Museum work has several inherent truths. Lately I was reminded of a few of them:
- Project-focused research is never comprehensive or complete.
- Nobody’s collections or exhibitions are ever in a perfect state.
- Public interpretation is never as engaging or informed as it could be.
- Not everyone on staff shares the same approach to the work.
- Changing the organizational culture is always hard.
- Nothing happens immediately.
These truths came to mind during my historic site’s annual (history-lite) holiday event – a night full of people in funny clothes doing oldey-timey things. The evening is not as research-based as one could hope. Sure everything visitors see has a history to it, but it’s most likely not one connected to our particular story (like the list above, this is not unusual to our site). This looseness of historicity was brought into sharper focus because we asked a very talented colleague to help out during the event. I felt she was going to quickly and accurately identify all of the junk that’s crept into our site interpretation over the years.
Along with a concern that the program itself wasn’t very interesting and that we were utilizing a talented interpreter for what was nothing more than “industrial interpretation” (pumping visitors through a predetermined path as quickly as possible), I worried that all of my failings at trying to introduce or inspire new research, new material culture perspectives, and new interpretation would be glaringly obvious to this colleague.
It probably doesn’t help that this event happens at the end of the year, just as I’ve been reviewing my 2015 goals and realizing how many went completely untouched.
This isn’t a case of “imposter syndrome” (one needs to be successful to feel that). Rather, it’s feeling ineffective. After four years at the site I sometimes think not much has changed despite everything I’ve tried to do. And it’s hard to see the change that has happened when your looking to help bring the whole of the place along, not just a bit of it.
(hours have passed since I wrote the above)
I’ve been sitting here all day trying to figure out what comes next in this story I’ve started. It seems like the place to insert platitudes about needing to find a way or (always the least helpful) that I should get a new job. I could instead discuss the lack of resources, staff, and talent, but not workload. Or I could simply take cold comfort from the truths listed above knowing that it’s not just me or my site.
But everything keeps coming back to one final truth:
- Effective museum work is utterly, terrifyingly, and exhaustingly overwhelming.
Even on the good days. Especially then.
No wonder I feel ineffective more days than not.