few minutes. So I basically goofed off on the web all day.

I feel guilty about that in the sense that I know I’m not getting paid to just goof off. But I also feel guilty about it in some other, more profound way. That I don’t give a sh*t that that’s how I spent my day.

After months of un- and under-employment in 2010 and 2011, I finally landed this job. And I was, and continue to be, grateful for that. Even more grateful for the fact that I was more than 6 months pregnant when I started here. And that my workplace is so accommodating and understanding of the new rhythm of my life. Like needing some time to adjust to the schedule of getting to work with pants on. I have a lot to be thankful for: I have an amazing boss. I make a decent living. I have benefits. But I don’t love my job. I don’t love the line of work I’m in. It just doesn’t excite me or inspire me. If it’s too much to ask to do work that you’re really designed to do, that you are enthusiastic about, that provides the work environment and work style you desire, and at which you are driven to excel, then honestly? I’d rather just be home with my baby.

Having nothing to do but idle time to pass away in my cubicle yesterday was not a good thing because it sent me down a path of re-examining my career and life path yet again. I sat there in my cubicle thinking. And while thinking may be dangerous, it’s all I could do. Well, I mean, besides watch youtube videos of dogs.  Or babies. Or dogs and babies.

The result of all that thinking was a deafening cry inside my head: I want to be productive. I want to work hard. But I want to work for myself. If nothing else, if I worked for myself, woke up one morning, and the network was completely down? I wouldn’t sit there and stare at a blank screen all day like an automaton. I’d go out and live life. Read, nap, go for a hike, take a scenic drive. The possibilities are endless. Bonus: a little break would have reinvigorated me for when it was time to work again.

Coincidentally, I happened to read a blog post last night by someone who talked about losing his job suddenly and needing new work ASAP, who wrote “All I need is to be working with smart passionate people, flexible hours and the ability to work from anywhere. A cubicle is my death. I’ll take it if it’s all I can find, but I’d prefer to work from home and fly anywhere for meetings/face to face time.” Well said, my friend. I work in a cubicle, though that, in and of itself is not the problem. The last museum I worked for, I worked in a cubicle and worked with some of the most talented, funny, amazing coworkers friends ever. If we could have run away to found our own creative firm offering our services as a web designer, writer, graphics/visual artist, and editor, I totally would have. Except that we would have needed insta-clients, and lots of them, because all of us have piles of bills to pay.

Some of it has to do with the stupidity of playing working by the rules. Whether it’s that I have to show up & sit here in a cube for 8 hours even though none of us can get to a single work file, or that I can’t install Flash because I don’t have Admin user privileges even though I produce Flash videos for my job, or that I can’t listen to music on my computer even though I work at a music museum, whatever the workplace is, it has inane, inexplicably dumb rules. I want to live life by my own terms and work by my own rules. Work when I’m ready to work, rather than staring at a blank screen trying to get motivated because I haven’t yet had my coffee and had to be at work at 8:30 even though I’ve been up with a baby since 3:30. Or that I didn’t get to bed with the baby til 3:30. Cuz everyone knows, if you work from 11-7, your quality of work is just total sh*t compared to the quality of work you produce on no sleep between 8:30-4:30! Write about topics that I’m interested in, rather than digesting & regurgitating the most boring information to a general audience. And produce deliverables that match my expectations of high quality rather than pass off “meh, it’s ok, but at least it’s on time” stuff because of someone else’s constraints.

That could be the biggest thing. There’s nothing more frustrating at work than having to compromise, or even abandon your vision. That’s been one of my frustrations with everywhere that I have worked since grad school: not being in control over the quality of the work products I deliver. In grad school, I was in total control over the quality of my research sources, the level of my analysis, and the craftsmanship of my writing. But working for someone else is a whole different story. It’s awful to have a product “represent” you that you don’t feel is the type or quality of work you do best. Because I have worked only for nonprofits, I’m always on a shoestring budget, but I don’t always know the external constraints. Like when your boss tells you you’ve got a $25,000 budget for an exhibit, and you spend $4,000 only to be hauled into her office and told that you’ve “gone over budget.” How? Because she was working on the assumption that $22,000 of that “budget” was for your own salary. (And you were working on the assumption that budget = money one can spend. Because that’s what the word means). Or how you get “voluntold” at work to produce a professional instructional video in 3 months but you get told by the videographers that they can’t work you into their schedule in that time frame, so the best they can do is hand off some B-roll footage and let you work your own magic. When you’re in control of your own product, you know what’s within your abilities and limits and don’t overextend that by taking on projects and agreeing to ideas that compromise your vision. And you’re clear on the rules of engagement.

