Levels of Thought in the COVID-19 Museum Crisis

Levels of Thought in the COVID-19 Museum Crisis

Howdy! It goes without saying that museums and cultural heritage organizations are in crisis. As the Art & Transparency folks have charted, museums have laid off thousands of workers, predominantly lower wage front of house staff, while protecting senior leadership and managers. These layoffs have a disproportionate effect on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBT+ colleagues as they are more likely to be at the very bottom rungs of museum hierarchies and often perform labor that isn’t paid at all in a quest to “break in” to the field.

On Twitter, Webinars, and Zoom Happy Hours I’ve rarely heard anyone defend the layoffs, but I have noticed there is a series of levels of thought about these issues. These levels start at very simplistic critiques like layoffs are bad and culminate in the realization that the museums themselves and museums’ stated desire to dismantle capitalism/white supremacy might be doomed from the start.

The reason I want to illustrate these levels is this dynamic is repeated elsewhere in our society, most notably around #BlackLivesMatter, defunding/abolishing the police, and the 2020 Presidential Election. The goal here is to help museum people who, let’s be frank, identify as “Liberals”  extend their critiques and through that be able to advocate for solutions that are more than get out the vote.

I am heavily indebted to the work of Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein who wrote the book Data Feminism. The book is great for anyone in museums, even those who don’t immediately work with data as it points out the ways in which white supremacy bound institutions analyze situations. Additionally I always plug the work of Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones who’s characteristics of white supremacy culture led me down the path toward a more nuanced view of museum employment and the museum project more broadly.

I’d highly recommend looking at the linked characteristics of white supremacy before reading this if you aren’t familiar with white supremacy being more than just obvious racism.

Level 1: Layoffs, bad, but we can’t do anything about it

This level is probably the most common among my coworkers, every week we host a regular happy hour and at some point the most recent news about layoffs comes up, people bemoan it and get frustrated, but never does the critique rise past individual occurrences and into the structures of *why* this is happening. The other angle to this is people might say they are trying to remain afloat in their own jobs and own lives during the pandemic and so don’t have mental energy to follow the news, to organize, and assist colleagues – which is totally valid.

Level 2: Layoffs, bad, they’re a tragedy, but we live in extraordinary times

I debated making this Level 1, but I think it’s actually more nuanced than just layoffs are bad as it does point at structural forces. This level is held by many museum managers, directors, and finance people. The thought goes that since we are in a global pandemic and museum revenue is running dry the layoffs are a tragedy, yet layoffs are part of running an institution that is attempting to be fiscally healthy and protect its assets (building, objects).

This level admits the existence of a financial system and capitalism – but it makes museums sound like for profit businesses rather than public goods. It also centers the building and objects over people. The hurdle for someone at this level to cross is to understand that late capitalism prioritizes goods or in this case – objects – over human beings. 

Museums’ dedication to objects is probably the most entrenched part of white supremacy. I know that will sound like a radical, inflammatory statement to many since “aren’t museums built around objects?” To which, activists would reply yes! That is the problem. White supremacy values the written word, the object, and data over emotions, stories, and experiences. 

Museums built around objects are fundamentally a hubristic enterprise. Digital preservation advocates often say “there is nothing preserved, only something being preserved” which is accurate, but note the language museums use around objects. We talk about preservation, archiving, safeguarding culture and knowledge, which all sounds like holy things to the general public. These ideas are reinforced by popular media which bemoans the loss of any art or cultural object or building over the plight of real human beings. There is a deep amount of arrogance and even cruelty in this.


If you get laid off and someone says, aw shucks it’s for the sake of these objects, that doesn’t put food on the table for your kids.

Level 3: If I take a paycut it’s an empty gesture / we can’t touch the funds! They’re restricted! Gotta follow the rules!

This level is similar to the above, but goes just a tad farther in attempting to grapple with possible radical solutions. The most annoying and false one of these is museum directors and leaders making 200k plus salaries saying that them taking a paycut or waiving their entire salary is a hollow gesture and would not plug the fiscal whole in their balance sheets. There’s a macro and a micro issue with this argument. In macro a director refusing to take a paycut or taking say only 10% (lol) shows that the institution is not making all the cuts that it could in order to keep jobs. This public kind of cut implies that other things in the background were cut, like maybe canceling a large show coming in 3-5 years or putting a stop to non essential digitization projects or stopping renovation of an area of the museum. In micro the problem is that if you have a director making say 500k, which is typical for many mid-to large museums, they could reduce their salary and save a non-zero amount of jobs. Even saving (1) job is worth it. 1 is so much more than 0 after all, that’s just straight math.

