I kinda fell into museum work, which is odd, since I’d worked in museums since I was 11. I’d had a bunch of front of house positions; guard, guide, gift shop, garage; all the entry level jobs. But despite that, I never really thought of museum work as something I’d pursue as a career. No, thanks. I was gonna go to college to be an astronaut. Instead, I dropped out my senior year, and after a brief, disastrous stint in retail, and needing to pay the rent, wound up back at the Museum, working the Information Desk. Until one day, I had the lunch that changed everything.
It was a busy day, the cafeteria was packed and there was no place to sit. I was an hourly grunt, on a timed 30 minute break, and my clock was running. I saw a coworker of mine eating with another woman I recognized as an employee, but didn’t know. She was one of the fancy office people we didn’t mingle with. They were sitting at a table with three seats, so I invited myself to their lunch and listened to the woman complain about how overworked and understaffed her department was. She worked in the Exhibits department, where they apparently made exhibits. Now I had known this intellectually, I’m sure, but it had never really sunk in til then. People got paid to make the exhibits people came to museums to look at. Huh! So, I spent the next several months being aggressively friendly, until she hired me as her assistant. Thus began what I’d consider my Museum career.
When I started working in the Exhibits department, I was the youngest person there out of about 30 people, and I was the least educated. I was intimidated. They were smart. They had decades of experience. They were well-educated. The office people had Masters and Doctorates. The shop staff were cabinet makers, not carpenters, a distinction you would fail to make only once. And then there was me. I was very lucky, luckier than most. I had a boss who was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, though I didn’t know any better. I thought that’s what all bosses did, right? Train you up, sharpen your skills and point you at opportunities to gain new ones. I worked on big shows, based almost entirely on my bosses faith that I could do it. So I did it. But throughout it all, I had this persistent dread that I’d be found out one day. Somebody would say, “Rodley! What are *you* doing here!? You don’t belong here!” I did great stuff, worked on amazing projects, travelled the world, and still never felt worthy, because I didn’t think I knew what I was supposed to know, what everybody else already knew (I thought).
And what changed was when we started getting heavily into evaluation. Sitting in the galleries, actually watching visitors using stuff was a revelation! I didn’t know what would happen, but neither did the old timers, though some of them were sure that it was all a huge waste of time, and an affront to their expertise, cuz they knew. But we made better exhibits because of that. And the experience of being cool with not knowing was liberating. I didn’t know, but I was gonna find out. And I was learning things that my elders didn’t know for a change. I could go toe to toe with them on decisions about projects in a way I couldn’t before. Our dynamic changed. And my story of myself started to change.
The thing I wish they’d told me when I started in museums was that it’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn that will make or break you as a professional. I thought that the old model of learning still applied, you know? You went to school, you learned stuff, and that carried you through your career until you retired. Only I watched some of the most senior people in my department, people with long, deep resumes of accomplishments, transform themselves from legends into pariahs, the folks you tried hard to work around to get something done, precisely because they weren’t willing to learn, or they thought that the pile of knowledge they’d accumulated should be sufficient. And by the time they retired, most people didn’t even know that they’d once been heroes. They’d become the people everybody hoped would retire soon. And I didn’t want to become that guy.
Being ok with not knowing, but being willing to learn is kinda scary, like those anxiety dreams where you’re at work and you’ve forgotten to wear pants, or like standing up in front of several hundred of your peers and sharing your deeply held feelings of unworthiness. But scary shouldn’t hold you back. I’ve gotten very good at telling myself “Not knowing *is* scary, always. Now get over it and do it anyway.” And I really believe that mindset is like a mental muscle; the more you exercise it, the better it gets, and the more you can do with it. That realization has become the cornerstone of my professional practice, and is largely responsible for me being where I am now, which is a place where I often don’t know what is the right thing to do and have to figure it out as I go along. And that’s OK.
It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn.