Bye, Museums?

There’s been a few of these “leaving the museum field” articles floating around lately, most recently the results of a survey on the topic posted on the Alliance Lab blog. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity, perhaps, but having just left full-time employment in the museum field myself I can’t help but read these when they come up.

On the outside looking in. 

On the outside looking in. 

In the interest of helping others with their own decision, I thought I’d offer a few insights into my own experiences. Your mileage will vary, of course, and your experiences won’t be exactly like mine, but I think it’s always helpful to get a variety of perspectives when thinking about a career-altering change. 

I knew it was time to leave when I realized I wasn’t excited about a single damn thing I had coming up. 

This wasn't exactly some big moment of epiphany, it was more of a slow realization, and an ironic one at that. See, I’d spent a good chunk of my tenure as a planner of public programs trying to convince people that scholarly lectures were not the be-all end-all for museum audiences, and at last the idea seemed to be sinking in. A couple of my most intractable colleagues suggested—of their own volition!—that maybe a lecture wasn’t the way to go and could we please think of some other options for their exhibitions? YES! 

I should have been over the moon about all of this. Finally! New ideas! Things that appealed to more than just the regulars! Thinking about what audiences want instead of just trying to find the most impressive academic to invite! 

But I wasn’t. The ironic thing was, all of these NEW programs took a lot of thought and planning, much more so than the old standards, and I was getting crushed under the weight of it all. Instead of being happy about new, cool ideas, I was just getting more and more tired trying to keep up. I’d take days off to make up for weekends spent at work, but instead of relaxing and recharging I’d just be worried about what I needed to get done the next day. I'd wake up hours early dreading the day ahead of me. And if anyone asked me “how’s work?” I couldn't figure out how to answer because I felt like I’d burst into tears. 

Hello, burnout, my old friend. 

I’d experienced burnout before, after a summer of particularly intense programming that included me working almost every weekend for three months straight. I was terrible at saying no and asking for help back then, so I just planned everything anyone suggested and figured I’d handle it… somehow. I thought I should be able to, it was my job after all, so I didn’t bring up how much stress I was under.

It took almost a year of self-work and going to a therapist to get out of that period of burnout. So I knew the feeling well when it came back the second time. 

It should have been better. I knew strategies to cope this time, and what I needed to do to help myself. I worked on re-framing, manageability, better communication; I read books on time management and stress; I even signed up for a mentoring program to try and kick-start my enthusiasm again. 

It should have been better, but it wasn’t. 

As the Alliance Lab survey points out, employees should recognize burnout and take steps to help themselves. I was doing this, but I think this line of thinking is only useful up to a certain point. Where I was really running into a wall was that personal measures aren’t always enough. There were institutional factors contributing to the problem, and those I had very limited ability to address.

The second time, I did what I was supposed to: I asked for help and I communicated how I was feeling, even going so far as to literally put “do not burn out” into my personal goals for the year during my annual evaluation. But while I was trying to deal with my own increasing burnout, my department was hemorrhaging staff and not replacing them. As more and more responsibilities fell on fewer and fewer staff members, everyone else's nerves frayed too. There wasn’t anyone who could back me up or take anything off my plate without stressing themselves out further as well. 

The biggest issue was that no matter how many times I seemed to bring up these problems, whether on my own behalf or anyone else’s, the only answer I got was just, “Hang in there.” Eventually, I ran out of energy to say anything. I just kept my head down and tried to keep from crying on the train ride home at night. I had a brief flash of optimism when it looked like some hiring might finally happen and I was offered a move to another position NOT doing programming. But there wasn’t a timeline for when I’d take on this new role or when the hires would happen, just more of those nebulous “Eventually!” replies, and the more I thought about it the more I realized I wasn’t particularly excited about those responsibilities either. 

By that point even just walking through the galleries left me cold: I’d look at works of art I used to love and resent their mere presence on the walls. When did I start hating art, I wondered? The passion that had brought me to the field in the first place, sharing the joy of art with other people, had vanished. Even if my job really does change and I don’t have to do programming anymore, I thought, how am I supposed to work in a museum if I have to fake enthusiasm for art all the time?

From the mentoring program I did and from talking to colleagues at other institutions, I knew that the things that were making me unhappy were endemic to the field. I’d likely run into similar issues elsewhere, and the realities of museum salaries meant I'd never find a position making enough money to justify uprooting my life and my husband's. It felt like the stress was poisoning every other area of my life, from being able to do something as simple as make weekend plans all the way up to the unexpectedly rocky journey of starting a family, and I could no longer find reasons to justify staying. 

So I put in my notice, and I left.

Now that I’m out, I haven’t regretted the decision once. Even after just a few months, the enthusiasm I once felt for art has rekindled. I’ve got some ideas percolating for future projects of my own along museum-y lines, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find myself really enjoying the occasional freelance museum projects I’ve taken on for my old employer.

It’s been a big change, to be sure, but it isn’t the earth-shattering shift I thought it would be. Before I left, it felt like I was throwing away not only all the work I’d done to get into the field in the first place but all the support and encouragement I’d gotten from mentors and colleagues over the years as well. I blamed myself for not being good enough, for not being able to handle it, for not speaking up more for myself or doing more. (Even writing this I still sort of expect someone to jump out and point their finger at me and shout, "You just didn't try hard enough, boo on you!" THANKS, BRAIN.)  When I put in my notice I struggled with the guilt of leaving my colleagues to pick up the slack for yet another empty spot on the staff roster, and there were definitely times where I thought, “What am I doing, how can I even possibly consider this???”

It felt like the end of the world even thinking about leaving. But it wasn’t. If you’re reading this and finding resonance with your own situation or feelings, I hope it helps to know you’re not alone, and that you’re not the only person experiencing this. And if you ever need a listening ear, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Even though I ended up leaving, I will forever appreciate the amazing people in this field who were willing to listen and help me. I hope I can return the favor if you need someone to listen, too. 

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture

As I stood in line waiting to get into the history galleries at the National Museum of African American History and Culture earlier this week, it struck me that this was one of the few times I could remember being in a museum where I, as a white person, was in the minority. Though I was far from the only white person there, the majority of the other visitors were black. 

The day I visited, almost everyone went straight downstairs. NMAAHC is split into two different sections: up, thematic sections on African-American music, sports, education, and more; down, below ground, the History Galleries, three floors running in chronological order from the 1400s up to the present day. To get in, you have to wait in line to enter a vestibule, then take an elevator down to the beginning of the exhibition, where you enter a series of galleries exploring the very early history of European exploration and the start of the slave trade.

Visitors exploring the first gallery in the Slavery and Freedom exhibition. 

Visitors exploring the first gallery in the Slavery and Freedom exhibition. 

As the chronology moves into the American Revolution and early United States, you leave the smaller spaces and enter into an expansive, three-story high atrium. There, the first thing you see is a statue of Thomas Jefferson underneath gold letters spelling out “All men are created equal…” on the wall above him and the names of his slaves etched into bricks behind him. This display, appropriately, is titled “The Paradox of Liberty.”

Thomas Jefferson, with the names of each slave he owned on bricks behind him, in the "Paradox of Liberty" display. 

Thomas Jefferson, with the names of each slave he owned on bricks behind him, in the "Paradox of Liberty" display. 

Going through the larger space, you find exhibits on plantation life around a reconstructed slave cabin and information on abolitionists, and then you're back into smaller spaces to cover the Civil War and Reconstruction. On the next level up, the small rooms move through the era of segregation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. The second level also has a component out in the atrium, where you’ll find a railroad car and information on Pullman Porters, a lunch counter with digital interactives on nonviolent resistance and protesting, and the entrance to the Emmett Till memorial.

Interactives at the lunch counter, and the Pullman car in the background. 

Interactives at the lunch counter, and the Pullman car in the background. 

Up a floor, the decades between the Civil Rights movement and the present day are covered, with everything from a reconstruction of Oprah’s set to videos from Black Lives Matter protests and President Obama’s inauguration. Immediately outside of the exit is a Contemplation Court, a space for quiet reflection with a fountain and inspirational words around the walls. From there, it’s upstairs to the thematic exhibits or back to the entrance atrium, cafe, or gift shop. 

I went pretty quickly through that third level and the thematic exhibitions. By the time I got to the Emmett Till memorial, I was already overwhelmed, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I took one look at his coffin, displayed with the picture of his mother weeping at his funeral right next to it, and had to turn around.

It's not that I haven't seen that picture of Mamie Till-Mobley before. I’ve seen Emmett’s broken, unrecognizable face as published in newspapers after his death, seen the picture of his smile before his fateful trip south still with a trace of chubby little-boy cheeks on his young man’s face. I’ve even seen images of the coffin before, from news stories about when it was discovered in poor condition in Chicago and acquired by the museum several years ago. But those images, I looked up on Google or came across in books. There’s a distance in that kind of encounter that separates you, keeps you at a distance, makes it less real.  

