Mindfulness is a Terrible Thing for Museums to Waste

Mindfulness is a Terrible Thing for Museums to Waste

11 min read

Workplaces are only getting busier. How do museum workers find time to think?

Well, so much for my twice-a-month-posting New Year's Resolutions and all that. Life is always an excuse but this year I have a few better than just "because I must binge Korra and those classic Yu-Gi-Oh seasons."


Important lessons indeed*

One good excuse is that I'm now co-chair of the Museum Computer Network's annual conference, a voluntary position that requires a lot of conference calls and reading Basecamp threads—both of which are among my favorite tasks—as we (my fellow co-chairs are the amazing Trish Oxford and my Code Words co-author Jennifer Foley) pull together four days of amazement for 500-plus people in Pittsburgh this November. I put work on this blog aside to quickly get up to speed on the committee.

I am NOT a committee!

The other big thing that was going on for me in February was a staff colloquium I co-organized (I know you're saying, "What's with all this "co-" stuff? America is the land of glorious individuals! It wasn't founded by cooperation!") at The Met on the exhibition process, bringing together curators, conservators, exhibition designers, experts from the buildings departments, and our new head of exhibitions to talk about what makes a Met show special.

Now you may have read a few things about The Met here and here, with some unsolicitied opinions here and here about how to fix The Met. Without going into too much detail about issues at my place of employment, the purpose of the colloquium was to demystify the exhibition planning process—including rotations and installations, anything which involves multiple departments getting art before the public. Because communication, amirite?

It was great to have been at the table of this talk, even as only a moderator, but I was struck not only by the unsurprising museum exhibition dilemma of "we can do anything but we can't do everything" but also the "please talk to us as early as possible" refrain from the departments which support the curatorial vision—digital, conservation, buildings, design, just to name a few.

Everyone wants a seat at the table. But how big a table can you find? And, more importantly and more paradoxically, isn't everyone already complaining that they go to too many meetings (and get too many emails or have too many Slack convos going) to get their work done?

Time enough at last *"How many people have to be at this exhibition launch meeting?"*

I've spent a long time in museums trying to bring these contradictions to light (some takes here, here, here, and here) not just because it's fun but because getting people to acknowledge these little impossibilities in our work moves us along to greater understanding and appreciation of our colleagues. (It helps with families, too, but you don't have to worry about your co-workers accusing you of ruining Thanksgiving.)

"But you said this was going to be about 'mindfulness' …"

Which brings me, at last, to mindfulness. It's a word that's become more prevalent in workplace psychology as lifehacking moves into the mainstream (or Medium-stream, at least). It's often part of a meditative practice that, again paradoxically, uses the mind as a way to get past the obsessive tricks of the mind. (For an interesting take on mindfulness, read this excellent Nautilis profile of psychiatrist Carl Erik Fisher, who wrote an article for that online mag debunking the all-powerful nature of willpower.)

Time enough at last *Or maybe thinking more would have kept you from being a Sith?*

What does this have to do with museums? Museums are full of contradictions—businesses that are mission-driven, centers of scholarly excellence that have to bring in a general audience, temples of perfectionism in curatorial and editorial which need to quickly pivot in visitor services and digital endeavors. Museums are stewards of time, with history, antiquity, eternity captured in paint and stone. But there never seems to be enough time to deal with it all, and yet staff are being asked to give up more of their time. In a digital workplace, staff have to add information to the museum's digital records or write entries in institutional blogs. In a world that values community-building and visitor experiences, staff are being asked to participate in social media and other off-hour visitor events.

Because workplaces like museums have so many different internal subcultures, each with its own communication style (that can change from staff member to staff member), museum workers are asked to deal with a dizzying variety of interactions—in-person meetings, emails, conference calls, Slack chats, Skype videoconferencing, Microsoft's zillion Office 365 apps, Google Docs, and Dropboxes, never mind internal servers and systems like Workday.

The result is a staff that never seems to have time to think. This is terrible everywhere, but in an institution dedicated to careful perusal of history and elucidation of the truth, it's especially tragic. Museums are never going to really improve their internal work cultures unless staff have the time to do so.

