So when I originally pitched the Museum Computer Network (MCN) on this I did the thing everyone does where you have an idea you’ve barely thought about and you fart out some word soup on the application. Then I forgot about it for a few months, then in September I realized I needed a presentation in like a month.
The good news about this I think constraints help make good art and I also think slide decks can be art. I mean look at this slide I made, this is real outsider art shit, to me.
If we want to go real artspeak on this presentation then its using the lens of solarpunk to examine the tech practices of today in order to illustrate what needs to change to reach the “dream idyll” of Museums in 3021.
If we want to be blunt its really about my frustration that popular visions of the future look like the present, but ignore all the technical and structural problems of implementing them. For example, Elon Musk’s vision of Electric Vehicles ignores the pending scarcity of rare earth metals, mining conditions in the global south, the fact that even if cars run on “green energy” there are still carbon emissions in the production of all materials that create the vehicle.
This happens in museums too, where the popular understanding of a “progressive” museum looks a lot like the museum today, except we talk about marginalized communities more. To be clear, that’s a good first step – but my critique of museums is much deeper and more structural.
My new director asked the other day whether any museum as a “right” to exist, which to me is the whole ballgame. We take museums or places of culture as a necessity or a dream of ‘”civilized” society, but rarely interrogate why.
I intended to do some speculative fiction and create a world for 3021, but found it really difficult aside from some vagaries about solarpunk. Yet, I realized that the purpose of Sci-Fi is to create alternate worlds and see what we can learn from them, so in that sense I did actually do a speculative fiction, I guess – I dunno its a reach, but it’ll sound really good when I say it, which is really all that matters for presentations much of the time.
It’s at least 86 degrees in my apartment according to my thermostat. For some reason the AC isn’t working. Machines are funny things, they work until they don’t. It’s reductive to call human beings machines, but we too, work until we don’t.
And so I sit here with a sweaty stemless wine glass of cheap whiskey and diet cream soda blasting the soundtrack to the video game Disco Elysium. The thing about using diet sodas as mixer is the drink mostly tastes like whiskey.
Folks far wiser than I have expounded at length about Disco Elysium, the game where an alcoholic, drug addict cop attempts to solve a murder in a world that looks strangely like our own, but isn’t. What I want to talk about today is a Tribunal.
The arc of Disco Elysium is murder mystery…until it isn’t. In the final act of the game Disco Elysium reveals itself as not being about murder at all and instead being about politics and how individual actors within political systems relate to politics, history, culture, and all the other nice fancy words people sling around casually in undergraduate theory class.
The final act of the game sees the two protagonists (heroes?) Lieutenant Double-yefreitor Harrier DuBois (Harry) and Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi (the only good cop?) intervene between the Martinaise Débardeurs’ Union and Krenel, a private military company. Krenel is looking for who killed one of their operatives. The Dockworkers Union has very publicly claimed credit, but at this point the player has serious suspicions the Dockworkers did not do it.
What follows is a long scene, replete with choices where the player (in the form of Harry) intervenes in the dispute and ultimately fights with the Dockworkers against Krenel, who are happy to see the poor people of Martinaise burn.
In my playthrough Harry was able to gun down some of the Krenel operatives and was ultimately saved by Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi after taking a bullet.
What I can’t escape is the use of the word “Tribunal.” The minute the player learns about Krenel, you learn that they plan to hold a Tribunal. No one, including the player, thinks this will be an official process.
During the Tribunal you realize that the murder mystery never mattered. Even if you found out who the killer was it would not matter to Krenel, judgment will come no matter what. Instead, I think the game is asking a far more complex, though more easily worded question:
What is judgment? What is good?
In my playthrough, at the end of the Tribunal scene Kim Kitsuragi produces his gun and kills the final member of Krenel. A few hours earlier he had missed an easy shot with the gun. A local kid made fun of his eyesight.
Kim makes the shot.
When Harry wakes up after he himself is shot Kim is smoking. On other days in the game he smokes at night, right before you bid him goodnight he says he only smokes one cigarette a day. Now, he’s smoking in the daytime.
“I killed her” – Kim
“I thought you only smoked one a day.” – Harry
“This is the one.”
The other day I saw a tweet that said in the heat people’s mental health goes out the window. I can’t get it out of my head.
I think heat is more than just the temperature we feel.
