Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Knight, his Squire, and the Bottomless Pot of Gold

Once upon a time, there was a knight, bold and brave, who rode the lands, accompanied by his faithful squire, looking for monsters to slay. In truth, the knight had only ever slain one monster, many years before. But he was firm in his belief that, given the right set of circumstances, he could be the mightiest monster slayer of all time, and that if he was, people would truly understand just how valuable he was to the kingdom and its monster-plagued inhabitants. As  it was, the knight and his squire never quite had enough money to live off. This irritated the knight greatly, not only because he was hungry, but because he could not understand why the people did not appreciate how important he was.

To convince the populace of his skill and prowess, the knight sang songs of his past victory. They were songs of surpassing complexity and eloquence and people loved to hear them. He particularly liked to sing his songs outside the walls of the City, because he was convinced that within those walls lay a treasure – a pot of gold whose contents could never be exhausted. The knight was certain that, one day, he would write a song so perfect that the burghers of the City would have no option but to give him access to the bottomless pot.

So each year, the knight sang a new song, and each year the burghers nodded politely and told him, as clearly as possible and in worlds of one syllable, that there was no bottomless pot of gold. Sometimes they even threw him small bags of gold from the walls of the city, to make him go away. But the knight would just chuckle knowingly, wink, tap his nose, and ride away to compose a new song. “Mark, my words, laddie,” he would say to his squire, as they shivered away the night under some hedgerow, trying to say warm and dry. “When I find the right words for my song, that treasure shall be mine.”

“Don’t you mean, ‘ours’?” the squire would ask, and the knight would look shifty and tell him to get on with feeding the horse.

Within the walls, the burghers were toiling away developing inventions to deal with their monster problems. One year, they built a steam-powered tank that could kill dragons. In an effort to make the knight go away, they told him about this. The knight did look a little worried for a while, but he came back the next day with a whole new song, written overnight, about how a bold knight used his unparalleled knowledge of the ways of monsters to lead the tank to the places where the dragons were most likely to be found.

“But our tank travels much more quickly than your horse,” the burghers protested. “How will you keep up?”

The knight looked especially crafty. “If you give me the bottomless pot of gold, I shall build a motorcycle.”

That year, the knight got no gold at all.

As time went by, the knight’s horse got thinner and more bony, and his armor began to rust. But he remained confident that the bottomless pot of gold was just around the corner. Meanwhile his squire, who was getting tired of being hungry, and who badly wanted another squire to help him with his duties (there being far more repairs to the knight’s failing armor than before), took to visiting the local farms and villages, looking for ideas about what they might trade for food.

In one village, he found the people getting ready for their May festival. “We’re in a bind, you know” the village elder said sadly. “We cut down all the trees hereabouts, and now we don’t have any maypole.” The squire thought of the knight’s tall lance.

At a farm down the road, he spoke with a plowman who was sat disconsolately by his bent plowshare. “The ground on this farm is as hard as iron,” the plowman said. “What I wouldn’t give for a blade of hard steel to break through it.” The squire thought of the knight’s mighty axe, which had a ready supply of spare blades.

At harvest time, he came upon a farmer whose scythe had broken. “These crops will spoil if I can’t harvest them,” the farmer wailed. “If only I had a sharp blade to chop them down.” The squire thought of the knight’s great broadsword, which had not been drawn from its sheath in many years.

At each place he visited, the squire asked about their monster-killing needs. He had listened to the knight’s songs for so long that he had become quite adept at singing them himself. He was a good singer, but while the people appreciated what he sang, they had no gold for songs, or for slaying monsters. “What good does it do me to slay dragons,” the farmer said, “if my family starves for want of harvested crops?” “Ogres live far away,” the plowman said, “but if I cannot plow this field, there will be no food for my village.” “But what if the ogres come here?” the squire asked. “The city folk will kill them with that tank they built,” the plowman said, confidently.

The squire went back to the knight and told him what he had learnt. “True, they have no bottomless pot of gold,” the squire said. “But they each have gold enough that our horse will be fed, as will we, and perhaps we can buy that new helmet you were looking at the other day.” The knight looked at the squire pityingly. “My equipment is for monster-slaying,” he said, speaking slowly, so the squire would understand. “It is not for use in rural pastimes. Besides, such rustic activities are a distraction from our main business of slaying all of the monsters in the kingdom, for which only the bottomless pot of gold will be sufficient. You are a smart fellow, in your own way, but you know nothing of the complexities of funding a monster-slaying program, which is the business of knights. Now go and fix my vambraces.”