Here’s the thing: I feel like I finally deserve to find work that works for me. Until this job, I spent my work life trying to make a career out of museum work, and it’s just not there to be made. Museum work is tireless, thankless, and undervalued. It demands a lot of your time, your efforts, your patience, and your resources, but does not deliver equivalent opportunities for personal and professional growth, upward mobility, and, most importantly, work-life balance. Sure, you can rise through the ranks. Either incrementally and over a long period of time, working your way up in a large institution where you must summon the patience to spend years doing menial work that inexplicably demands a Master’s degree waiting for a vacancy for which you have been groomed over time to materialize. Or you may rise through the ranks at a tiny institution well before you are equipped with the skils, abilities, leadership, and network to tackle the frequently insurmountable problems of a small and increasingly irrelevant institution. I gave both a shot, and neither path worked out for me.

Then, when I was laid off by the last museum, I spent my time scrambling, trying to find any job that fit my existing skill set, hoping things would work out for the best. And the side effects aren’t shabby: a steady job that uses the skills that I learned used in museums – research, writing, editing, teaching, and a little design  – a decent paycheck with benefits, and the best boss I’ve had since 2006.

But I want more. I don’t want to try to squeeze myself into a new career that doesn’t fit me exactly right. All that thinking time yesterday reaffirmed that I’ve got to figure out how to make my next work move be to work for myself.

Underdevelopment

All I do at work anymore is fundraise. The annual fundraiser is in three weeks, and my coworker (singular) and I have been working our asses off to make it go smoothly. I cannot believe how poorly planned the event is. With the Boss on her maternity leave, it’s up to me and the administrative assistant to make it happen. The board committee shows up for weekly meetings during which they play on their Blackberrys under the table while half-heartedly listening to whether we should have the same dessert as last year or a new one. The meeting breaks, an hour and a half later, with no decision made. The only decision is that we should all email our choice by 2 pm tomorrow.

Instead of all the work I came here to do — collections management, archival digitization, exhibit development — I spend all of my time putting together packages for the upcoming Silent Auction, take reservations for the event, book bands and photographers, and work as a bartender at all of the other smaller special events. This upcoming fundraiser is mission critical. It raises all of our operating expense fund for the entire upcoming year. All of our operating expenses.

My boss has all but said that the next year depends entirely upon the money raised at this event. But never having done this before, there’s no training, no help, nobody who did this last year to walk me through this. Until the museum can create a stable financial base, all of my efforts are going to be oriented to the season’s fundraiser. In the spring, it’s the major annual fundraiser. In the fall, it’s gearing up for a booksigning and lecture. In the winter, it’s a holiday themed dinner. And in the new year, it’s another booksigning and lecture. The museum has zero endowment, and barely scrapes together enough to pay its staff.  I have no idea why the museum decided to spend their hard-earned money on me, who has very little experience in special events and fundraising, when they could have spent their funds more wisely on a development director to raise money.

An Unlikely Ally

The other shoe dropped. Today my boss presented to myself and the president of the board her plan for her maternity leave. She’s taking her leave starting now, even though the baby’s not due for another two weeks. And then after her six weeks off, she’s returning to work.

Via telecommute. From home. Part time.

So I’m going to continue to be expected to handle all on-site concerns and duties. For six months after her maternity “leave” ends. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

But something interesting happened at this little get-together too. I have never really had any interaction with the board president, partly because it’s not my place and partly because she and my boss seem so buddy-buddy. So it was weird when the board president had my back during part of the meeting.

The Boss announced that the next exhibit would open in October. The board president lost it. She said that it is totally unrealistic and unfair to expect an exhibit to fall into place in 7 months, especially given all of my other responsibilities and immediate priorities. The Boss insisted it was “fine” and that it “has to happen. Period.” (Of course it’s fine for her! She’s not doing any of the work!)