Time enough at last *And to think, all it took was a little nuclear war …*

In January, I went to my third Creative Mornings event in New York. The global theme was "mystery," and the speaker was Rohan Gunatillake, creator of the buddhify app (FYI, I use Insight Timer and pay for extra features like journaling and multiple timers; see more about my personal meditative practice below) and author of the new book Modern Mindfulness

(Offended by the idea of a Mindfulness app? Don't be: there's even a Tibetan Buddhist video game in beta.)

What, you were expecting "Halo"?

Like all good panels or conferences, the theme was a starting-off point, and while Gunatillake addressed four mysteries as part of the global theme, the point of his talk was mindfulness, and its contradictions in modern creative business-driven society. It's not only the center of his app, but he's a practitioner as well—he demonstrated with a 30-second riff on what his thoughts had been for the previous 30 seconds.

Again, YMMV, but what I appreciated about Gunatillake's talk was the way that mindfulness isn't just a product, but affects buddhify's workplace as well. "Wellness at work" is important to him, and he emphasized that wellness is only possible when you communicate. Maybe not everyone in your office wants to be constantly communicative—privacy is important—but only an office with a free communicative style, from the top on down, can really grow.

Gunatillake acknowledged the paradoxes of a meditation app that people come to meditation at times of crisis, and you don't want to hope that more people have crises in order to buy your product," and also that "a company has to get more productivity out of its employees, but how do you also get them to be human, to be full of joy, to have as much time away from desk as possible?"

He said that most challenging technical issue faced by buddhify was not being prepared for the intimacy of users, for the long stories that accompanied user feedback. His company was receiving technical feedback both positive and negative, and positive personal feedback, but no negative personal feedback—"People felt if it wasn't working for them, it was their fault. They blamed themselves," he said. "I can't meditate. I'm a hopeless case." Again, how to engage users in a conversation that can lead to personal contemplation, and to do it in the form of an app when meditation, traditionally, was a social and community practice? Now it's a commercial and consumer item.

Any workplace is going to feel this struggle, especially nowadays when there is so much pressure on staff members' time and attention. One of the ostensible goals of The Met's reduction in its number of exhibitions is to preserve the sanity of the staff, but is that going to be possible after headcount reduction, in this digital attention-starved day and age?

Last year's MCN conference had several sessions that might seemed a better fit at a mindfulness convention. One particular session, "Making the Workplace We Want," had a follow-up post in The Iris, the blog of The Getty. The two authors, Annelisa Stephan and Greg Albers (whom I'm thrilled to have become friends with through MCN), listed what they most wanted in their workplaces:

Annelisa: Generosity, Integrity, Kindness, Play

Greg: Creativity, Community, Equity, Joy

Wha? Not profit? Great projects? Mind-bending content?

Read more of the post to see how Annelisa and Greg turned these desires into tangible workplace changes. (Spoiler: there will be workshops.) It's a credit to the Getty that internally they could have these kinds of discussions. Not all workplaces could, and that's a shame. And, perhaps, part of the problem.

credit: Creative Mornings NYC

At his Creative Mornings talk, Gunatillake mentioned joy as well, when asked, how he recommend that people try the app. He reiterated the paradox of a product based on suffering:

80 percent of people get into meditation because of crisis. And you don't wish it on anybody! No one wants that friend who's evangelizing for meditation. It's a chore, which is crappy. The way in is through playfulness and creativity. Joy is the lubricant for mindfulness, if that's not too creepy.

Finally, he was asked about the staff at buddhify—are they all Buddhists? Do they practice meditation. Gunatillake's answer was enlightening (ha.) "We don't sit in the lotus position," he said, "but we make our emotional life part of the conversation of our day."

That's the kind of communication that might be required if any institution is going to really grow. [Think of your office and, if necessary, pause now for hysterical laughter.]

