Summer is here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means we’re half way through this annus horribilis that is 2020. Less than six more months of this crap to put up with before we can look back and truly gauge how awful 2020 was. And hopefully breathe a sigh of relief. So much has happened since March, which is part of what I now call “The Before Times”, that it’s hard to know what to say. What I’m interested in is where to go next, personally, professionally, and as a society. So, here’s where I am in July, 2020, and how I got here.
When I went into WFH mode in March, my primary concern was how to keep myself amused in the face of endless days of videoconferencing and none of the serendipitous human interactions that fill a day of working with other flesh and blood beings. I set myself a #hatoftheday challenge, blithely figuring my hat collection would get me through what I imagined to be a short, painful interruption in the arc of my long career in museums.
It was a strange kind of pandemic. A quiet one, with long walks down deserted streets, elaborate meals planned and cooked and consumed. We spent tremendous amounts of quality crossword puzzle time with most of the family. And worried about a future no one could predict. Two of my adult children were home with us and deemed “essential workers”. In a curious role reversal, they’d go off in the morning while my wife and I stayed home. Our major “job” was trying to keep my elderly mother from getting the virus and trying to maintain some adequate level of quarantine without going insane. “Work” was a long series of videoconferences, as my museum tried to walk the line of increasing our digital efforts, while keeping enough exhibition projects alive as possible, so that whenever we reopened, there’d be shows ready to go. I won’t go into more detail, because you all were living similar versions; the exhaustion, the glacial pace combined with frenetic effort. That feeling of being more connected and more alone than ever before. Everyday was Blursday followed by Sighday.
My Mum died pretty suddenly in late May, at home and in her sleep, and our life turned upside down again. Now instead of the constant demand of care-taking, we embarked on the ongoing process of winding up her affairs, and the mind-numbing paperwork that follows someone’s death. Time got even longer now without the rhythm of looking in on her morning, noon, and night. “You can cook spicy food again!” my daughter reminded us. We ate at our own table instead of down at hers. We cried, we tried to mourn without any of the rituals designed to comfort and bring closure. When we’ll be able to get together and celebrate her life is still an open question, and a wound that won’t heal. But at least there was work to do. Until there wasn’t.
The Federal stimulus money that my museum had received was due to run out in mid June, on my birthday of all days, because 2020. We were repeatedly told by the director that there’d be layoffs, and as soon as they knew how much they needed to cut, they’d do it and let us know. And one Wednesday morning, I got an email announcing a sudden all-staff meeting for noon. The director appeared, told us that today was the day, and people would be notified within the next hour if they were getting laid off. He made all the right noises about how sad this was, and the whole thing was over in four minutes. Imagine 270 people all continuously checking their email over and over again and you get the idea of what the next hour was like. The texts started rolling in, “So -and-so got the email.” “I’ve been let go!” And eighteen minutes later, I got mine. Effective the next day, two weeks severance. Email switched off a day later. Done.
And now a new reality appeared. I hadn’t come to terms with either of the two previous ones, but 2020 was being very much on brand. Over the next couple of days as the informal whisper networks did their work, we learned that all departments of the museum had been touched, except curatorial, a trend I watched play out across the U.S. art museum sector. Educators, interpreters, musetech folk; all expendable. Front of house staff, visitor services, security, maintenance; the one reliably diverse group of people the field boasts; decimated.
And the hits just keep coming. Announcements of major layoffs continue to appear in the press and on social media. Michelle Moon’s excellent crowdsourced museum layoffs spreadsheet had over 200 entries as of July 10th. Several major US museums are involved in painfully public spectacles as they repeatedly get caught trying to be on the right side of history while maintaining the old power relationships that got us here. It’s like watching an industry tie its own shoes together, inevitably trip, fall down a flight of stairs, and wonder what happened. There’s no end in sight either. The rushed reopenings in the U.S., all made in the name of “getting the economy going again” have led to more deaths, and now another round of closings and lockdowns. There’s seemingly no end in sight.
The trouble with despair is that it’s a seemingly bottomless well. No matter how far down you go, you can always go further. At this rate, what will the next six months hold?
So where to now, friends?
In the midst of this despair and anger, I came across an essay (in the Financial Times of all places) by the Indian author Arundhati Roy called “The pandemic is a portal” that spoke to my condition. It’s a tremendous piece of writing, and well worth your time. The last four paragraphs transform this from a keen piece of reporting into something truly universal.
What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.Arundhati Roy
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
As so much of the status quo in Western society is both being called out as fundamentally unjust, and being propped up with almost religious fervor, her admonition to choose is, to my mind, the essential choice for 2020. How do we go through? Clinging to the old ways, or choosing instead…? How do we go lightly? How do we stopping dragging all these carcasses around with us?
The imagery recalled to me the ending of Voltaire’s Candide, a book that feels strangely relevant in 2020, in a way it didn’t in 2019. It’s amazing how it resonates. The characters inhabit a world that suffers from all manner of malady; natural disaster, state-sponsored terror and murder, sexual assault, slavery, religious persecution; you name it, if it’s bad, it happens to at least one of the characters. And in the end, after all this suffering, Candide’s solution is to tell his companions, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” “One should work on one’s garden.”
Adam Gopnik wrote a piece in the New Yorker years ago that explored that last paragraph and described Candide’s admonition thus,
“By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “We must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action.”Adam Gopnik
That garden, that “better place we build by love,” could be that other world Roy invites us to imagine and step into. I already feel deep in my bones that lightness that comes from separation and loss. So much has been taken away; the need to try to “fix” an organization that doesn’t care to be fixed, and the burden of being complicit in the violence the industry inflicts on its workers, especially those least able to resist.
I wonder “What next?” How do we make the next world better than the one we are leaving? Gopnik’s take on Voltaire, that that the better place is “local, and concentrated on immediate action” is already happening. Look at the unionization efforts in the previously union-averse museum sector. Look at any of the tone-deaf platitudes that museums have employed for years in lieu of action, and look at how many of them have fallen flat this year and been publicly called out. The world is one fire, literally and figuratively, and all our individual efforts are infinitesimal measured against all that ails our world. But in our own little patch, there is work to be done.
As I sit at home for yet another day, wondering what’s next for me, and for the profession to which I’ve devoted the past three decades, what I’m left with are questions.
Which carcasses can I stop dragging along with me?
What luggage is it OK to leave behind, so I can walk more lightly?
What does that “better place we build by love” look like? Am I ready to fight for it?
What is my responsibility locally, and what immediate action can I take in my garden?
So, no answers yet. But there is one thing I am clear about: my belief in my community of practice: you all. The day I got laid off Blaire tweeted what I have thought every time the sector goes through a downturn and sheds a crop of smart, committed professionals.
How might we realize this kind of dream and build something new and light and fair and equitable?