The board president persisted. She is an exhibit developer for another museum and she said that at her institution, they take up to 2 years to put together new exhibits, because it takes that long to research and develop content, fundraise, write the text, gather the visuals, select the artifacts, prepare the gallery, and install the exhibit. The Boss, having zero experience in exhibit development, drew a line in the sand. “We have never taken more than a year to put together an exhibit and I’ve already committed to an October opening and that’s when it will open. I’ve told potential sponsors that it opens in October.”

My boss went straight from her MA into being a museum director. She’s never worked in exhibits, education, collections, or anything else. She has no clue what it takes to put together an exhibit. She couldn’t articulate the steps that have to happen if her life depended on it. And since she rules with an iron fist, when I tell her that I can’t accomplish a given task in the time allotted to me, she sees that as my own shortcoming, that I’m disorganized and not managing my time wisely. But maybe she’ll listen when the board president speaks.

Phone Tree

If you call a major museum and ask for the curator, you probably get handed off to some assistant to the assistant curator, or the registrar, or an office manager. If you call my museum and ask for the curator, you get me.

99 percent of these calls shouldn’t even make it to me, but our front desk volunteers are ancient and can’t follow instructions, nevermind filter my calls. So they just send them straight through to me. I get dozens of the following questions weekly, if not daily. You get to choose the proper response from the choices provided under each question.

1.  I have an old newspaper / rock / dinosaur bone. I’m at the front desk. Can you come tell me what it is?

a) No. We are unable to provide identification and authentication services (not to mention we don’t collect newspapers or dinosaur bones or rocks).

b) Screw you. I’m not an on-call curator.

c) Oh Goody! A Newspaper / rock / dinosaur bone! I’ll be right up!

 

2. I have a Declaration of Independence, and I want to sell it to you. How much is it worth and how much will you give me?

a) At this time, our museum does not have any funds available for the purchase of artifacts. More importantly, it is against museum policy to provide any authentication, monetary valuation, or appraisals for any items. I am happy to provide you with a list of professional appraisers.

b) Ha-ha SUCKER! I hate to tell you this, but the chances of your document being authentic are slim to none. Can’t wait to see the look on your face when the documents dealer tells you as much! How much did you pay for it?

 

3. I have a very urgent research question and hope you can help me right away. [15 minute story about the person’s great grandmother] Can you help me with my geneaological research?

a) Our archives and library are open by appointment only, according to museum policy. You are welcome to make an appointment with me to come in and use our archives and library for your research. My earliest opening is…

b) Who cares?! Your stupid genealogy is neither my problem nor in my interests.

c) I know you’ve got no one to talk to besides your 17 cats, but I’ve got better things to do. Could you hurry the hell up here?!

A Tale of Two Departments

To say that my boss is a micromanager would be wrong. She is a micromanager who does not communicate. I am expected to know what she wants and how she wants it done, but I only find out when I’m doing the wrong thing and doing it wrong. When it comes to my department, she tells me what my priorities should be, in which order I should be doing things, and how to go about doing them.

I feel like she just does not get that people have different work styles, and that that’s okay. The Boss doesn’t seem to understand how much time I need for thinking, contemplation, and the actual steps it takes to put a project together from beginning to end. I’m not asking for weeks to mull things over. It’s just that I would like a little more lead time on things. If today is the first time you mention a grant application that’s due tomorrow at noon, don’t expect my finest work.

She is applying for a grant to create a paid internship position at the museum in my department, and she wanted to get “examples” of the kinds of projects that I would have my intern working on. This is easy. The collections are largely undocumented and almost wholly uncatalogued. Only about 0.012 percent of the collections are catalogued in the database. So I would definitely have my intern cataloguing. That is a real-world job skill. You have to find the documentation, learn the collections management database, digitize any photos or documents associated with the object, do data entry, and research, measure, photograph, and describe each object, then label it and return it to storage. You learn object handling, photography, research, database administration, and have a sense of real, measurable accomplishment.

Her response? “That is not a valuable project. The intern has to LEARN something. They have to be doing something that contributes to our needs but also improves their own skills and abilities, that gives them real-world museum experience, hands-on. Sitting in front of a computer all day is not appropriate.”

Funny, cause as a grad student, I did three internships in three different museums and archives. And all three of the internships were….cataloguing a collection. Sure, there were other projects along the way, but the bulk of my work at all the internships was cataloguing. I think as a curator and the direct supervisor of whomever this intern is, I know what they should be working on and I definitely know what my departmental needs are, other than a NEW BOSS.

