After a recent lockdown conversation with a friend of mine, she sent me this quote from Arundhati Roy: “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.”
As I hunker down with my laptop and hoodie, on furlough, I can’t stop myself from taking a step back and thinking about how I want to bounce back from this pandemic – and what I feel must change. As a museum professional that frequently works on projects abroad, the past years have brought their fair share of questioning in regard to the current global trend of working across the globe. I began working in the museum industry largely because of the international appeal. But in the past years, shrinking project budgets and timelines, in addition to environmental concerns, have dampened an enthusiasm for a way of life that I chose for myself. This imposed break has given me the time to ponder how to come to terms with working internationally in a post-COVID-19 reality, both in terms of rekindling a first love, but also bringing environmental concerns to the forefront.
But first, a step back. I am one of those folks that defines themselves by where they are off to next. I’ve always loved travelling. I love the thrill of a plane taking off. I love getting away from my routine and gaining perspectives that only come to me when I’m away. I love meeting new folks. Already very young, I sensed that working in the museum field could be a way of combing my interest for the greater world with a job that I could make a living out of. I was lucky. The headquarters of one of the world’s leading exhibition design firms was based in the city I was living and studying in, Montréal. And the first project that I delivered with GSM Project happened to be literally across the globe: I was in heaven. My forearm must have been bruised from pinching myself on that first business trip to Singapore. I can honestly say that I pretty much revelled in every aspect of my first 10 years of working for museums abroad, workshopping exhibition content and concepts with curators and exhibition teams from museums in Asia, the Middle-East and the USA. As a young adult, this lifestyle answered all my cravings for adventure, creativity, autonomy and sense of accomplishment.
After a decade and a half of working on projects abroad, the toll of growing amounts of travel, compressed timelines and budgets in addition to nagging concerns around the environmental impact of air travel have become harder to ignore. I feel lost. How can a way of life that I value so dearly become so anxiety-inducing and especially guilt-ridden?
In the past years, we’ve observed an acceleration of international design work. Architects and designers are creating buildings, exhibitions and events all around the globe. Technology has never been better in providing us with the tools and solutions for working collaboratively, cheaply and remotely, spanning time zones and breaking language barriers. In addition, efficient and accessible flights make travelling a no-brainer, bridging the gap when in-person meet-ups facilitate the fast-tracking of work. The world has become tiny and museums and institutions are no longer restricting their ambitious projects to the talent located near them. Why would they not take advantage of the smorgasbord of talent the globe has to offer?
In this context where one is expected to work around the globe, what choices do we face if we want to continue working for projects that inspire us while keeping the environmental repercussions minimal? Do we to restrict ourselves to working locally? Or do we find ways to make working remotely more meaningful, satisfying and more respectful for the planet? Here are some thoughts.
Embracing ‘glocal’. In the exhibition industry, few Request for Proposals (RFPs) ask that an international firm designing a project integrate local talent into their creative process. However, I could see value in this approach, encouraging international firms to reach out and integrate local talent into their team, creating cross-cultural collaborations that would also have a perk, ensuring that portions of a project budget are re-invested in an institution’s local economy. Including local talent could reduce a project’s allocation for international travel while ensuring that the project also benefits from a unique local perspective and knowledge and understanding of the essence of a place. I’ve noticed in the past years a trend where museums across the globe have become alarmingly more and more similar. Why cross the globe to visit a contemporary art museum that offers the exact same experience of the one in the city in which you live in? Reaching out to local talent, such as researchers, writers, media producers, local artists and artisans could help drive the creation of singular experiences that rely less heavily on international global codes. In terms of creative challenge and motivation, given the appropriate time and space to co-create, this could be an opportunity to work and learn differently for every project.
Reducing travel by focussing on quality rather than quantity. If you are going to travel, make it worth the while. Personally, working internationally has always been rewarding in so far as I had the opportunity to spend quality time in the place where the project was anchored. In situ workshops allow one to truly grasp the context in which a project will live and also provides team members with essential opportunities to get to know one another, a key ingredient for successful projects. The rapport created between team members by spending time together, both on the client’s and partner’s side, is essential is understanding respective realities, goals and motivations. It’s simply human. Individuals do not wake up in the morning with the desire to design a chair, a museum interactive or a building – they rather strive to solve human-based problems with an end user in mind. Quality time spent workshopping, sharing meals and participating in joint benchmarking excursions ensure that team members learn together.
In an ideal world, a kick-off workshop would last two weeks. This would ensure that travel to a location is well utilized, reducing the need for secondary trips. A first week would serve as an icebreaker, a key moment for team members to get to know one and another and understand the project framework and the interests of key project stakeholders. The weekend would be used for down time, for each team member to explore the project’s surroundings at their own pace, according to their own interests. Week two is where the “real” work would begin: key brainstorming sessions, sharing of best practices and initial intuitions, sketching and mood boarding of preliminary ideas.
Keep it personal. Meaningful projects result from meaningful relationships. As humans, we respond to interpersonal relationships, and all too often projects become driven by schedules and unsatisfying group meetings, evacuating space for the personal, the funny, the touching. When working with a remote team, the sharing of daily realities is all the more important for cultivating empathy and motivation: sending a quirky photo, taking the time to check-in with team members to see how they are feeling or what ideas they are thinking about. This may seem easy, but it’s the first thing to go when project leaders are overwhelmed by deadlines and workload. Reserving space for personal relationship in long distance collaborations means recognizing that these “soft” skills are as important than meeting deadlines – and they will require time and resources.
Consider when presence truly adds value. In person meetings are ALWAYS better. There is absolutely no doubt about it. However, travelling across the globe for a 30-minute pitch presentation makes no sense environmentally. A paradigm shift is required. Is jumping onto an 18-hour flight really a sign of investment or an insane carbon footprint for a meeting that could be conducted remotely? All too often, in person presence is interpreted as a sign of eagerness and willingness to work – could asking for a remote meeting also be lauded for its environmental impact?
Creating better digital communities. The museum world is filled with opportunities to attend word-wide conferences, where one learns about other institution’s initiatives, best practices and one meets-up with colleagues and potential partners. If one wanted to spend a year only attending conferences, they would have no difficulty in populating a year’s worth of museum conventions ranging in size and scope. In light of reducing travel without reducing the impact of our community connections, how could we create better digital forums, inspired by the best social media practices that can be intuitive, friendly & meaningful, allowing a similar sharing of expertise and possibility for meetups?
Offsetting carbon footprints. While recognized by none as the best solution (no flying being the best option) carbon offsetting initiatives are still better than no initiatives at all. Not only do they increase awareness for environmental concerns, they do have measurable concrete impacts. In order to make carbon footprint initiatives open to consideration on fixed project budgets, allocating a portion of a travel budget to offsetting carbon footprint could be implemented by reducing the quantity of flights. In addition, converting all business travel to economy would allow for additional funds to be funnelled into carbon footprint offsetting initiatives, while reducing the footprint of each flight. In contexts where a business flight accommodates a traveler who needs a night’s rest before a presentation, flying in a day earlier could solve the problem, an extra hotel night being less environmentally detrimental.
The solutions above barely scratch the surface. As I think of our post-pandemic reality, I cannot stop myself from wondering, is this enough? Would Arundhati Roy think that this is enough? Probably not. As I grapple and try to make sense of our current situation, taking things one day at a time, I have to recognize that this is as far as I will get. For now.