Seeing the actual, physical coffin there - it’s a different kind of experience entirely. It is physical, tangible, solid, real; and that presence brings the knowledge of what happened to Emmett into sharp, bitter clarity.

I've done a lot of thinking about visitors, how they engage, what they're seeing, feeling, thinking. I've also done a lot of thinking about how I can be the worst kind of museum visitor because I'm not actually engaging with what's on view, I'm analyzing how it's presented. I was guilty of that at NMAAHC: noticing the design and lighting of the displays; watching to see how long other visitors lingered at each object; picking out the Beverly Serrell-type Big Idea in each gallery; noting demographic and age and group composition. 

It was not exactly a pleasant experience, being jarred out of that dispassionate observational role into a state of emotional upset. But I think it was an important one. I’ve been to a lot of museums. Art museums, history museums, science museums, children’s museums, medical museums, botanical gardens, historic houses, whatever — museums are spaces in which I feel comfortable. I know how to behave, how to navigate, how to decode floor plans and gallery layouts and understand the information being presented.

In short, I know what it's like to visit a museum. 

Except I don't, at least not for everyone. I'm comfortable in museums because I've worked in them, yes, but I'm also comfortable in them because I'm white. I don't know what it's like to visit a museum as a black person, whether it's NMAAHC or any other. I’m not sure I can know, not really. 

Many museums are spaces coded towards an audience that is white, middle-class, and educated. If you fall into this group, as I do, it can be very, very easy to visit museums without thinking about this at all, unless you’ve been primed to notice the ways in which white privilege can define how museum spaces work. For example, as a white person I can expect to find that in most museums (with the exception of identity museums like NMAAHC) there will be people who look like me depicted on the walls, leading tours, and curating the displays. I will almost never be one of no or only a few other visitors with my color of skin. I will probably not be followed through the galleries, talked down to, or looked at askance. In art museums, where my experience is greatest, I can almost certainly guarantee the largest sections will be focused on European and (primarily white) American culture with only a few token examples of faces that don't share my skin color. 

I can also guarantee that many, many people will not notice any of this. This experience will seem “normal” and so it won't be questioned.

This doesn't just apply to museums, of course. It's endemic to our culture, and without purposefully taking in diverse viewpoints, it can be hard to recognize. I would hope that visiting a museum like NMAAHC would provide that viewpoint, and a starting place for to ask those questions, and to begin the work of recognizing and dismantling white privilege. (For many white people, I hope this will be the case. But I suspect there will be others for whom it might not.)

The reality is, as a white person, I could have left what I saw behind me. I could have dismissed my reaction to Emmett Till's coffin, or refused to unpack what I felt. I could have walked back out onto the National Mall out of those underground galleries into the sunlight, and never thought about any of it ever again. I could decide that all of this history does not matter to me and my life, and ignore it. That's white privilege, that I can choose to ignore it. And it happens all the time, white people making this choice. White people shout “All lives matter!” in response to “Black lives matter!” White people write school textbooks describing slaves as “workers” and “immigrants.” White people dismiss stories of bias and prejudice because we ourselves haven’t experienced such things. White people walk through exhibitions on lynching and think an appropriate response is to leave behind a noose. We white people, we can live in this bubble of our own making if we so choose, and it's far too easy to do so. We need to get away from easy, fellow white people. We need to pay attention to experiences that jolt us out of complacency and dispassionate observation.

If you're reading this and it makes you uncomfortable, good. You should be. Embrace it. Start going to places like NMAAHC. Let yourself be challenged. 

If you go, wear walking shoes and be prepared for a lot of standing, waiting in line, and being in small spaces. Plan ahead to get your tickets; same-day passes are available starting at 6:30 AM, but they go quick. Advance passes are currently sold out for several months. There are some benches, but not many. In the history galleries, there is only one bathroom right at the beginning, so don't chug a bottle of water right before you go in. After that, it’s a mile and a half through the galleries, and there’s no re-entry allowed.

Take time if you need it. Get out of your analytical mind and let yourself feel. Visit the Contemplation Court and watch the water falling, and think about what you’ve seen.

And when you leave, take it with you. 

The Contemplation Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

The Contemplation Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.