For contrast, I present you with the Education Department intern. Before Twitwit was fired, she had arranged for a college student to work in the Education Department full-time (40 hours per week) for 4 weeks starting today. She had arranged no specific project or details. The intern arrived from Connecticut with no idea what she would be doing here or what would be expected of her. Since I’m the de facto Education Director, the Boss has instructed me to orient, train, and supervise this new intern. When I asked her what I should have the intern doing, she said: “That’s for you to determine.” Um, I’m not an Education Director and don’t really know what the fuck she should be doing. How about a hand here? She has no understanding of the amount of time and planning it takes to create a project for an intern and then hand hold them through every step of the way, especially one who is here full-time for the next four weeks, during which I’m supposed to be preparing for and then overseeing the move of all collections, on top of the usual working the front desk and developing the new exhibit.

It’s official. I’m looking for other work.

Employer of the Month

One of the problems with working as much as I have been is I’m getting run down and sick a lot more often. Today I called in sick with strep throat. I can barely talk and I feel like crap. But not nearly as bad as I felt when the Boss yelled at me for taking a sick day.

The crypt keepers volunteers meet once a month and have a speaker give a presentation before they hang out and bitch for the rest of the morning. Today I was scheduled to lead a brief talk. I was supposed to pull some things from the collection and do a show and tell for the volunteers. The collection is full of wickety wak and so when it came to picking items, I thought, I’ll just do some pottery. I know a lot about prehistoric southwestern pottery, we have a lot to choose from, and it’s easy to just pick a few and talk off-the-cuff about this stuff. I figured I’d do a 10 minute introduction to the types of pottery and describe what’s important about each type, and then just answer questions and let the volunteers examine the ceramics up close. The volunteer association is so casual. They always have a group activity or game to fall back on if the presentation isn’t long enough or, less likely, if they run out of stuff to bitch about.

So I didn’t think it was a big deal to call in sick. Even if I could have come in, I have strep throat and couldn’t talk, not to mention these elderly volunteers do not need any more opportunity to come down with something. So imagine my surprise when the Boss bitched me out about how inappropriate it was that I called in sick when I had obligations and how irresponsible it was of me not to save my presentation on the server so that someone else could give my presentation in my absence, and that I would be written up for this incident.

I’ve always taken pride in my work. My work is important to me. It matters that I do a good job, I see work as a reflection of myself, and I want to be good at my job. So it’s very upsetting to me that I’m not living up to my own standards these days. I feel overwhelmed and the work that I’ve been producing does not meet even my lowest level of acceptable quality. I don’t need your yelling at me to make me feel any worse than I already do.

It’s demoralizing to work for someone who doesn’t seem to value my input and to have my opinions dismissed so readily. It sucks to work for someone who seems not to understand what I have to offer. It’s frustrating beyond belief to be spread so thin that I can’t do high-quality work because I’m doing too many things. It’s made me question my abilities as a museum professional. Nay, as an employee, period.

I’ve become someone who does things half-assed just to get them done, rather than do them right, because there isn’t enough time to get things right.  I don’t feel appreciated. I don’t feel like my boss understands my work style, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, and limitations. I get dinged just because the way I go about something isn’t the way she would. And it’s hard to communicate with someone who always has a look on her face and a body language that say “What the fuck do you want now?” Her feedback is closer to “this is all your fault and here’s why” than to “what we need to work on is…” I came here with such high hopes, the confidence that I had the abilities to make a meaningful difference. But I work for a bully who likes to make other people feel bad about themselves. Thanks, but I got that all under control on my own.

Go-to IT

Once again, I tried to get my boss to wrap her brain around the series of tubes. And again, I got nowhere with it. Disgusted by our website, I suggested that we could start with rebranding our museum exhibits in the least expensive medium available — our website.

To me, traditional and online exhibits are equally necessary. In today’s world, you cannot have a static, crappy museum website. At museum association meetings, museums continually raise the issue that potential audiences are increasingly fractured and it’s going to get harder and harder to attract and retain audiences. People have a lot of options when it comes to their free time — movies, sports, video games, recreational drug use — and folks often choose something other than museums. Well, y’know, if we spent a quarter of the time developing rich and engaging websites, and just playing with the many technologies and ideas available to us — we wouldn’t be 40 years behind the times, we’ll only be 15 and closing the gap. It is unrealistic to think that people will use a museum website only to figure out your hours and phone number. Yes, people want to know your hours and location. But they also want to get a sense for your brand, what you’re all about to make an informed decision about whether or not to spend their time (and money) in your museum.

