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Mindfulness for Museum Professionals

There may be a few souls out there who still believe that academics, librarians and museum professionals live cloistered lives away from the hurly-burly of everyday existence. It’s usually accompanied by a vision of a low-stress daily routine spent re-arranging displays and researching over tea and digestives, interspersed with occasional trips to conferences for constructive debates with colleagues.

Mindfulness: tales from the library

This was so far from reality for one professional that she wrote a book entitled “Job Stress and the Librarian: Coping Strategies from the Professionals”. Rather than the peaceful, stress-free zone of people’s imaginations, author Kathleen Clauson revealed a world of drama behind the scenes that included bullying, favouritism and backstabbing. This is true of some, not all, libraries, museums, and academic institutions, of course.

One Wisconsin librarian, Colleen Allen, found that mindfulness, one of the suggested stress-relieving strategies, helped her deal with her own stress, leading her to set up a mindfulness hour for library users. Once a week people gather to sit quietly amid the sounds of a bell and a meditation recording, tuning in to the sound and regularity of their own breathing. They use various techniques to focus on the present moment, the essence of mindfulness.

Lisa Moniz, one of the authors of “The Mindful Librarian: Connecting the Practice of Mindfulness to Librarianship” used her own stressful experiences as a librarian in a school in a high poverty area to pass on useful practice to others in similar situations. The major benefit for Moniz was the ability to identify areas that she could change and those she couldn’t. For Moniz, mindfulness practice brought the ability to view situations more objectively and effectively.

mindfulness in museums

Mindfulness: what is it and how does it help?

One part of the “ideal vision” of life at the museum is true. Despite frequent issues over pay, conditions and management style, museum professionals love their work and are passionate about museums. They are prone to taking on unrealistic workloads and let the work-life balance tip inexorably towards the “work” end. Can mindfulness help the museum professional dealing with stress? How?

Starting off with a definition is always good. This is what The American Psychological Association has to say about mindfulness. It’s “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience, without judgment.”

By focussing on what’s happening now, rather than what’s happened, or what the consequences of the current situation might be, mindfulness lets the individual step back from distracting and repetitive thoughts. In mindfulness sessions, participants are encouraged to focus on their own bodies, particularly their breathing, and the environment immediately surrounding them.

The most important words in the definition may be those final two: “without judgement”. Considering existence “without judgement” is a clever little word-trick for making us realise how judgemental our thoughts usually are. In fact, very often, it’s part of the job.

Judging how to exhibit items. Judging colours, lighting, space, temperature. Judging capability, our own and other people’s. Judging costs, assessing values. Take it all away and what’s left? Could it really be that it’s about control, or the lack of it?

The machines that run our lives

Have you ever used the line “these machines that are supposed to make our lives easier make them more difficult”, or words to that effect? Unsurprisingly, dealing with issues around software, hardware, computer crashes and phones is one of the major sources for stress in museum professionals. Can mindfulness help?

One of my most vivid memories from schooldays is of discussing a poem by Louis Untermeyer in class, one line of which seems to have impressed itself indelibly on my mind, about how “the lord of the earth…becomes the slave of what his slaves create”.

The slaves in this case were machines, the line being inspired by the processes of industrialisation and mechanisation that turned all workers and consumers into slaves. The line still resonates with me now, since the poem really relates to the way we become reliant on the things that our technology creates to the point where we can’t live without them. Then, we are their “slaves”.

Today, we would be more likely to talk about “dependency” and one of the areas where it’s most obvious is telecoms. I first bought a PC back in the 1980s (an IBM! The disks it used really were floppy! The screen was in a huge box like a chicken hutch). I don’t think I’ve been without a PC of some kind since.

How many hours of my life have been spent waiting for downloads, upgrading my software or selecting unwanted items to delete to free up disk space? How much mindfulness did I practise during those hours, especially in the early days? Answer: not a lot. It was a creative process in retrospect though, as I produced umpteen Shakespearean variations on “computer, you are the devil’s spawn and I spit upon thy circuits!”

It didn’t do any good and all those situations that seem so infuriating will pass. Looking back, I can see that what worried me most was how the current situation might affect some other vague future circumstances. That’s how mindfulness helps us through, by making us conscious that this is simply how we’re feeling now. Will it matter tomorrow, next week, next month or in ten years? The answer is mostly, “no”. This is true when technology fails, no matter how it feels right now and people are always more important.