I started this piece with a quote from the Bible, which is something people do when they want to sound dramatic or poetic or insightful. I chose it because it’s a line that sticks in my head. In my head I say it with a darkly southern accent. Judge not. Lest ye be judged.
I’m struggling to articulate what Disco Elysium means to me just like I’ve struggled my whole life to show any emotion. My entire childhood and teenage years I was either physically bullied or mentally bullied. I was told I was nothing, I was told that I’d never fit in. That I wasn’t normal, that no matter what I did or how well I acted in society there would always be some giveaway, some fault, some mistake that would reveal that my entire persona was a castle of lies.
My whole life I’ve been judged. And the way I coped was to judge back.
The politics of Disco Elysium are fascinating and deserve something more than an introspective essay. But to me, the Tribunal, Harry’s rise out of addiction, Kim Kitsuragi’s friendship, Krenel’s absolute indifference to the people of Martinaise is about being judged. It’s about judging. It’s about the chaos that ensues when the gulf between our desire to connect with other human beings brushes up against all the things that get in the way – language, history, context, emotion, and anything else.
I still don’t know what I think about what comes next, for me, the people I love, the world, but I know that there is a strange beauty and awe in our world and a whole mess of absurdity. And I know that everyday we hold our own tribunals of ourselves, where the voice(s) inside of us give their opinions of our actions and we are found wanting. We should do like Harry and Kim and the Dockworkers Union and fight back, in any way we can.
When the Tribunal comes for you, don’t miss. You always knew how to see, you just didn’t realize it.
First off, I want to say that the following is meant to be inspirational – I personally make myself feel better about my life by putting everything 10,000 feet in the air.
TL;DR A lot of really shitty people hate museums and hate that museums would even attempt social justice therefore museums are okay, maybe.
With how negative and cynical many museum professionals (especially myself) sound about museums on Twitter and in other professional spaces the question that follows is:
“Why do you keep choosing to work in museums since you think they are so awful/bad/whatever?”
For what it’s worth I think the subtext of this question is great. It is well documented that most jobs in museums pay poorly. Even jobs like HR, finance, administration, or security often pay less than their private sector or public sector counterparts.
Gainful, full time museum employment is also notoriously difficult and competitive.
Due to those two facts, it’s fair to say that for many of us it isn’t *just* that we need a job in order to make rent.
Thus the reason we stick around must be something else. Something so powerful that we put up with the low wages, job insecurity, poor benefits, toxic culture that is often racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic, and generally dedicating ourselves to institutions run for and by rich (white) people who might enjoy art and think museums a public good with their right hand, but with their left don’t live up to those values and actively participate in the wholesale grift that is the contemporary art market where value as investment is prioritized over anything else.
This question was rolling around Twitter the other day and I wanted to square my own desire to leave the field with my desire to stick it out. I often talk with my partner about how museums are bad, which, as a sentiment, people in my life often struggle with. “I like museums, they’re fun” they say and that’s an absolutely legitimate and correct sentiment.
There’s an extent to which the problems of museums are the problem of any industry, we know how the sausage is made. However, being aware of the problems of A Thing That Exists is actually the ultimate sign of a healthy relationship to it. People are very aware of the rabid fandoms around various mainstream geek culture, things like Star Wars or Marvel movies for example. Often extreme fans of these media properties refuse to tolerate any serious critique. This emotional response is a sign of an unhealthy relationship to cultural production.
Cultural production, that is, music, art, media, anything created by people that people are into is at its best when people can accept that they love that thing so much, that it means so much to them that they are willing to pick it apart, that they are willing to hold two (or more) thoughts at once.
I like this thing it is good
This thing has issues, nothing is perfect and in fact by examining those aspects I can relate to it better
I do not mean to say our parents, partners, or friends have an unhealthy relationship to museums. I do not think most people in our lives or most people in society relate to museums in a rabid fanbase kind of way. However, I think most museum professionals consciously or subconsciously draw strength from:
“Museums or cultural heritage organizations have all kinds of problems and I stick around because I know they can be better. This is my role in making a better world.”
This passion that cultural heritage workers bring has been taken advantage of for decades and is the source of low wages and poor working conditions. Many people in power tell us only the passionate need apply. However, our passion, aka “how much we give a shit” is also our greatest weapon.
Museums and culture more broadly are valuable tools that human beings have to resist oppression, to endure through tough times, and to flip the table back on oppressors when we have the advantage and ability.
I was struck today while reading an interview with Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch at how the notion of a grandson of a southern sharecropper founding a museum on the National Mall dedicated to the story of African-Americans would be absolutely anathema to every inveterate racist that has ever lived or continues to draw breath. The National Museum of African American History & Culture is only a few miles from the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (the site of Arlington Cemetery if you didn’t know). In several directions only a few miles away hundreds of thousands of people fought, bled, and died horribly over the question of would slavery (and the domination of a landed aristocratic white elite) last. In a different sense this was a war about who gets to be not just American, but viewed as human.
Hundreds of thousands of slaves fought their own part in that war, whether explicitly as soldiers or impressed laborers. Many rebelled against their masters and put the plantation house to flame. Many others endured as resistance. Now, there is a museum that tells that story and thousands of others on the National Mall. Lonnie Bunch said “The Mall is where America comes to learn what it means to be an American” and I *think* museums broadly seek to do this but for humanity.
In so many ways what it means to be American or even human, explicitly, is awful, whether it’s the continued attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, systematic oppression of African-Americans, or any other terrible things people are responsible for nationally and internationally. That might be what America *is* and it’s easy (and I am guilty of this most days) to think of the National Mall as a site that “cleans up” the American Image.
I would refine the Secretary’s quote a tad. The National Mall and museums or cultural heritage institutions writ large are where we learn about what America or human civilization has done, but more importantly what it could be.
The very existence of sites like the Vietnam Memorial, National Museum of African American History & Culture, Holocaust Museum, and many others around this country is a testament to the continued dream of a better world. They are bulwarks and continued rebellion against any ideology which seeks to divide who is and isn’t human in order to conquer and oppress.
Again, to be absolutely clear, museums very rarely hit these high minded ideals, at least actively. Many museums perpetuate violence against marginalized people everyday.
But I console myself that a lot of hateful and power hungry people look at many of our institutions and hate that they exist. They hate that people like us work in them, especially for our colleagues who have a different skin color than mine. The very survival ideology that says a better world – for everyone – is possible is a threat and culture has always been the razor edged sword in the hand of the oppressed and marginalized.
Our victory is our work. Our testament is our attempt. Our gospel (meant in the classic sense of “the good news”) is the lives we lead.
I stick around in museums because this is what I do.I am one person in a long long line of people tasked with transmuting the culture of what came before and that work has NEVER been clean, easy, or ethical. Yet, the attempts matter and the next time I wake up and don’t want to do my job and think that basically everything museums do is irrelevant or in the interest of the rich and powerful I’m going to remind myself that we, the museum professionals and concerned public are the thorn in their lions paw and only we can remove the thorn because we put it there in the first place.
I’ll close with a quote, it’s from a really weird thing. Don’t Be a Sucker! is a short educational film produced by the U.S. War Department in 1943 and re-released in 1947. It’s a very strange film as it is profoundly radical for something produced by a U.S. Government agency.
“You see, we human beings are not born with prejudices. Always they are made for us, made by someone who wants something. Remember, somebody’s going to get something out of it, and it isn’t going to be you.”
In the Civil War most of the wealthy planter class survived the war and regained their status once Reconstruction ended. Many generals like Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan) lived out their lives to old age.
The young men who fought to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy died in various locations, but mostly they died in what is now a fairly short drive from the National Mall. Many of these men were also inveterate racists and should not be lionized in the slightest, but all white supremacy gave them was a battlefield amputation or a mass grave, likely somewhere in Virginia or Maryland.
The paramount mission for us, as museum professionals is to enlist the public in using culture to fight the good fight against the forces that wish to divide us, pit us against one another through white supremacy and capitalism, and constantly tell us a better world is *not* possible.
If you made it this far, thank you for indulging in me being On One.
This piece started because of a tweet by my friend and colleague Alli Hartley-Kong – who aptly pointed out one of the major blocks to museum employment for folks with disabilities is blanket requirements that you must be able to lift some amount of weight, usually around 25 pounds. This got me thinking about how ableism makes itself known in museum collections management.
