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.

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