The other aspect of this level is what Twitter shitposters would call peak neoliberalism brain/someone who watched too much of The West Wing. The idea is that change can only come if we follow the rules and the law – the law is somehow an inviolable sacred thing even though for the entirety of American history the law has been written by mostly white men and even in the cases where laws were written by BIPOC or women it took majorities of white men in government to say these new rules are okay. Museums love to point out that Acquisition Funds and many Endowment related funds are restricted, but here’s the thing and I don’t mean to sound crass here – myself and many of our colleagues facing being laid off or who have been laid off don’t. Give. a. Shit. Again, if you agree human lives should come before objects AND should come before fake laws then you can stop caring about the ramifications.

I know people will read this and say what the consequences would be (aside from AAM censure, potential termination of a director who does this by a board, loss of tax exempt status, dangerous precedent), which if so – Good! Tell me the consequences, because whenever I ask people what they are they just say no we can’t do that. Show us, the employees, the field, how your funds are tied up – tell us how it got that way, tell us how to fix it! Tell AAM to advocate against restricted funds and pushback on billionaire capital who only wants to use museums and in this case OUR BODIES for fucking clout.

Level 4? 6? 69?: We Should Organize

This is the level where we reach a solid opinion about the museum crisis and there’s definitely steps in between this, but I got tired.

In summary, the solution to defend yourself and your fellow workers is to unionize. Start talking in private channels your museum doesn’t control, the Signal app is great for this – use Jitsi for video and voice calls instead of your museum’s Zoom license. Talk with people and discuss what you all want from management – right now it might be job protections or severance packages, but it also might involve getting rid of abusive/racist managers or curbing manager/leadership salary growth. The Art + Museum Transparency folks have put a ton of unionizing resources here.

There are levels after this, but they move beyond the museum employment crisis. Levels after this involve speculative theory territory about capitalism and power. I’m still new at this and I’m in the middle of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish so maybe I’ll be able to articulate them someday.

Until then, stay safe, stay powerful, keep your head above water, and remember the words of Lilla Watson, Indigenous Australian artist:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I wish you much more than luck.

Hosting a Museum Conference in Discord: A Proof of Concept

As various museum conferences make plans to operate virtually this year (and hopefully not next year!) I wanted to outline why I think a Discord Server would be a great tool to host conference presentations, manage breakout sessions, and even maintain the much sought after “in between session networking.”

Before outlining how this could work lets take a minute to think about the position many of us occupy in the cultural heritage sphere. Right now museums are laying off, furloughing, or cutting the pay of thousands of staff and contractors. It is clear many museums were in more dire financial straits than many lower level staff like me thought. There will be less cultural heritage organizations after this is over. Many folks will be forced out of the field, never to return. I don’t want to be a downer (I prefer the Gen Z word, doomer anyway), but that’s reality.

All the more necessary for those of us still employed to organize and push back where we can against the leaders of our institutions and lobby our governments. I’m glad that conferences like Museum Computer Network (MCN) have chosen themes around sustainability for 2020.

What is Discord?

Discord is a platform for text, voice, and video chat. There are Discord Servers that function mainly as chatrooms, ones for friends to keep up and maybe do voice or video chats, and large ones (several hundred users) dedicated to a craft or hobby. The service started for video game communities, but rapidly branched out as a communication platform as it moved beyond that sector.

Example of the Discord UI, channels are listed on the left, chat for the channel in the center, and user list on the right.

Why would Discord work for a museum conference?

1. Ease of use – Discord can be run from a desktop client, which although preferable for heavy use, can also be run out of a browser and on mobile, invite is restricted to links, that can be sent directly or to expire on time or number of uses

2. Ease of organization – generating channels for text or voice chat take no time at all, the idea is voice channels would be created like “Presentation Room 1” and the conference schedule will illustrate this, similar to how physical conferences are handled

Within each channel moderators can set channels to mute all participants except the presenters, who would then be able to screenshare from within the channels using Discords in app streaming function. It’ll be necessary to write guides on how to do all this for presenters, but that’s not an insurmountable hurdle. Guides can be stickied to specific channels and even short session abstracts could be stickied in each “room” as well.