My goal here is to outline what physical work is required in museum collections management and outline accommodations and alternatives, so that the field of registrars, collections specialists, and collections assistants can be diversified in terms of ability. Additionally, I want to point out how this is a labor issue and one that museums refuse to solve because it would involve hiring more staff or expending resources on things that aren’t sexy.
What is the work of Collections Management?
All museums collections practices and departments are different. However, there are some broad trends. Most museums have some type of Collections Manager or Registrar who oversees care of the collection physically, legally, and in terms of cataloging. A larger museum might have a Head Registrar with other Registrars below them. Other roles in such a department might be a Collections Specialist or Assistant which are de facto entry level roles on the Collections Management team. Some museums have a dedicated Collections Manager who is separate from a Registrar, some don’t. Rarely, a collections management team might exist outside the Registration department. In that case Registrars handle object logistics and acquisitions, while a collections management team would be in charge of object care and storage. Conservation often exists as its own department, but works extremely close with Collections staff. In the past few decades it’s become more common to have dedicated database folks under the Registration or Collections Management heading. Finally, very often any staff art handlers often exist as a team underneath a Head Registrar or Head of Collections Management.
Collections Management and Museum Registration is a really fascinating job because it encompasses large chunks of being at a desk with physical work. It also might involve a very unique (and taxing) type of travel by being a courier.
Below are types of physical work I’ve seen or done in my 8 years in the field firsthand that are de facto required for collections work. Note that in some museums this work is a regular occurrence in other museums this is only once in awhile, usually during “all hands on deck” moments – however in all cases I’ve found it expected:
Standing for 8+ hours a day in a gallery during exhibition installation or deinstallation
“Slinging Crates” aka putting heavy art crates on wheeled platforms and moving them around storage or loading them on and off a truck
General art movement, whether within storage or down to galleries, involves lifting objects, with aid of others onto “wing wagons” or “A-Frames” or tables which are different wheeled platforms to move objects, sometimes this has been for 8 hours a day for a week or more during big projects
Operation of a pallet jack, in my case one summer this was done outdoors in a parking lot in 90 degree weather
Loading and unloading of art trucks, involves usually stepping onto a hydraulic lift or lift gate and maneuvering crates on or off a truck. This is where I’ve seen some of the most taxing work, for example I am fairly thin so often I need to squeeze around crates or climb on crates that are packed too tightly (poorly)
Outdoor sculpture maintenance – involving walking museum grounds and cleaning off sculpture, including waxing sculpture which requires bending, and vigorous arm movement with pressure for multiple hours
Indoor art maintenance – bringing a ladder down to the galleries and setting it up in front of each painting to brush dust off the frames, might involve teardown and set up of a ladder 30 ish times depending on size of installation or museum
Contemporary Installation maintenance – my museum had a Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy spill – the candy had to be refreshed every day or so, involved carrying heavy totes of candy, unloading it onto the sculpture, then getting on hands and knees to move candy around in the form desired by curators. Every few months the entire candy spill would be cleaned up and reinstalled as it got pretty gross because people would throw the empty wrappers in it, seriously never eat candy from these things.
Pushing of heavy carts or crates
Measuring objects, which when large can get very physical
Perform work standing at tables or mobile desk carts – all of which are not at sitting height
Couriering art: involves riding on a semi-truck for up to 24 hours in one go with minimal rest stops, requires being able to get in and out of a semi on your own. Couriering can also involve flying on a cargo plane and in both cases usually means long stints of standing around often in non-temperature controlled spaces like receiving docks or airport logistics areas
Why are these normal expectations?
I think it’s possible to make this a difficult question, but I don’t think it has to be. The short of it is within museums there is a huge lack of art handlers and preparators. Art handling as a job has its own issues as a field, namely around workplace safety.I want to be absolutely clear I am not proposing that we merely shift physical labor to art handlers who injure themselves and blow out their backs instead of “professional” staff (I hate that word – there is no such thing as unskilled labor).
Instead, what I am proposing is that the field of art handling needs to be expanded and art handlers and any other physical museum jobs need to be paid substantially more, have extremely good PPE, regular safety training, and all physical work in museums, art handling or facility work or education should structure workplace systems to reduce strenuous physical labor where possible.
For collections management work the problem is that since museums refuse to hire art handlers or have art handlers on staff full time (rather than just bringing them in on contract) collections staff have to pick up the slack on physical work. Even when contract art handlers are brought in often collections staff still must assist with physical work as it saves money to have someone on staff help rather than pay for another contractor.