Trigger stacking and the midnight carousel

Animal behaviourists are an interesting subset of academia and they have much to offer the rest of the world. They have identified a phenomenon known as “trigger stacking”, which has been observed in horses and other animals.

It goes something like this: a horse may be able to pass a piece of black plastic flapping in the wind. The same horse may also be used to tractors and exhibit no problem when one passes close by. Both these phenomena have only produced slight levels of stress in the horse. However, the juxtaposition of black plastic and tractor “stacks” the stress factors up. Add in a third factor – a noisy motorcycle, a siren, or a child on a skateboard – and the stress hits a level that is sufficient to make the horse begin to show signs of panic.

museum worker salaries

Is it any different for humans? Probably not. Permitting stress to build up can lead to poor judgement, difficult relationships and ultimately staff leaving. In one museum survey, the reason for professionals leaving the field entirely were low pay, a poor work/life balance, lack of benefits, too high a workload and lack of opportunity for advancement.

These may not have been described as “triggers”, but it seems likely that they both induced stress and built to a degree that meant that professional felt they could no longer carry on. They were overloaded. Interestingly, different factors were influential at different times in people’s careers. Money was cited more frequently as the key factor for younger professionals, while those around the 20-year point of their career cited work/life balance most frequently.

There’s a phenomenon that I’ve come to call the “midnight carousel” which always alerts me to the fact that I’m stressed. It’s when waking at three or four am with repetitive thoughts circulating like a merry-go-round becomes a pattern over several days. Mindfulness is one of the effective ways of dealing with this. Say to your mind “I can see what’s happening, but I don’t have to worry about it now”, because you really don’t.

Mindfulness museum professionals can try

Turning now to mindfulness museum professionals can try in their careers, the first thing to note is that using mindfulness, or any form of relaxation or stress-relieving technique, is like any other habit. It doesn’t spring fully formed into being. It takes time and application, but this one doesn’t need any expensive equipment and it can be practised anywhere. There’s no lower or upper time limit and no-one’s judging.

Picking a day that’s not got too many distractions or deadlines helps. Then make the conscious decision to stay in the moment as far as possible. There will be distractions of course – the aim is to not be drawn by them, but to stay focussed in that moment and not react to every new situation.


Take one task at a time and deal with it, taking whatever time you need. This is a good way to reveal the truth of that saying “the more haste, the less speed”. It’s surprising how the work gets done in a reasonable time and it gets done properly too. Become accepting, rather than making unreasonable demands on yourself. We can’t fix everything.

Mindfulness is all about response. It’s how we respond to stress that makes the difference. Astonishingly, this is true not only intellectually, but also physiologically. Those who see stress as potentially damaging to their health suffer from heart disease and other problems. Those who see stress as representing a challenge to be overcome, rather than a threat, even live longer, according to research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Is it all good?

Some organisations have adopted mindfulness as a practice they encourage their employees to try. It’s not always gone down well, particularly when staff have been encouraged to participate in group mindfulness sessions. This is perhaps understandable, since it removes choice from individuals and that in itself can create stress.

Mindfulness is about listening to what’s going on inside our own heads and understanding why it doesn’t always represent the truth of a situation, nor what’s really happening now. Ultimately this helps make connections with other people, by not seeing everything through the lens of our own being and our own story. But the whole point is it can’t be practised outside ourselves – it’s an inner activity. To a certain extent it’s dependent on when the individual feels the need to practice.

Some experts argue that it encourages individuals to disconnect, meaning that they are not making decisions that need to be made. Mindfulness doesn’t deal with issues – it makes us more aware of what is happening, but that doesn’t remove the need for action or decision.

Mindfulness doesn’t “fix” things and it’s certainly not a replacement for corporate responsibility. Emma Barnett, presenter of a BBC radio programme about the increasing use of mindfulness by corporate bodies as an attempt to bring harmony into their workplaces, described it inevitably as “McMindfulness”, an attempt to apply a superficial remedy to issues that need resolution.

Ultimately, perhaps mindfulness is about realising we can make a difference by being kinder to ourselves and our colleagues. And possibly, show understanding to our computers, even when they’ve crashed again.

Interested in learning more about Health & Wellbeing in Museums? Join us for the Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit

About the author – Miriam Bibby

Miriam Bibby has worked at Beamish Museum, Manchester Museum, Clan Armstrong Trust Museum and Gilnockie Tower giving her a broad overview of the museum sector. She has written and edited a number of magazines and developed an Egyptology distance learning course for University of Manchester.

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