A Year of Shattered Expectations

A Year of Shattered Expectations

7 min read

I started writing a year-end blog post several times since the beginning of December, but each time it felt weird and delusional, like I was ignoring the approaching giant planet ready to destroy the Earth, with only the .01% able to escape via experimental lasers which can open a portal into another universe.

Oncoming colliding planets may be larger than they appear …

Except this isn't science fiction. No, this is a takeover, and an inside job, and we're stuck with it for some period of time, and life on this planet is about to become some intersection of horrible and bizarre (and that's for the billions for whom it wasn't that way already). The size of that intersection, and the precise ratio of horrible to bizarre, may just decide whether we're here in four years and just how many of us made it.

Like with the 2007 Doctor Who episode where [The Master]((https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_(Doctor_Who)#Harold_Saxon) gets elected Prime Minister of the UK, only to turn Earth over to horrible alien spheres who butcher a percentage of the population, I keep expecting people to find out just what they voted for and go, "oh, really?" But that's ego talking. When you click on the trending phrase "stolen supreme court" because the New York Times had an editorial stating that the GOP's blocking of a vote on an Obama Supreme Court nomination to replace Antonin Scalia is tantamount to a theft of said seat (sure, fine), only to see that numerous right-wingers are claiming the court was in fact stolen by non-American Obama and his anti-American and unqualified justices (Sotomayor, Kazan) or the traitorous Roberts and Kennedy, well, reality is ceasing to be a shared concept.

He had foreign help, too …

In the museum field, we are seeing cultural battles over curatorial/collection mindsets vs digital/open mindsets (though "digital" itself does not automatically = "open," not by a long shot, see Facebook, etc.). Organizational culture, my new obsession, is experiencing its internal struggle over disruptive practices like Holacracy and self-organization, as a wave of visible failures of radically-changed cultures is making news. I wasn't going around preaching Teal, but even "silo" is no longer the dirty word it once was. Now it's more about building bridges between centers of excellence than bringing down the walls. I'm a little iffy on whether this is simply acknowledging the self-org nature of departments of like-minded people and the need not to wantonly destroy what's working, or a more insidious blowback against any attempt to question status quos ("stati quo"?), but whatever. (Next up? "Meaningfulness"?)

It reminds me of the movie The Warriors and gang leader (and "the one") Cyrus's speech at the gang conclave:

We have been unable to see the truth, because we have fighting for ten square feet of ground, our turf, our little piece of turf.

Of course, we all know what happened to Cyrus.

Yes, it's come to that, I'm quoting a movie speech about a proposed gang takeover of New York, one borough at a time, as a good thing. But it hasn't been a year for pretty words. There seems to be a meme about not giving a fuck about things that aren't worth giving a fuck about. Bud Caddell, the leader of org culture consultancy NOBL, wrote a 2017 preview column with some harsh things to say about org culturists who put systems ahead of people. Thought writers Sarah Knight and Mark Manson penned different versions of not having any fucks left to give about meaningless shit. I'll leave it at that.

But wait! What about hope? Rebellions are built on hope! (Heart breaking as I type this, see below.) EXACTLY. Save your fucks for rebellions, not for petty inter-office squabbles over turf. Save your fucks for hope, and save them for action.

I was re-reading an awesome book from 1992, John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards. In a world of short internet columns (my writing notwithstanding), this book can seem really dense, but his argument about the hijacking of the promise of reason by the forces of power and control is compelling, because when the people feel that hope has been taken from them by the elites (and yes, museum folks, he means cultural elites like us), the people turn to a Hero. Saul doesn't mean Batman, he means Hero in a negative way, as the sole, solitary One who is the only person who can solve our problems. He was writing about Napoleon and Hitler, but take a listen to Trump's acceptance speech at the GOP convention this summer, and you remember that history does, in fact, repeat itself constantly. Read this book and see if you recognize yourself in his descriptions of elites using language as jargon ("At the heart of our problem lies the belief in the idea of a single, all-purpose elite using a single all-purpose methodology." [p. 135]), same me a seat on the empathy couch, and we can both remember that our colleagues are people, too.

Of course (and maybe it's not totally obvious), just thinking warm fuzzies about empathy won't make the museum a better workplace. Making an impact will take hard work, time, listening, and a willingness to take personal risks. Ask not for whom the emperor has no clothes; if you're pushing progressive workplace practices, expect to hear that whispered about you. Make sure you really are dressed, or willing to be exposed.

Diversity post-election was another "not so fast" meme in which white-cis-hets had to be schooled that just shouting "empathy" at the election results was not only not going to change things, it was more than implying that it's up to non-whites to step up and empathize with and confront their oppressors. Racism is a white problem and the solutions will come from white people, because it's white people who have fucked things up in the first (and second through nine-hundred-and-ninety-third, inclusive, at least) place. Beyond cries of diversity lies action, that is what needs to happen in the museum field, and you could apply this to many institutions as well. I came up with this list in response to my own perceived shortcomings in my post-election blog post:

  • The first obligation of the museum power structure (and its white employees, starting higher up the chain) is to defend the vulnerable among our staff, visitors, communities, scholars, children.
  • Next, those who make up the museum power structure must examine their own racism and culpability in the election result, and develop a plan to learn, wake, improve.
  • Finally, those who make up the museum power structure must confront white supremacy in government, business, technology, media, and education, and must be honest about historical truths. It is particularly contingent upon white people to lead this effort.

I won't even get into the gifted artists in 2016 we lost like David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher (as I was writing this, because why the hell not), Vera Rubin (seriously, when we figure out what it is, dark matter will be known as Rubin Matter), and so many others. Not to mention the millions who died needlessly through violence, oppression, disease. Ugh.

And it is going to get worse: assuming you're not actually arrested and put into a camp, or really rich, expect your health insurance to be more expensive (and if it's not, you won't have to look to hard to find a friend who's no longer insured), expect weather to get worse (read here about rain bombs, I dare you), expect someone to get run over by a self-driving Uber (which we all love), expect it all.

Rain bomb … courtesy of your super-energetic atmosphere

What's the most disturbing is this awareness fog that seems to be settling over us, whether about SCOTUS or the Facebookification of people's consciousness. (Koven Smith does a great job describing awareness bubbles in the museum field here.) We've reached a point where we don't NEED to know anything beyond our personal event horizon, because the internet in its chatting and notifying and streaming ways has supplied more than enough experiences for us to fill our days.

I'm not pointing fingers, I'm just saying what's happened. Some of these shared assumptions were discriminatory and exclusionary, so it's good that they're gone, but time hasn't expanded to give people more time to grow their comprehension. The more we push outwards, even with the best of intentions, the more that messy reality is going to surprise us, often unpleasantly. And yet push through we must, even as we receive many lessons that "things are this way for a reason."

If you're of a certain age you probably were shown a documentary on 1968. I suspect there will be one on 2016, assuming anyone's here to watch it.

This kind of sums it up:


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I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.