MCN Insights: Let’s do better than “back to normal”.

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By Nathan Adkisson, Director of Strategy and Associate Creative Director at Local Projects, and MCN Board member.

Nathan Adkisson

After a brutal year, there’s no doubt that we’ve turned a corner. Vaccination numbers climb higher. We are spending more time outside, and beginning to travel again. Museums are cautiously reopening. Many of us have started going back into our offices. 

Throughout all this, a common phrase I’ve been hearing is “we’re finally getting back to normal.” I want to interrogate this statement, because it’s not as innocuous as it seems. 

Difficult times make us appreciate the positive aspects of the past. Indeed, the shuttering of our greatest cultural institutions made me value them more than ever. 

But as we emerge from these dark times, we must also recognize that the natural order of things will be to slide back into familiar behaviors. Make no mistake—it was better when museums were open than when they weren’t. But remember how we spent so much of our time back when things were “normal”? Talking about how much we wanted change. 

Winston Churchill gets credit for saying “never let a good crisis go to waste.” That phrase has a deeply cynical flavor, so I prefer this one from the Stoic philosopher Seneca: “Misfortune is virtue’s opportunity.” 

What virtues did we discover during this time for which “misfortune” is a grave understatement? What opportunities do we want to seize while the window is still open?

This isn’t a thought experiment. In his 1988 book ‘Learning By Doing’, sociologist Graham Gibbs points out how written or spoken reflection is required for successfully integrating an experience into new behavior: 

“It is not sufficient simply to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its learning potential lost. It is from the feelings and thoughts emerging from this reflection that generalisations or concepts can be generated.”

One way I’ve been doing this is to put a moratorium on the default question “How are you?” because it usually returns the generic response of “good” or “fine.” By being more specific and more provocative, we can kickstart the integration work that Gibbs writes about. 

Here are some questions I’ve been using, and some interesting responses I’ve gathered. As we ask people throughout our organizations, we should expect radically different answers: from new hires and senior management, from those with young children at home and those without, and from those whose work focuses on digital and those whose doesn’t. 

The point is that we need to do more than think about what we’ve experienced. Sharing and debating answers to these questions is the reason community organizations like MCN exist. Let me know your thoughts on MCN Slack, in the SIG groups, and at this year’s conference. Not yet on MCN Slack? Email [email protected] to receive an invite.

Planet World

What did your institution do in 2020 that you want to continue? 

For years I was looking forward to opening Planet Word, a new voice-activated museum in downtown Washington, D.C. that explores the effects of language on humanity. We were scheduled to open the doors in May of 2020. That didn’t happen, and instead we opened in October with very limited capacity. It was heartbreaking to not get the party and hug-fest we all dreamed of, but the silver lining was that for the hybrid Opening Ceremony, the museum was able to pull in an all-star cast of speakers and performers, including President Obama. This would have been impossible to coordinate in person. At the same time, the audience for the ceremony came from far beyond Washington, with people tuning in from around the globe. Going forward, what if we think of all launch events as global first, and layer the in-person components on top of that?

Rubin Tweet 2021

How did your institution become more relevant while the doors were closed?

With no exhibitions or events to announce, many museums evolved their communication away from marketing as they explored how they could play a deeper role in the lives of their visitors.

Often the focus was on health and wellness of a variety of forms. A few weeks into lockdown, the Rubin Museum began a series of meditations inspired by works in their collection. These “offerings” were profoundly direct and relevant, and showed how art can offer comfort, community and support during our darkest times. High engagement has proven the value of this pivot, and so the Rubin has continued these activities—as should any museum who has discovered a broader voice in the last year. 

AAM & Tenement Tweets 2021

What was the boldest thing you tried? 

On The Week In Art podcast, Chris Unitt provides several specific examples of which museums’ digital experiments have been effective, and which have. 

The Yorkshire Museum let their curators run wild with the #curatorbattle as well as #creepiestobject, which was so popular (and so weird) that I think it deserves to be a physical exhibition!

Unitt’s research also shows that virtual tours and other initiatives that simply try to virtually replicate basic on-site visits have not been well-attended. On the other hand, using digital media to take visitors where they have never gone before has fared much better. For example, the London Transport Museum’s “Hidden London” tours take visitors to extremely restricted areas. The monetary value is also clear: at £20.00 per adult ticket, these actually cost more than an annual pass for in-person visits.

For much of MCN’s history, we’ve been fighting for digital departments to get a seat at the table. In 2020, digital platforms were the only table. This was our inflection point, and it is imperative that we underscore all the digital victories that were made so the momentum can continue.

As museums fully reopen over the next 12 months, one thing will be perfectly clear. We will see stark contrast between those who set their goal for 2021 to just “go back to normal”—and those who endeavored to do much better than that.

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