It sucks to say, but I can’t imagine any head registrar who is already working with a short staff seriously considering a candidate who uses a wheelchair for example. I am sure these people exist and I am sure it has happened, but it would be a major hurdle for a person like that to be a museum registrar.
The logic would go thusly: a person who can’t ride in a truck can’t courier, which means other registrars have to courier more often, if they can’t sling crates, we need to pay more for contract labor, etc etc.
This mentality is bad, its ableist, and cruel, and essentially says only certain kinds of people can perform museum collection work. If museums are going to be serious about the work of diversifying their workplaces they need to be okay with making accommodations and changes to labor for all staff in all jobs and departments.
Solutions and Accommodations
Aside from hiring more staff so that physical workload can be shared or done by staff with more training and expertise in the work there are a lot of common sense changes collections teams can do.
Stop the expectation of needing to stand for 8 hours a day in an exhibition installation or deinstallation
I don’t know why even for able bodied people we expect this – museums should purchase mobile desks that are at a comfortable height when sitting in a mobile rolling chair and not treat staff poorly when they ask for such an accommodation.
I think most people would be scared to ask for this because they’d be thought of as “lazy” frankly
Set up a culture of its okay if projects take longer if that means people are being safer
Some people can do physical work, but need to do it at slower speeds, Registrars and Collections Managers need to push back on the unreasonable deadlines that Curators and senior leadership push onto collections staff
Art logistics needs to be a funding priority for senior leadership
Senior leadership will fund collections work when it’s a big shiny traveling exhibition or a load of new acquisitions from New York, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars or much much more in logistics costs, but will nickel and dime departments on new equipment that can make physical labor easier or reduce physical labor entirely
Send less couriers
There are many other reasons to not send couriers, venues receiving the art often have to pay the courier cost and many people think it’s rude when large museums with big budgets like the Met send a courier to a peer institution with similar collections practices. The practice of couriering (on paper) is that someone should be with the objects during transit aside from the two drivers. In practice couriering is often a way to shuttle around staff looking for free trips, especially when the staff are curators. This is not always the case, but it’s been the case with what I’ve seen. There is much more that I could say on this, but that’s for another time. I know I’m people putting people on blast, but again this my experience with what I’ve seen.
Acquire better tables, carts, and other movement aids
Many museums use the tables and carts they’ve always used and have not spent funds on updating to better models that might be easier for people to move
Stop offloading destruction of human bodies onto contract laborers
Contract art handlers are happy to receive the labor, but are also at huge risks to their physical well being – they have major pressure from museums to work fast over safely lest they be known as a slow handler trying to milk more money out of an institution. Art handling must be treated as the professional, permanent job that it is, just like Conservation, Registration or any other job in museums
Train other staff to help out
I have never understood why in both museums I’ve worked at there are facility teams with large staffs who we trust to clean our galleries alone, set up for events, and otherwise take care of the building who we do not trust with our art objects. Museums should train these staff to help out with art handling and other physical collections work. We have to end the “blue collar” “white collar” divide. This does not mean that collections work should be devalued, facility workers and collections staff deserve robust wages commensurate with the importance of cultural heritage work, as do all other workers in the field.
This has the added benefit of breaking down silos and building a better workplace culture where everyone has a direct hand in managing the collection
There’s probably more, but this is what I could think of off the top of my head. I hope this piece starts some conversations about how museum labor can be restructured so that everyone can be part of it. The cool thing is that by making museum work more friendly for people with physical disabilities it also makes labor safer, easier, and sometimes even more efficient for everyone else. I personally am about to turn 30 and have some minor back problems, I would prefer to not injure myself on the job lifting up a 300 pound sculpture with some people because we refuse to invest in equipment to move it or tell senior leadership “no we will not move this for an event you want to have in the room it is in.”
If you want to reach out to me the best place is my twitter or porchrates at gmail
I feel like any way you start a post about 2020 and what a year it was will sound cliché. Saying it was a “rough” year is a massive understatement when as of writing, almost 350,000 people in my country have died. An unfathomable number joined by a year of unfathomable numbers, millions losing jobs, millions being set back on the ladder of progress that this colonialist country is built on.