Mindfulness made it into this great piece from the same Code Words publication that Jennifer Foley and I wrote in. Mindfulness, Intention and Museums: An Analog Exchange of Ideas, co-written by Jeffrey Inscho and Beck Tench, linked mindfulness to intentionality, a sense of doing positive things on purpose. It's important that internal and external values align, but when museums value visitor numbers ahead of depth of experience, this will be reflected in a time crush on staff to cater to ever-larger audiences; when museums proclaim excellence of collection as their only supreme value, they can lose visitors who don't feel that the institution values their perspective and understanding. It's why, as noted in Inscho's and Tench's piece, libraries are ahead of museums in achieving coordinated mindfulness with their audiences. Museums have non-local visitors to contend with, but the goal of improving society is no less directed.

Even Harvard Business Review (thanks to Douglas Hegley for the suggestion to out HBR—if you have any interest in improving your workplace in any sector, you have to read it) has had many articles about mindfulness, linking a [quasi-meditative practice to workplace performance. Another HBR article described how mindfulness can improve workplace diversity, by improving group communication and encouraging (white) people to push past their discomfort and talk about their privilege. This can be especially important in museums, where (white) staff believe they have no privilege, since they work in a non-profit, read the New Yorker, and voted for Clinton. Here's an example of a discussion cited in the article:

As we finished our review of the guidelines, one of the white males in the group laughed nervously and said, “This sounds like it’s going to be pretty scary.” Instead of moving past the quip, the group processed it — in a supportive way, with others also admitting their anxiety. It helped them to recognize their shared vulnerability while reinforcing their need to move through the discomfort so that they could be advocates for diversity in the organization. Going through this discussion took time, but I knew it was the only way we could lay the groundwork for the depth of conversation we needed to accomplish our goals.

Or, as I like to ask: Why are those of us in good fields working the wrong way? Just like with the conundrum of the time crunch, will museum leaders make it possible for us to communicate internally and work our way through?

What I'm reading:

I recently finished Team of Teams, which was really good. As I mentioned before, if you start reading in the organizational culture and personal improvement field you'll come across a lot of ex-military types. And when Stan McChrystal brought up Chelsea Manning, I went, here we go—but while McChrystal wasn't forgiving, he did say that the occasional security breach is no reason to stop openness and return to silos and secrecy. Word.
I also recently finished Neil Johnson's Simply Complexity.

Some thoughts about the future of Medium

I won't go into it too much here, but there's been a lot recently about the future Medium, which I discussed as a possible outlet for museum content on this site last year. So while museums probably shouldn't put all their content eggs in the Medium basket, the difficulties of Medium are instructive for museums in the sense that there's STILL no good model for content that's not supported by massive subsidies, paywalls, or intrusive ads.

Read articles about the travails of Medium here, here, here, here, here, and also here.

My personal meditative practice

Finally, to follow up on mindfulness and meditation: I practice Insight meditation, the key practice of which involves labeling one's thoughts, not fighting them, and letting them pass (I imagine myself on the bank of a river and the thoughts like little newspaper boats with post-its just floating away. The bank is mossy and cool.) I have an app, Insight Timer, which I really like—the paid version lets me create a timer with sequences of bells, a background music of chanting monks, and prompts me at the end of my 20 minutes to enter any thoughts in a journal—more often than not, it's what was going on in my mind, the various ongoing crises of any modern life with older parents and a job that you don't want to slowly kill you, to quote Radiohead.

I've been using the app almost every day for the last year and a half. Though a lot of people like the playlists of music, guided meditation, and lectures, I don't do well with music or chanting or instruction while I'm sitting. (Hell, I can't even really deal with podcasts.)

This is my daily mantra, which I spend a minute reciting at the start of my 20-minute meditation session. And sometimes when I'm starting a talk in front of an audience.

I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transcend them
Dharma law is boundless; I vow to master it
The Buddha's enlightened way is unsurpassed; I vow to embody it through the Four Noble Truths:

All existence is suffering
The cause of suffering is attachment
The end of attachment is the end of suffering
The end of attachment is achieved through the Eightfold Path:

Right View
Right Intent
Right Speech (no gossip)
Right Action
Right Livelihood (museum work?)
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

[Then I bow to the world and begin my 20 minutes of Insight meditation. Thank you for reading.]

Seated Buddha from Thailand, 15th c.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: CC0

How do you (try to) stay mindful in your workplace, museum or otherwise? Please tweet me your thoughts.

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.