The web is a 24-hour environment. People could want to know about your collections, the local history, your current exhibits, and your special events at any moment. And every time someone clicks on our website only to find a 1995-designed site (think geocities) with craptastic content is an opportunity lost. I have tried fruitlessly to convince my boss of the importance of this. I came into this position with far more experience in web exhibit development than “regular” exhibit development, but she just doesn’t seem to get it. The fact that our website is a portal back to the days of Gopher and Telnet both implicitly and explicitly reinforces our backasswards interpretation and indicates to potential visitors that if they want current, cutting-edge, and modern, we are not the place. She just does NOT get this. She thinks that we should stick to “being historians.” I may be a historian, but I’m also aware that the web is for content-delivery, not just bells and whistles of cool special effects and flash. And as a content creator, I am willing to put any delivery method to use, and the web is the easiest and most effective way to reach the greatest audiences.

One thing was clear from our conversation. I know far more about technology than anyone else with whom I work. Which is scary because I know only enough to be dangerous. I think sometimes people confuse my understanding of these words and concepts with having the skills to make it happen. I know exhibit development, and I have a good eye for what makes good design. But that doesn’t mean I know web design. It doesn’t mean I know CSS & HTML backwards and forwards. If I did, I assure you, I’d be making a helluva lot more money and working many fewer hours.

How do we Get There?

My inquiry into the museum’s past helped me understand where the museum was and where I think it should be. Over the past couple of days, that distance has grown exponentially as I mentally list all of the steps that have to take place on my end to make that happen.

Museum exhibits and educational programs are the public face of the institution. They are, in effect, the museum’s identity. The most any average visitor interacts with a museum is typically a visit to the website and a brief tour of the exhibits. If the museum’s website is static and uninviting, what makes the person want to come see more? And then once they get here, if the exhibits are dated, boring, and racist Whitey-centric, then what does that say about the institution? Since that’s not the message I want to get across, the museum desperately needs new exhibits.

Exhibits are typically based on what the museum has in its collections. So in order to revamp the exhibits, I need to get to know the collections. Since only 300 of the 25,000 or so objects we have are catalogued, that’s a tall order. For several reasons. One, the items that have been catalogued might be nice to look at, but they aren’t necessarily significant or illustrative of any particular historical period or theme. That box full of 30 wedding veils has some nice examples of lacework, but unless I’m talking about women’s fashion through the ages or even domestic gender roles, I’m not sure I’m going to need them. Two, the items that are significant don’t necessarily meet our current mission. We have an amazing collection of contemporary Hopi decorated pottery. But the museum’s mission is to interpret the history of the local metropolitan area, and Hopi live about 250 miles away. Three, the documentation that we have is often problematic when it comes to provenance.  Just because someone said on their donation form that this is the quilt that Abraham Lincoln slept under doesn’t make it so. I’m a historian — I need proof. Four, the stuff that the museum has consists of unsolicited donations. So while we have some nice things, there are enormous gaps for which we have virtually nothing to exhibit. I’m glad that we have thousands of textiles, kitchen wares, and jewelry from the Victorian era. But most of the area’s history lies in the 20th century, and so far I’ve come across virtually nothing from the 20th century. (Could be because a lot of families are still passing down their 20th century stuff and aren’t ready to let it go yet. Could be that a lot of the 20th century hasn’t gotten to an age where it’s considered “historic” yet. And it probably has a lot to do with the urban influx of people from other places — most people who live here aren’t from here. But none of that solves the problem of having virtually nothing to “show” for the 20th century.) And five, how am I supposed to exhibit the stuff that lies so far beyond the museum’s purview that it verges on ridiculous? Why in God’s name, for instance, do we have a whale bone? Or a rare mineral from Michigan’s upper peninsula?

As you can see, improving our understanding of the collection takes time. There’s a learning curve for the information we do have, and then there’s thousands of items for which I’ll have to generate new information through research. And when my time is divvied up among giving tours to second graders 4 to 16 hours per week, staffing the front desk 8 to 16 hours a week, writing grants, endlessly frustrating meetings with the Boss, working as a bartender at fundraisers, and recruiting new volunteers, how the hell can I carve out the time necessary for brainstorming, research, and writing? Not to mention sleep.