When a presentation is over, questions could either be asked in an associated text channel for the presentation, or there could be a digital “raise hands” through the text channel and then an unmuting of the user asking the question.

Breakout sessions would be handled much in the same way, everyone could start in a presentation room and then move to separate voice channels for their groups, folks could then reconvene back in the main channel for wrap up.

Social spaces for networking and general chit chat could be created, again much like digital tables at a conference hotel.

3. Cost – Discord is free, though there are features that would be cheap to unlock via the Nitro program (higher audio and stream quality mainly)

https://support.discordapp.com/hc/en-us/articles/360028038352-Server-Boosting-

This week Museums and the Web (MW) is going on virtually and is running mostly in Microsoft Teams and Second Life (still confused by that one). I’ve had some great discourse with colleagues about what “virtual conferences” are supposed to model. Should they model the “physical experience” which is to say, you, a person, standing or sitting in a room with other people (this is the Second Life route) or should they model the reasons why people go to conferences such as presentation of information, discussion, and networking. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is quoted ad infinitum, but its apt to use here.

I think Discord (or even a conference run out of a series of Zoom calls) works far better than attempting to recreate a digital simulacra of a conference space. There are also serious questions about Second Life specifically I’d like to see MW address, namely users encountering inappropriate content for a museum conference as Second Life is often used as a platform for cybersex and has many well known avenues for trolling and harassment. Also 3D games that make you create a model “you” or some fictional version of “you” often leave out options to depict people with disabilities.

I saw someone on twitter say that “Second Life is great because everything is accessible at this conference” and I thought about how much erasure someone with a visible disability would feel at this, let alone people with body types that might not map onto a digital model.

At the end of the day I think Discord would be a fun option for a conference to explore and try. Even if the presentation part (running multiple streams in one server might not handle the load) I think Discord would work well for managing text channels in a conference for discussion and socializing, as well as centralizing attendees in one space so they can form their own conversations via, chat, voice, and video.

I’m happy to help any conference explore options!

Stay healthy colleagues, comrades, and compatriots!

Jeremy Munro

Become the Void

All the seasons are unified by the fact they all have nights that feel alive.

Nights where around midnight, one am, two am, the air is still, a pregnant pause, a sense that not only is anything possible, but that it’s all about to happen, its all about to change.

In spring, they’re the first 70 degree night, you take off your light jacket and bike home with friends, blasting emo relics, full throated and raw. Let’s be young.

In summer, there’s a stickiness, coating every surface and every body, you sit outside at a bar, polishing back cheap beer and shot combos, eating french fries. For some reason Johnny Cash comes on, but Ring of Fire feels like it lasts 10 minutes.

In fall, crisp leaves coat the street, you’re walking home from a Halloween party, you just saw a band named “The Meat Sweats” at a house show in a neighborhood that means everything to the punk DIY scene, spoken about outside your city in reverent tones.

In winter, the cold is left behind as snow covers the world, insulating sound, the energy winter steals from the world once per year is gone, replaced by an electricity, a magnetism, a childish levity of snow days, snowball fights, of freezing in a garage during a house show.

I hunger for these moments. My hope is that at some point, some night everything will change, for everyone, that we will all take to the streets in victory, we will hold eachother arm in arm, we will laugh, we will break down and cry in the middle of the thoroughfare.

Nights like these are the font of the abyss, the void, it is when emptiness creeps into our lives it is up to use to paint the canvas however we deem fit.

And so we must become the void, become the abyss, become empty, thus I prognosticate forth spewing these words, barfing forth this apocalyptica, et cetera, et cetera as we all slide into perdition.

This emptiness is not resignation, nor is it a claim to strength, discard such notions, burn them, take the ashes, salt the earth whence they stood, and drop the ashes into the deepest trench of the Sea (our abyssal mother) itself. Nay, these words are a salve, a balm, a guiding light.

Follow them if you will, if you do, I’ll be there right next to you, you’ll always have an ally and so you’ll never be alone and isn’t that all that matters, in the end?

The Outer Worlds: The Work of a Revolution was Done with Two Hands

I didn’t do much with the character Felix in the Outer Worlds. He seemed like a bland buddy to help you out on your space western quest to fight the evil dystopia corporate Board in charge of the futuristic Halcyon colony. I much preferred Parvati, the can-do engineer, and Nyoka, the hard drinking, tough fighting survivalist.

