Staying with the Trouble

In the last post I wrote I referenced Donna Haraway’s text ‘Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene’.  I have been re-reading this and finding much in it that resonates with how I see we need to consider our work and research in museums now and going forward in these extraordinary times.

Donna Haraway’s argument is introduced in her introduction and I will share what is quite a long quotation with you here:

‘We – all of us on Terra – live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times.  The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response…. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places…. Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or Edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.’

What I take from this specifically is firstly that we must respond to this challenging situation from the position we find ourselves in; from the present moment.  We must try and avoid nostalgia for an already idealised past, or project ourselves forward to a hazy, as-yet unimaginable future.  In other words, we need to work with what we have right now.

In the case of the art museum this translates into the recognition that time spent mythologizing about when visitors could physically visit our spaces is unproductive, as is fantasising about a magical future time when ‘things are back to normal.’  It is how we respond in the present that matters right now.

Vija Celmins, ‘Ocean’ 1975
Vija Celmins: Ocean (1975)

Every day I am witnessing the dynamic museum colleagues I work with and am reading and hearing about, adapting their energy and creativity to the current situation incredibly swiftly.  There is a palpable urgency – colleagues want to take action, to make changes to what they are doing and how they work.  New priorities are being set and programmes, projects and activities are being adapted to fulfil immediate needs and demands.  Most obviously this is evident in the shift to digital content, but there is much work going on behind the scenes also.  Education resources that would have been given to schools on their visits to the galleries are being sent directly to support home schooling. Food that would have been prepared for the museum cafes is being distributed to key workers.  The art museum is engaging with people and places in new and fruitful ways.

This shift speaks to the second inspiring point that Donna Haraway makes in my view, which is that we are all ‘entwined’.  We and the museums we work in are intimately and inevitably connected to our histories and geographies, and to ideas and ways of operating that shape what we do.  We need to recognise these connections but not be defined or constrained by them.  We are at an exceptional moment where we can build on the positives of the pasts that have brought us  institutionally and personally to where we are now, but we can also change our museums, radically if we need to.  As Arundhati Roy has articulated so powerfully in her article in the Financial times, the pandemic is a portal that offers us a chance to rethink our world.

Research can help with this process of staying with the trouble and bringing about change.  Research foregrounds the asking of questions – ‘why are we doing this’, being an obvious one to apply to any new or revised strand of activity – and creates space for people to reflect and learn.  Charting the processes of change means we can develop insights to inform our work going forward. These analytic and reflective processes must not be ignored in the rush to address the challenges we are facing.

Donna Haraway talks of settling ‘troubled waters’ and rebuilding ‘quiet places’ as well as stirring up potent responses. As I see it, action and response are essential right now, but so is questioning and deep thinking so that we understand the value of what we are changing. In other words, we need to do, but also to review and examine what it is we are doing, why and for whom, to learn how best to negotiate our ‘unfinished’ present.

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