One of the ways that I’ve proposed to make progress is to work on our website. Our website is pathetic. Static, dated, and whatever is the opposite of interactive. It is an embarrassment. Even in trying to promote us, it fails miserably. For the content on the museum’s collections, someone (my predecessor?) wrote the following: “All cultures and ethnic groups that have been instrumental in shaping the economic, social, and political development of Phoenix both prehistoric and historic, are considered part of Phoenix history and related materials are sought for the collection.” The fact that you feel the need to point out that diverse people are, in fact, part of the area’s history means that you’re officially old school. That’s a given! Saying it is like saying “I’m not racist. I’m aware that there are other kinds of people. Even the ones with brown skin.” If you really want to represent diverse cultural history, you wouldn’t talk about it, you would be doing it. And by the way, “economic, social, and political” are exactly the kinds of history I don’t do. I am a cultural historian and anthropologist — I look at things like food, music, religious practices, clothing, and cultural and community traditions. Economic, social, and political history are also officially old school. It’s the kind of history that makes people fall asleep. You want them to get excited about coming in as a result of stumbling across our site. You want them to feel like there’s going to be something fun and interesting to see once they get here. You don’t want museum visitors to feel like they can come in to take a nap.

I am by no means a web designer, but I have put together web exhibits and I’m really into the online environment. I’m good at research and content development. It’s a way to reach new customers 24/7, it’s a way to brand ourselves on the cheap until we can revamp our exhibits in real life, and it’s a way to delve into topics that we don’t go into in our static, boring, snooze-inducing exhibits. It’s a salvo, if you will. A beginning, not an end. A way to start dialogue, to attract new audiences, and to begin to be taken seriously. You can’t actually think that this web phenomenon is a passing fad. Which is why I taught myself stuff like Dreamweaver, CSS, & html as part of my skill set for museums. Not enough to do web design and development professionally, but enough to enhance the delivery of my subject knowledge. And enough to talk with web designers semi-intelligently about things like rollover effects, clean layout, RSS feeds,  limiting the use of distracting and unnecessary plug-ins, and mastheads. It’s not enough to be doing traditional in-person exhibits or writing articles anymore, you must have a decent understanding of the web’s potential, web 2.0 concepts, and a working knowledge of how to put these technologies and media to use for the benefit of your museum. When I talk to the Boss about it, I can see that these things sail over her head. She doesn’t value the importance of a professionally designed and regularly updated website. She sees this as an opportunity to save money on an “unnecessary” expenditure. She doesn’t understand that this is a missed opportunity. I brought her the idea of revamping our website, and was taken aback when she chided me for getting “off track” and straying from the “tasks at hand.” Yes, I’ve got a lot on my plate. But web development goes hand in hand with the other tasks ahead of me and the strategic planning for the institution. It’s already bad enough that the place I work is the laughing stock museum in the local museum circles. But ignoring our website only makes it worse.

A Tale of Two Museums

Now that I’ve been here at my museum job a couple of months, I’ve started to realize just how much work lies ahead. I was lured here to a small local history museum with the promise of what’s to come, the vision that strategic planning was well underway and that plans were being laid to get us from Point A to Point B – from a museum that presents outdated (and just plain inaccurate) history to one that will become a place for people to explore this region’s diverse peoples, cultures, stories, and communities. But now that I’m here, it’s clear that I stand on the edge of a vast chasm between where we are now and where we want to be. It’s hard to see how we can manage to raise the funds needed to completely overhaul all of the exhibits, expand our building with new construction, and become a “top tourist destination” (truly, that is an official strategic planning goal) when we rely on volunteers to kindly donate basic office supplies like pens and paper.

I wondered if the museum’s past could shed any light on this. Had the institution successfully overcome such daunting challenges in its past? The short answer: hell no!

I started my investigation by listening to volunteers. Some have been with the museum for over a decade and I learned a lot from talking with them. The biggest theme running through all of my conversations with them has been that they all long for the good ole days, the way the museum used to be. The way they described it, it was like where I stood was the site of a bomb blast and all I saw were charred remnants of what once was. It became clear that the museum they cherished had somehow changed dramatically, and they were skeptical of where the museum was going. While no one articulated exactly what had changed, or in what ways, I sensed that they felt that the museum had lost its way.