At the end of most Obsidian games there is usually a slideshow that showcases the effect of the players choices. The following text came up for Felix.

“Life in Halcyon was sobering for Felix Millstone. The grand revolution he’d dreamed of never came. There was no great awakening for the colony, no celebrations in the streets. There was only the hard, desperate work of trying to repair a broken colony. Felix never had a head for numbers, but if there was labor to be done, he was there to help. Eventually, Felix realized that the work of a revolution was done with two hands.”

Nyoka and Parvati are at the center, Felix is to the left of Nyoka.

This slideshow made me do a 180 on Felix and if anything embodies a major theme of the “good” playthrough of the game.

Here are the major choices I made that constitute a “good” ending:

1. Installed Adelaide, leader of the Deserters in charge of the factory town of Edgewater

2. Convinced the rogue corporation MSI and the Iconoclasts to join together against the Board

3. Kept the Groundbreaker in good repair allowing them to continue to function independently from the Board

4. At all points curbed the power of the Board

By following this path the game told a story about Doing the Work. You’re probably reading that thinking “Duh this is a game about labor, about corporations, oppression, and a parody of corporate dystopia that bites very hard against our own time” and that’s absolutely a correct takeaway. However, there’s more to it. The Outer Worlds is about labor yes, but its also about the Work we have to do to keep society afloat in the face of structural and existential threats.

In the Halcyon colony the center cannot hold, mass starvation threatens the colony, Earth has gone silent and cannot be counted on for aid, and the elites of The Board realize they no longer need the lower classes to maintain their supremacy and luxury. In fact these elites want to ride out the starvation by hoarding supplies.

As is so often the case in stories, the pieces to save everything are there. In the Outer Worlds those pieces are people and the ties that bind them. Adelaide, leader of the Deserters who knows a thing or two about growing food, Sanjar leader of MSI knows how to use corporate processes for the advantage of all workers, Zora leader of the Iconoclasts who has the pragmatism to counter Sanjar’s natural inclination towards operating within power structures (Sanjar is basically center left, Zora is more far left but with a practical streak), Junlei of the Groundbreaker who along with Parvati have the mechanical know how to keep everything running, and finally Phineas Welles who never gave up trying to save the Halcyon colony from itself.

The ending based on these choices is hopeful, it says that Halcyon has a bright future, times will be hard, but people will weather them.

Right now, here on our Earth we face our own existential threats. There’s a feeling that we are on the path toward either dystopia and climate change threatens our very existence. Outer World’s sees the solution in people banding together to meet the challenges head on, its simple, but its a useful story to tell in an age of cynicism.

Outer Worlds is to be a space western. The player character (called The Stranger) rides in and to either save the colony or damn it to hell. These individualistic models for stories are older than written history, but they don’t have to be read individualistically. The Stranger could be anyone, the Stranger could be all of us, The Stranger can be the ties that bind us together, The Stranger is the cold hard truth that change is nigh and there’s a lot of Work to Be Done.

The work of a revolution is done with two hands (or with whatever you have) and we all should keep that message close in the times that come.

MCN 2019 San Diego Thoughts from the Cool Rock Wall on the Water at the Conference Hotel

Me, at the aforementioned Cool Rock Wall (TM) on the first day of the conference.

I knew I was entering a different world about three-quarters the way through my second flight. I’d woken up at 5:30am to ride the metro to DCA then fly to DFW then off to San Diego. Dallas was cloudy and rainy on Tuesday, but after we cleared Texas, about near Abilene, the sky opened up below us and I glimpsed a new, dry landscape.

I’d never been this far west and things only got more earth toney from there. As we flew into San Diego I saw the famous California sprawl and a bunch of new plants. I felt like I was in a postcard. For folks who don’t know I was born in upstate NY, raised in New Hampshire, and came into the museum profession in Bentonville, Arkansas. I only recently became a city boy when I moved to DC. Travel wise I’ve never left the country and mostly only driven to places in the Northeast and Midwest when I went on tour with a friend’s band.

Its safe to say travel is stressful and taxing even at the best of times and conferences doubly so. I’d been to MCN once before, in Pittsburgh, which ruled. Pittsburgh is a city that really works for me. I made some friends there and at Museums and the Web in Boston this year.

