I write this post with very mixed feelings. The museum I work at, like other cultural organisations across the world, is physically closed for the foreseeable future. Many colleagues at Tate and elsewhere have been furloughed, some with relief as it enables them to concentrate on looking after family and themselves. Others I know are less comfortable with not working, even though they are grateful that they remain employed. But stepping away from work that you are dedicated to, sometimes at very short notice, can be traumatic and can add to existing anxieties about this deeply uncertain and troubling situation.
Certainly there is no shortage of advice being given on how we should be living and working. From online articles that advocate the ‘ten best ways to keep busy when quarantined’ to suggestions for virtual gallery tours, there is a strong sense that all the energy and productivity that we bring to our jobs should be transferred to our lives at home. Art museums have been busy repurposing their digital content, offering as much as they can in the virtual world to make up for their absence in the physical realm.
Some observers have interrogated the logic and value of this burst of institutional activity. Nina Simon, for example, has questioned whether we are “doing it based on some kind of expressed community need?” and asked, “are we doing it with an eye towards serving communities that are struggling most? Or are we doing it to assure ourselves that we are “doing something,” to assure our donors we still exist— and that our jobs are worth keeping (which is in itself important!)?”
These are relevant and astute questions to be asking. Simon goes on to propose a different set of activities that we should be undertaking, all of which are extremely laudable. Her suggestion that we reach out to communities and offer help based on what their needs are, rather than what our institutional priorities might be is clearly important now. And creative, brilliant museum professionals are in a great position to be able to offer help.
Yet if I am being honest, I came away from reading Nina Simon’s article with a sense of feeling more overwhelmed than uplifted. It seemed as if, as with the other advice-giving articles, there was yet more activity I should be engaging in. I should be reaching out, connecting, mapping, dialoguing, so that in a month’s time I have a clear plan on how I can make a positive difference to communities near to me and more globally.
Now I do not mean this to be a criticism of Nina Simon, whose work I greatly admire and whose approach to this situation I am somewhat in awe of. Yet I know that I am not in a position to do what she is advocating. I am muddling through at the moment, trying to manage people and projects that are more or less affected by the pandemic, whilst trying to support those closest to me. I am attempting to come to terms with the seismic changes happening daily.
So I am not going to offer any advice or guidance here, or in the blogs that I hope to write over the next few months. Instead I am, perhaps selfishly, going to use this space as an opportunity to reflect and make visible my muddling; my questions, uncertainties, frustrations and hopefully insights. I do this in the spirit of the theorist Donna Haraway’s notion of ‘staying with the trouble‘, which is one of the ideas underpinning Tate’s research strategy. At the core of this idea is the recognition of complexity and a desire to find new ways to live in the world, both of which seem incredibly relevant just now.
As ever, I would welcome others’ ideas and thoughts on how we adjust and reshape our institutions and ourselves in light of what we can learn from everything Covid-19 is teaching us.