So the knight continued his annual pilgrimages to the city, sang his songs, and received the occasional, but never quite sufficient bag of gold from the burghers. As time went by, his horse died, his armor fell apart, and his tall lance developed an unfortunate kink. Eventually the squire, fed up with being hungry all the time, parted company with the knight. He set up in business making axe blade plowshares and converting swords into scythes. In time, he made enough money to buy a horse and armor of his own, and while he never did get to slay any dragons, he did so much good for the peasantry that they made him their king. And he lived happily ever after.

Happy Holidays, everyone. This blog will return, rejuvenated, in the New Year.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Consensus, Cooperation, and Conversation

This is one of my periodic mea culpas for a lack of posts. In this case, I have an excuse and I think it's a worthy one. I'm one of a group of people editing a new book on collection storage, due for publication late this year. Or early next year. It's a 650 page monster with 35 chapters and 60 authors and while I've never given birth, I suspect producing this thing will give me some sense of what that's like. When it comes out, buy it. We managed to assemble a fantastic group of authors and the results prove this. It's awesome.

As part of the promotional activities for the book, we're holding a couple of sessions on collection storage at this year's AAM and AIC conferences, which is another excuse for me not getting any blogging done. This week, I'm in the process of pulling together the outline for a talk on institutional partnerships, which draws on discussions that we've been having among our authors and editors about the need for community outreach within museums, as much as beyond their walls.

As the people tasked with care of the collections, we often assume that the world revolves around us; that conservation priorities are dictated solely by the needs of the objects, as interpreted by us. In fact, we’re part of a wider institutional community that, while it may embrace the general concept of collection care, has very a diverse set of immediate needs that have to be met if the institution is to function effectively. A strategy for collection storage, or indeed for any aspect of collections care, that fails to take this into account is likely to fail. 

If you want more than that, you'll have to turn up for one of the sessions, either at AIC (Sunday, May 15 @ noon) or AAM (Thursday, May 27 @ 8:45am). There's a lot more than just me, you'll be relieved to hear; we have some truly awesome speakers, including Sanchita Balanchandran (AIC), Kelly McHugh (AIC), John Simmons (AAM), and Rob Waller (AIC & AAM). And there are interactive activities too!

Anyway, all of this talk of community, and the need for cooperation, and the value of consensus in decision making, has been resonating with me this morning. In the last couple of years, my own institution has been doing a lot of consensus-based decision making. You can read a pretty good article on it here. And you can read about one outcome of the consensus-based process here.

So today, I find myself in a pretty odd position. In a few weeks' time, I'm going to get up in front of a group of very passionate collections professionals and argue that, to do their job effectively, they need to embrace the reality that the world is not centered on them and their needs; that they need to take a wider perspective and engage in discussion with people whose goals may differ from theirs, in order to reach a consensus based on wider institutional needs. So if I truly believe in the value of consensus and communication, why am I so irritated?

I guess the answer is that there are some issues that are so toxic and so pervasive that no amount of "tough conversation" can substitute for clear, quick and decisive action. On a day-to-day basis, communication, cooperation, and conversation are invaluable tools for getting our work done. But sometimes, you just have to say "fuck consensus," and do what's right.

Friday, February 12, 2016

My Two Cents

A long time ago, in a museum far, far, away, I was giving an orientation tour of the collections for a newly appointed senior administrator. The head of human resources accompanied us, and at one point he interrupted my spiel to give her his take on our science program. “They’re our rock stars,” he said, referring to the museum’s curators. “It’s our job to support them.”

To be honest, some of those curators thought they actually were rock stars. They certainly tried to behave like one. There were times when this was quite fun. There were times when it was not fun at all. Bad behavior can be very entertaining, provided that you are not the victim of it.

That comment came back to me quite forcefully this week, as I read the articles in Science and the Washington Post describing allegations of sexual harassment at a major natural history museum.  This is not the time or place to delve into the specifics of that incident. But there are things that need to be said, more generally, about what this tells us about how some museums are run.

I thought long and hard before starting this post. At some level, I didn’t want to lay as much as a finger on such a messy subject. But if this blog is about anything (other than fossils, dumb cryptozoologists, and the vagaries of Federal funding) it’s about responsibility in the way we look after collections. And that responsibility extends to the way we treat the people that care for the collections.