If instead I said the year was “wild”, “absurd”, “difficult”, if I used the phrase “in these times” it would sound like PR commercial speak.
Instead, I’ll be blunt. Hard times have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. Any port in a storm we can find to weather it is worth talking about.
For me, my safe harbor was Hades, a video game created by Supergiant Games. For those who don’t know Supergiant has a reputation of never missing and creating games that are fun to play, incredible art and music, and deeply reflective stories about characters navigating situations they see no escape from.
(Major spoilers for Hades)
Hades is no different. The game follows Zagreus, the son of Hades as he attempts to escape his father’s realm of the same name. In Hades, you die, a lot. You die, come back, and try again. Eventually you escape Hades only to fight your dad himself. If you beat him, you escape, only to be sent back when you find out you can’t survive on the surface.
You do however find your mother, Persephone on the surface. The game then morphs, instead of being about escaping, its about returning to the surface to see your mom and understand better the circumstances of your birth, why she left Hades, and what she sees in your father. You could write a book about how Zagreus, Persephone, and Hades come together to function as family, but what I want to talk about is the ending, the credits ending, and more importantly, the song that plays.
The player needs to beat Hades 9 times and then escape one more time to reach the game’s ending. When you show up, on this 10th time, you expect to fight Hades again, as you always have, as the games cycle has dictated. But something truly transformative happens, that renegotiates the player’s entire relationship with Zagreus, Hades, the cycle of escape, and the play itself.
Hades just….lets you go.
The whole game you’ve tried and tried to escape, hit Hades who is the most difficult fight you’ve reached in the entire game. Who you’ve beaten nine times. The antagonist who taunts you every time you die, who tells you that you aren’t enough, tells you you’re weak, tells you that you won’t make it, tells you that you don’t understand.
Lets you go.
And Zagreus does. He goes to see Persephone on the surface one last time. She has packed up her things to his surprise, she’s decided to come back to Hades, thanks to Zagreus helping her better understand what happened with her husband. The boatman Charon is there, you climb in the boat and the credits roll. If you want to watch the ending, its worth it I think, even if you didn’t play the game here’s a link.
The song “In the Blood” plays. I’d highly recommend listening to it before reading further.
They key line, the line that really made this game hit home for me in this year: Where I haven’t seen my parents, my sister, her four kids, Where I haven’t had the physical support of my close friends, Where I’ve witnessed more and more people living on the margins, struggle, while the wealthy are content to let them wither on the vine, Where people have decided the cold bodies of our friends, neighbors, and family are worth it, as long as the wheels of capitalism continue to function is
“Home, Is not where you live, But who cares when you’re gone.”
After writing this I realized what I wanted to say about this year. This is a year of loss. We are all in some stage of responding to grief. Many people are for the first time realizing things weren’t so great before either. That there’s always been a body count to how our society functions, there’s always been people who are oppressed and most importantly what has happened this year is not news to the people who’ve been oppressed and victimized generation after fucking generation.
I’ve tried to think about Hades over-arching message and theme. Hades is a game about cycles and how we are all bound to them. In Greek myth its the Fates, spinning their web. In our world its processes and systems that function as they were designed, whether its the criminal justice system, our economic system, politics, or family. Hades as a game seems aware of this, yet it postulates, through the character of Zagreus and the support of the people around him, that these cycles might not be breakable, but instead can be refashioned, retooled, for our own ends.
After the ending Zagreus continues trying to escape Hades, now at the behest of his father to make Hades more secure. The fights you have with Hades after feel more like father and son bonding, a friendly rivalry. The cycle of the game continues, but under new rules, a new context.
I think the game is pretty clear about its outlook – Sisyphus, consigned to roll a boulder up a hill where it falls back again is a major character in the game. The work of Albert Camus is all over this game. Cycles, the nature of the universe, the nature of the systems we inhabit might not be able to be broken, but *we* can change them. Like Zagreus we can never give up. Every time we fail is just another opportunity to try again. We exist in a long tradition of people who have desired a better world *for everyone* and there’s a strength in that. As a museum person I respect the notion of being the next steward in a long line of stewards.
Most importantly, we can allow ourselves to feel loss, to mourn, to take a shot, pour one out for those who we’ve lost. To realize that we were home for them and they were home for us.
What Zagreus’ struggle is really about is finding a reason to survive, about making it.
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.
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)
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!
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.