Back on the blogging horse

Hello! It’s been a while . . . 

After nearly three years of neglect, I thought I should dust off this old blog as a prelude to the workshop I’m running next month for the Emerging Professionals Network of Museums Galleries Australia.

A couple of months ago I was invited to put together this workshop on “Curating your online presence” – how to use blogging, and social media to build a professional profile and develop your career. So, the complete absence of activity on this blog was feeling a little embarrassing to say the least!

Over the course of the afternoon, I’ll be going through how I’ve used LinkedIn, Twitter and blogging as networking and professional development tools. I’ll also be talking about the difficulties of sustaining a blog over several years, speaking from my own personal experience. Blogging as a student or even as a freelancer is one thing, but doing it when you’re a senior manager is another ball game entirely (at least for me).

The past three years at South Australian Museum have sometimes been a steep learning curve – I’ve learned a lot about myself, teams, how to be a better manager and leader, and the challenges of keeping an eye on the bigger picture when you’ve got myriad day-to-day issues popping up. Some of this has been a very personal journey that I won’t share here. But maybe, just maybe, the invitation to run this workshop will be the kick I need to come back to the blog just a tad more often.

Fear of criticism

Checking Twitter over breakfast this morning, I stumbled across a discussion about when and how to criticise another museum’s curatorial practice, and the impacts of doing so on one’s career. Although I’ve previously had discussions about how museums have a somewhat criticism-averse culture (more on that in a bit), I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of damaging career prospects before. I found this idea alarming, so I weighed in:

An excerpt from this morning's Twitter discussion
An excerpt from this morning’s Twitter discussion

Could being (constructively) critical really be damaging to the careers of emerging museum professionals? And if so, what does that say about how well the museum sector handles criticism?

Unlike other areas of creative endeavour such as literature or theatre, museum exhibitions are not routinely reviewed in the mainstream media (with the possible exception being art exhibitions). Even within the realm of industry publications, relatively few regularly publish exhibition reviews (the main exceptions I can think of are Museums Journal in the UK and AAM’s Exhibitionist magazine in the US). It means there is not a reviewing culture around exhibitions. Critique happens more informally, perhaps behind closed doors. I’ve found many museum professionals (myself included) have been reluctant to openly criticise another museum’s work. Likely reasons include:

  • We’re “too nice”: we appreciate how much blood, sweat and tears goes into putting together an exhibition, and the compromises that get made along the way. We know all too well what it’s like to be on the other side, and how hard it is to get everything right. Consequently, when we see an exhibition that misses the mark, our instinct is to cut the developers some slack as we’re sure there’s a back story as to why things are the way they are.
  • It’s a tight-knit community: chances are, we know (or know of) someone who worked on that exhibition. It’s one thing to be critical about an exhibition in the abstract, it’s another thing entirely to feel like you’re criticising the work of a respected colleague.

Whatever the reason, the lack of a culture of giving criticism might make us even more fearful of receiving it. Rather than being philosophical, dusting ourselves off after a dud review, learning from it and moving on, criticism becomes something to dread. What if we get negative PR? A backlash from funders? Fear of criticism might be enough to stop ambitious projects from even getting off the drawing board.

In such a culture, people will make conservative choices because they fear being criticised, and existing practices will never be challenged or fully held up to the light.

As well as entrenching a sense of “we do it this way because that’s the way it’s always been done”, it creates a perfect storm for emerging museum professionals – we want (need) to make our mark but also worry about the consequences. Unless you live in a large city, you can’t afford to burn any bridges: there will be few other employment options unless you’re in a position to move. It means we could end up silencing ourselves just when we’re starting to find our voice.