In museums with tenured academic staff, be they university or freestanding, there are two categories of people. There are curators, and there is everyone else. As the man said, these curators are the rock stars. They are defined by metrics of achievement: publications, research funding, awards, and publicity. They come up through a grueling and intensely competitive career process that favors the alpha dog. The prize at the end is tenure. Once tenured, they cannot be dismissed from their position without just cause. In practice, they are unlikely to be dismissed at all.

Then, there’s everyone else. As that distant administrator once said, and as many tenured curators firmly believe, our job is to support the rock stars. Unless protected by a union contract, we’re employed at-will, which means the museum does not have to establish just cause for firing us, or even warn us in advance that we are at risk of being fired. In principle, I could be fired for writing this blog post; in some institutions, I actually might be, a risk that was pointed out to me by my previous employer.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that a two-tier structure like this is ripe for abuse. If you set up a system where you create a high profile class of people, who are outstanding talents in their field; set them apart from all other staff in the institution; send out the message that they are critical to the wellbeing of your organization; place them in positions of authority; and then make them more-or-less immune from any consequences of their bad behavior, you've created a potentially toxic situation in which bullying and harassment are not only possible, but are almost inevitable.

Many people who have worked in a museum in this country, including some of you reading this blog, will have either witnessed or experienced this. It might involve being summarily overruled on a question of professional practice. It might mean being yelled at in public, or sent bullying emails. It could be having to listen to inappropriate, dismissive, or offensive comments about yourself or others. In some cases, it could even mean assault or sexual harassment.

Museums are not the only places where this can happen. It can occur if you work in a bank, or a car dealership, or a supermarket, or pretty much anywhere. But that doesn’t make it OK, and it doesn't mean that we should shrug our shoulders and say it's just the way of the world. We should be better than that. And we certainly shouldn’t tolerate it because, as institutions, we value the contributions of the perpetrator more than those of the victim.

Towards the end of last year, Yale was embroiled in a firestorm over free speech that spilled out into the national press. One of the things that struck me forcefully was the response of some of my friends on the faculty, who were deeply upset that their students, boiling over with anger at longstanding issues of race and inequality, were shouting down other faculty members. A couple of things emerged in conversation.

First, there was a strong sense of closing ranks. There's a genuine, but largely unspoken tradition of faculty solidarity within universities, that was clearly on display. At some gut level, my colleagues seem less bothered about exploring the underlying injustices that sparked the protests, and more concerned with the infringement of the faculty's right to be listened to with respect. It was couched in terms of the need to protect free speech, for sure, but it was also more than a little tribal. Second, I couldn’t help but get the sense that they were upset because, in their minds, they were the Good Guys. Why are these kids beating on us?

If you're a faculty member reading this, I'm afraid I have some bad news; in the cases of harassment and bullying I’m discussing here, you are not the Good Guys, and however much you may feel oppressed by your administration, crushed by your tenure process, ground down by your teaching load, and underappreciated by your students, you are not the victims. You are a very entitled minority and you are a big part of the problem, either because you act badly yourself, or because you tolerate others’ bad behavior in the name of collegiality, faculty solidarity, or a reluctance to let central administration mess with the way your govern your affairs. But you can also, if you choose, be part of the solution.

The system of academic tenure was created to defend your academic freedoms; to be able to work, teach, publish, and speak out on whatever subjects you want without fear of censure; rights that all of us, myself included, would defend passionately. It was not intended to give you a free pass to behave like an asshole to your colleagues, staff, and students. Not only do you have a responsibility to the people that work for you, but you also have a responsibility as a mentor to the next generation of curators and academics; your grad students and postdocs who are watching how you behave towards your staff and colleagues, and who are modeling their behavior on you.

The way forward is to have faculty, be they curators or anyone else, make a clear, unified, and unambiguous statement that the protection provided by tenure applies solely to academic freedoms and that anything else, be it bullying, sexual harassment, or any other form of inappropriate behavior, will be subject to exactly the same disciplinary processes, the same sanctions, that apply to your non-faculty colleagues. That they will not turn a blind eye to bad behavior in the name of faculty solidarity. or to preserve their independence. And that they will go to their administrations and charge them with implementing those principles. Because ultimately, unless some people get fired for their actions, nothing is going to change.

I firmly believe that, one way or another, these changes are going to come. And it’s far better for our community if our tenured colleagues are seen to lead them.