I wanted another point of view, so I went to the Boss. Her take helped shed light on specific events that rocked the institution. The museum always faced enormous financial hardship, but in the 1990s, things went from bad to worse. The museum’s then executive director wanted to spend his way out of irrelevancy. He took on a mountain of debt to finance a staff that grew to dozens, hired professional consultants for (incomplete) exhibit development and (poor) design, and boosted morale with extravagant staff happy hours, with the museum footing the bill. By the time of the executive director’s sudden death, all staff had been let go, and the museum was taken over full-time by unpaid volunteers. For years, these unpaid volunteers ran the museum and made enough headway on keeping collections agencies at bay that the board was finally able to hire a full time executive director (the Boss) in the mid-2000s. Since her start, the Boss has worked tirelessly to reduce the museum’s debt load, halting all purchases and expenditures save those deemed absolutely necessary. Which explains why we kept a wish list for basic office needs so that volunteers could provide our supplies, like paper for the copier and pens. And why the museum went 18 months as a staff of three before I was hired.

Things were getting clearer for me. The volunteers resented their loss of authority and power and felt displaced by paid staff after they had spent years running every aspect of the museum. The staff struggled to establish professionalism in a museum that had relied on well-meaning volunteers who, in reality, had no business running a museum. In an effort to re-draw boundary lines around responsibilities, tasks and duties that the volunteers had handled became staff-only and the staff began to exclude volunteers in strategic planning, branding, and institutional goals.

But things finally became clear to me after I stumbled on an institutional history of the museum. The museum was founded 80 years ago as a pet project by a woman who started a local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. Her thinking was that any “real” American city should have a museum. While she meant well, she had no business running a museum. She ran off early supporters of the museum (who went on to found the Heard Museum) and struggled to garner financial and community support. She failed to establish a mission for the museum, and as a result, the museum never developed any identity or brand. At the same time, she wrote a museum charter that requires (to this day) that the museum maintain formal affiliation with the local DAR chapter. She failed to steer the museum in the right direction and ran it into the ground for 60 years before her daughter took over for the next 20 years, until the museum finally hired its first museum professional. It was run by professionals for only a few years before volunteers again had to pick up and dust off the flailing organization.

Is it any wonder that today the museum faces such enormous challenges? Today we want to escape the DAR image of celebratory Whitey history, a move that will alienate the very constituency that currently supports the museum. At the same time, the museum must escape this Whitey-centrist interpretation to gain any semblance of professional respect and to expand its base of support, increase its audiences, and be taken seriously. The stories that the volunteers hold dear are the very ones that construct this mythic narrative of conquering and “civilizing” the west. The museum that the staff envisions is miles away from the one that is, and the museum that the volunteers value is one whose time has passed.

Here We Go Again

Yesterday was a rough day.

One of the fundamental things that I expect from a boss is that s/he will be a leader, a visionary who can guide the organization. But the other is that s/he will be someone to whom I can take my questions and concerns so that we can work towards solutions together. Yesterday I went to the Boss with a major problem — I have to present a program tomorrow to 250 kids and as of this moment, still have nothing to present. Today I’m stuck at the front desk taking admissions all day, so I thought I came prepared — I brought all of my notes and files up to the front desk to work from the computer there all day.

No dice. On an average day, that 386 is so slow it’s ridiculous. But today I can’t even get Word to load, and it can’t make a connection to the network, which is a problem because the files I need are on the server. I called the Boss (who is at home today, leaving me as the only staff person on site) and her response?

“We have to do a better job taking care of the equipment we have. We may not have the nicest computers or projectors or whatever, but we are responsible for taking care of what we have. I can’t help it if you are not taking care of the equipment you are provided. I’m not going to call some computer repair company to come in and tell us that we are not taking care of our stuff. You’ll have to make do with what you have.”

It’s through no fault of my own that the network cable is so frayed that the wires have split and are spilling out of the casing all over the place. And she expects me to man the front desk all day with no resources to do my job, but still holds me accountable at the end of every week for the work that I haven’t been able to accomplish. Guess I can subtract several hours from my sleep tonight so I can type up what I’m going to hand-write at the desk today.