This MCN felt different though and I wanted to hash out why. I don’t intend this as a negative piece at all, in fact when I returned from the conference my overriding emotion aside from *I’m so happy I’m home* was *oh that was a pretty alright conference all told.*

The first difference this year was that I presented along with two excellent co-panelists, Amanda Dearolph and Erin Canning. We talked about the limitations of collection databases. I specifically talked about challenges in cataloging with regards to increasing social justice/equity and righting the wrongs of colonialist legacies. We should be publishing the slides soon. Presenting definitely changed my relationship to the conference. After we presented I spent a lot of time looking around wondering what people would think of what I’d said.

I went into this conference knowing people, several in fact! I think I lacked the same impetus I had to put myself out there like I had in Pittsburgh. I skipped a few sessions to go sit on the rock wall and stare out at the water because I needed the reprieve.

Finally, conferences are tough for me. I’m on the autism spectrum, which I am very public about. I can come off as way too honest sometimes and have an impulse to say things very directly especially during the question portion of conference presentations. I I know a lot of folks say that MCN is welcoming and it has been for me in the past, but this year felt different somehow. Several people mentioned cliques this year and I wanted to explore that idea some more.

I’ve rewritten this paragraph a few times. I want to articulate something I don’t know if neurotypical people understand. The way my brain works I always want to lump everyone into groups and categories, I want to systematize everything. One of the reasons I’m so attracted to postmodernist theory is because there is this focus on the minute details of systems and how they change us (shout outs to Foucault and the panopticon).

I also build narrative and when you’re standing in the exhibitor hall by yourself and no one walks over to you and see people who are well known in the field talking to other people well known in the field (or at least well known at MCN), its easy to get to a bad mental place where you feel like you’re back in high school again. I got beat up a few times in high school, it kinda sucked. I also found punk rock in high school and that saved me for a few more years until I could emerge from college and figure out who the hell I was.

To be clear, I don’t think any of this is deliberate on the part of people individually. I think conferences are just hell for everyone. They work for me when I’m in a good panel session, or at a reception, or grabbing some beverages later at night. I know other people might feel differently, they’re probably great at the midday schmoozing and hate going out late, that’s totally fair!

I do think that MCN has a problem in that it doesn’t know what kind of conference it wants to be – particularly in regard to the sessions offered. Is MCN a “tech conference” or is it a social justice oriented conference that primarily examines museums through the lens of tech? Right now if you want to have the former experience you can avoid the latter. Its easy to go to MCN and attend only the hippest new sessions on machine learning, AI, VR, AR, and go to the keynote and feel like “wow tech is cool!”

But to marginalized folks though tech is scary. Algorithms take on the bias of their creators, who are often white cis dudes chasing profit motive and their big payout. Facial recognition software threatens to heighten the already extreme level of surveillance put on communities of color. Climate change will either be addressed collectively or through a form of eco-fascism which will very likely take a tech face as it seeks control.

I’d encourage folks to attend more sessions about social justice and equity, especially in regards to dismantling white supremacy. The session on Dismantling White Supremacy through Agile was a standout. The other session I really liked was “How to Unionize Your Museum” which was a heartening session. Aside from what unions are and when they are useful and when are they not it was a heartening story about people coming together to stop some really not great working conditions.

Its interesting to juxtapose the unionization session against the myriad sessions about burnout, failure, and institutional culture. To me, organizing formally or informally is the solution to the not so great labor practices of this sector or even changing institutional culture. I’m always skeptical of anything that stops short of saying this whole system is rotten through, but instead it says we need some tech, some tool, some way of running a meeting that will fix everything or at least tamp down the harm. I think that’s a valid perception, but doesn’t go far enough in meaningfully addressing these issues.

In the end, it was a good conference, I’ll definitely be at MCN Baltimore. I want to work on my ability to introduce myself to people I don’t know some more. I want to get more involved with the field in between conferences and definitely dial back my hot takes in person. This conference was good, but tough. Some years you learn a lot about your job at a conference, this year I learned a lot about myself. I found some places I need to grow up still. I think I definitely came off poorly to some people partially because of the weird headspace I was in and I want to apologize for that.

The minute I got off the plane in DC I walked to the Metro and felt a deep sigh of relief as I sat down on a mostly empty train. Finally, I was back somewhere I knew the rules, where the system of the train was clear and distinct. Soon I’d be home and I could finally sleep.

I wish you all much more than luck in trying to live the life you want and hopefully fighting for a better world.

Jeremy M.