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.


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