Links of the Week: January 21, 2022: Traumatic Times

Exploitation around many individual issues is adding up to big trauma for museum workers.

the brightly-lit front of a red fire engine
Are we listening to our own alarms? (Photo by Obi Onyeador / Unsplash)

Exploitation around many individual issues is adding up to big trauma for museum workers.

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Part of 2022's experiment in making Links of the Week more sustainable is not choosing a topic ahead of time, but just compiling ten pieces of writing that I found compelling and allowing a common theme to emerge from there.

To quote YouTube reactors, I don't want to waste any more of your time, so let's get into it:

1. We start off with thanks to Museum Human member Mimosa Shah, who sent me this link to an important joint design-field study by self-described "People Nerds" firm dscout and workplace revolutionaries HmntyCntrd. (dscout was founded by and is led by Vivianne Castillo, while Karen Eisenhauer managed their research on the project; Alba Villamil led the work for HmntyCntrd.) The report studied organizational trauma and how leaders/orgs are addressing them (inadequately) and includes four playbooks that orgs follow to individualize structural problems. It's an important read from several people and groups one should follow. (This piece was also pinged to me by museum experience guru Ed Rodley),

2. From there, it's a quick trip to org-culture firm NOBL's latest newsletter on burnout, which notes that deciding what not to do may be more important than deciding what to do, though in current museum structures it's unlikely that workers have that much agency or autonomy. (Or that leaders know enough of the day-to-day work of the institution to be able to judge what work should continue.) I myself have switched my task-planning process back to a list that strictly limits the number of things I can try to accomplish on any given day and week.

3. Next up, McKinsey asks, "If we’re all so busy, why isn’t anything getting done?" Though the article asks good questions about our productivity and describes useful divisions of decision-making, innovation-seeking, and information-sharing, the piece ignores the structural effects of overloaded activity levels—which museums consider a feature of "creative tension" and "high-energy workplaces," and not a bug.

4. MuseumNext has an article about mental health in museums, with a sort-of organizational "first responder" approach to deal with worker crises early. (I mentioned a similar idea when I wrote about mental health for museum professionals here and here.) Lori Byrd-McDevitt had this additional take on prioritizing one's mental health even when there's more we want to do and share. The question for museum organizations is, can they balance acting as mental health resources for visitors and neighborhoods (which can lead to more work for staff) while also prioritizing the mental health of said staff? Does doing the human thing always have to mean more work?

5. To wit, org culture guru Stowe Boyd's latest newsletter links to this article about how leaders don't know what their teams do (but then the article suggests using AI/surveillance to find out just what people are up to just the same). This (deliberate?) lack of knowledge about the everyday work of the institution is at the root of leaders' ignorance of the ramifications of their decisions, and the "we'll hear it from department heads and town halls" communication pipeline isn't doing the trick.

6. Self-management advocates Corporate Rebels have an article here on, natch, self-management, responding to the many complaints from leaders about the anarchy that must inevitably ensue—and what well-self-managed teams will do to avoid that, like redistributing roles, responsibilities, and decision-making. This piece is well worth reading—and I'll be coming back to the issue of roles, responsibilities, and "work-being-done" in a future post and survey.

7. If you don't think that we have the imagination to come up with better museum orgs, read this Boston Review article on Ursula K. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven. I linked to the piece in Tuesday's post on uncertainty in the museum field, but as I re-read the article I felt it was worth calling out again. So much of our accepted structure in museums stems from a narrative that imagination (just like self-management!) will lead to chaos and a collapse of productivity—and yet we need to ask, do we have order? Are we productive? If so, at what cost? And how could we do better? The article also provides a useful reminder that being too instrumental about imagination and the unconscious (think about how orgs provide mindfulness training to make us better, more productive workers) can be even more disastrous than simple exploitation.

8. On that note, we'll wind down a bit with this interesting scholarly paper on the death of the dashboard. The case study is an attempt to build an Australian "smart city," but it's a useful warning to anyone who thinks that the sheer act of capturing data and even expressing it beautifully automatically leads to better orgs and intelligent action. Like with audience research, digital, strategy, and even leadership, the skills and lessons of data are too closely-held and siloed.

9. Here's another McKinsey piece, about what one city is doing to attract and support remote workers during the pandemic; what's important here is the headline, which implies that this program is aimed at all workers when it's really just a city trying to be receptive to remote-work nomads. It's a reminder that cities—and organizations—aren't doing enough to support remote workers who are staying put but still struggling.

10. Finally, I'll end with two articles following up on last week's post on DAOs and museums: one on Wikipedia not classifying NFTs as art and one on the democratic potential—and authoritarian possibilities—of the blockchain. There are always new takes on the blockchain so expect regular new links on the subject here as I study the possible impact of decentralized autonomous organizations on the museum field.

I hope these links provide useful reading about our collective trauma. Remember that people in marginalized groups have been the subjects of trauma since the museum field began and have been writing about this trauma for just as long. Confronting the structural exploitation of the sector cannot be allowed to reproduce the silencing and erasure of those people by centering either current leaders or those selected to be the next generation of leaders.

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cover image by Obi Onyeador / Unsplash [description: the brightly-lit front of a red fire engine]

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Links of the Week: January 21, 2022: Traumatic Times by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.