Self-care for museum professionals
[Blog post originally appeared on the MuseLab blog May 2019]
In a recent conversation with a museum friend, I was reminded of something that’s been troubling me for a very long time during my career. After many years in the field—with a lot more hindsight—I can see a worrisome pattern behind the scenes of many museums. I want to preface this with the fact that I am aware that what I am about to write is probably not a museum-specific issue, but I know museums, and so I focus here on museums. Here it is: Despite the fact that the people who end up working in museums anecdotally do so because of their deep passion and love for objects, visitors, and interpretive processes, many museum professionals are miserable. Behind the scenes, stress levels are so high and the joy of what got them there in the first place is lost because of the angst they feel. I am not presenting a study here, just an observation from many years of working in museums and now many years of working on museums (and with museum professionals).
What can be done? How can we help make museum work more delightful? How can the initial passion a person feels when entering the field, be sustained long after working in the field? Answering these questions will be a big task. First, we need to figure out the reason(s) for such a strong trend. Well, actually, we really need systematic data and analysis to define the trend overall. I have some ideas about the possible reasons, but they are only anecdotal for now. One is the issue of treating a museum like a business and whether or not this is the right tactic for a cultural organization. The other is putting non-museum-trained people at the helm; should a person have museum training and experience or not? These have been perennial debates in museum circles for many years (at least U.S.). Another possibility, that goes without saying is probably the salary issue (museum salaries are notoriously low) but my colleagues (Michelle Epps and Emerging Museum Professionals) have recently done a thorough study on that and I point you to them on that topic.
In my quest to develop a Positive Museology, I am hoping, to help alleviate in some small way, this pressure. But it will take time to build this framework and dissemination much longer. Until then, I recommend a great Self-Care book by my friend and colleague Seema Rao, Objective Lessons: Self-Care for Museum Workers. If you are a museum professional that finds yourself particularly unhappy about your present job, this book might be a big help. It’s really a workbook, meant to guide museum workers to find their own personal meaning in life and in work. It is designed to follow in order (so no more decisions to make), starting with a focus on you, yourself, and only then shifting the focus to you and your work. It is a highly unusual book, filled with spaces and openings, but also exercises and guidance. It is your book, one that you write, draw, and reflect in. And it uses museum ideas and terminology to take you through this process; it is certainly reflective, could even be cathartic, and possibly even fun!
But if this book does not suit you, I might point you to something that I has been helpful to me of late, the Yamas and Niyamas (in particular, see Adele's great book about them). No, this is not a folk band from the 1960s; it is a set of guidelines from ancient Yoga theory (FYI Yoga is a method and theory, not just a set of moves in a yoga studio) that has offered guidance to people across the earth for thousands of years. Derived from the Yoga sutras in the Upanishads, the first two limbs of the 8-fold path, the Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances) are a way to help a person sort out what is meaningful in their life. Adele calls them "jewels" because they are "rare gems of wisdom that give direction to a well-lived and joyful life," (15). Here they are, as defined by Adele:
Nonviolence--kindness and compassion for self and others
Truthfulness--expressing uniqueness and authenticity
Nonstealing--cultivating new skills and abilities
Nonexcess--appreciation and pleasure without excess
Nonposessiveness--intimacy without possession
Purity--cleansing our bodies, speech, thoughts (brings clarity)
Contentment--falling in love with your own life (brings joy)
Self-discipline--consciously choosing discipline and growth (brings refinement)
Self-study--knowing the self (brings freedom)
Surrender--paying attention to what life is asking of us (brings harmony)
The guidelines are meant to be understood and practiced together but my interest here is in self-care of museum professionals and this leans more heavily on the Niyamas end of things. Here, the idea is to "plant" these five "seeds" and nurture them. Applying them is about living skillfully, with the curiosity and spirit of adventure. Ultimately the goal is to strive toward the perfection of these and by doing so bringing to yourself clarity, joy, refinement, freedom, and harmony. Sounds good, eh? But it takes practice—that means persistent work and in fact, never-ending striving. No one ever said that life was easy; living skillfully takes skill and skill take practice.
Perhaps if nothing else, this is the lesson of this blog post—that nothing comes without practice. Even happiness. But, remember that it is important to take care of yourself first because only then can you care effectively for others (remember what they say about the oxygen mask on the airplane?)?
Adele, D. (2009). The yamas & niyamas: Exploring yoga's ethical practice. Duluth, MN: On-Word Bound Books.
Rao, S. (2017). Objective lessons: Self-care for museum workers. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Pondering curiosity, wonder, meaning, and the foundations of museology.