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Self Care for Museum Professionals

In this talk, Seema Rao discusses how museum workers can practice self-care as well as foster a healthier, more productive, and more creative work environment.

Museum work can be exhausting – especially in these challenging times. Are we doing enough to care for ourselves?

What can we do to exercise self-care and support others in their restorative practices?

Seema Rao is the Deputy Director and Chief Experience Officer at the Akron Art Museum, and author of “Objective Lessons: Self Care for Museum Workers”.

This presentation was originally presented at MuseumNext Disrupt in 2020.


Seema Rao:

Hello, I’m Seema Rao, and I’ve been asked to speak about resilience. So when I got the email from Jim, I was at first surprised. I guess, I had written a book a couple years ago about self-care, and I’m guessing that’s where it came from. And at first I was surprised because I have felt like this has been a really tough year. Well, we try really hard not to say too many statements about 2020, like how much worse it’s going to get, at our house, because we feel like you’re just flaunting fate. So I will say that like everyone I’ve had the same 2020, it’s been that kind of year for me. And so getting an email like that, maybe in a different year, I might have said, “Oh great. Oh, that feels kind of nice that somebody asked me to give a talk.” In this one, I was truly, at first, surprised. And then I was really happy. I was happier than I had been in a long time to be asked to give a talk because it felt like a win. It felt like I’m still standing, and yes, let’s celebrate it.

And that’s the first advice I give anybody about resilience. I am not an expert in resilience, but I’m still standing. I’m still finding pleasure in things, I’m still finding moments of joy, I’m still going to work, I’m still interacting with people. I’ve definitely had moments. And we’ll talk a little bit about it over the last six months, but I’ve also still made it. And I would say to any of you, anybody who’s coming to this, you made it, you made it this far. I think we should celebrate every success we have, and enjoy them because those are ways that you support yourself. So that’s where I would start. Be thankful, you’re standing, you’re here, you’re breathing, you’re thinking good things. So that’s one thing, my first bit of advice for resilience. The other thing, advice I would give you is, it goes back to the thing I just said, how can you reframe everything you’re thinking?

I’m not a toxic optimist. I think that reframing other people’s ideas, so if you have a negative idea and somebody’s standing next to you and they’re like, “Actually, you shouldn’t think it negatively. You should think about it this way.” I don’t want to be that person because pushing optimism on people is, I think, often showing your own inherent fear of your pessimism. You’re sort of transferring your optimism on people. So I don’t encourage that, I don’t encourage you to do that. But I myself have tried really hard, as many times as I can, to think good things about people, for example. I’ve tried to make it a practise to work on my judgements of people. It doesn’t always happen, I’m human. I’ve found myself being almost Pollyanna, “Let me just try to reframe that into goodness.” And it’s hard. It’s hard to do that for yourself, but then it becomes easier and easier and easier.

And for me, it’s been a real help. It’s really helped me through this year to think the positive side of things, and it’s a learned experience. So really, I’m not naturally that way, I wouldn’t say, but I’ve been teaching myself to do that, to think positive things, to try to not have ulterior motives in there, to just say the things I’m thinking, and have nothing else up there. For a lot of people, it’s actually really jarring to interact with somebody who’s trained themselves to be positive and not to have secret machinations happening in there. But once you got to get used to it as a person, it becomes kind of freeing. If you are always trying to play chess with all the other people in your world, that’s hard because humans, it turns out, are very hard to predict. And so instead, if you can focus on you, and predicting what you feel is good, and predicting that you will think the positive, then you freed up so much mental space. And that’s helped me in terms of resilience.

The other thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few months is how 2020 feels like we were all standing at the pool and somebody said, “All right, let’s see who can hold their breath longest.” And we all jumped in, and we were all sitting underneath at the bottom of the pool, looking out at each other, and wondering, who’s going to pop up to the air first, who’s going to make it, who’s going to be the last one sitting there. And I wasn’t a very good swim student and I probably was the first one up at the top. But in that contest, you don’t get anything for winning the breathing longest contest, sitting underwater, holding your breath contest. What do you get? The pool noodle? I mean, what did the guys say? We did it because we had this inherent desire for competition, I think, as humans. Right now though, I honestly can’t, I have no idea, if I’m going to be the person who’s going to pop up, if I’m going to be the person who’s swimming underwater fast, like a fish, I don’t know where I’m going next.

And I bet a lot of you feel like that. I bet you feel like you don’t know what’s next for you. And you are just, you’re holding your breath, and it feels like a weight on your chest, it feels so hard. And I’m here to say, it’s okay. If you feel like that, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not resilient, it means that you’re in the middle of something that you’re going to survive. It means that you could be the gut person who pops up first, you could be the person who finishes last, you could be the person who swims through the other side of the pool, you could be the one who’s just like, “Mm, I’m done.” All of those are okay. There’s no one outcome to coming through this. There’s no particular path we’re now all on. We’ve all found ourselves for better, for worse, in alternate history.

For us, where I was March is when we closed down mid-March. And the person that I was on March 1st, 2020, had a different future than the person I was on March 13th of 2020. And that’s okay. And I remind myself that I don’t need to have the future that that other person had. That other person is in another dimension, it no longer exists for me. I’m in this dimension. This is the world that I have to find my future in. And if you can let yourself free yourself from that other world, and instead be this person, and free yourself also from the expectation that you have to be somebody who gets out of the pool in a certain way, and you allow yourself to be okay with whatever way you’re going to finish this contest, then you will find that this will be easier to be resilient through this terrible time, the time that’s terrible for everyone. I have never been in a society, in a place, where everybody has this incredible low level suffering constantly, constantly around us.

And I would guess most of us watching this aren’t either. That there’s many, many of us have not suffered through this kind of thing. We have no path, there’s nobody who can tell us how to do this exactly. There’s been many tragedies in human society, each one is slightly different. And the world is different every day. And so it’s okay that you’re going to finish this hold your breath contest differently than the old you might have done it. It’s okay. The next thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is how I am not my job. You are not your job. It’s kind of a tough thing to swallow. People who go into mission-driven work often say things like, “I just, I love the art. It’s for the visitors, it’s for the people.” They’re often saying it’s for someone other than themselves. I suspect, and I don’t know because I’ve never been in a for-profit, but I’m guessing for-profit people don’t often say, “It’s for the mission.”

And I mean, that’s the choice. We went into this field, most of us, with the choice to do that. And it’s okay, and it’s important, and the world really needs people who want to do that kind of thing, who want to give of themselves to be in mission-driven fields. But we deserve more, we deserve ourselves. You deserve to believe in yourself and be okay with things like leaving. That’s okay. If this is a moment in society where you need to leave, that’s okay. This field doesn’t own you. You own you, you do get to decide, you can choose to lead. I often think, I wonder what it would be like to be a patron of a museum. I haven’t been a patron of a museum for more than half of my life. I’ve wanted to work in museums, I’ve volunteered in museums, I’ve worked in museums, I’ve consulted with museums. I haven’t been a patron, I don’t know what that feels like. I bet a lot of us don’t.

I bet a lot of us have had this desire to be in this field. It’s so incredibly competitive, it’s so incredibly hard to get a job, and then once you get one, the financial remuneration is a lot less than most other fields. So you are making sacrifice upon sacrifice to be here. Amongst those sacrifices, you shouldn’t sacrifice yourself as well and your wellbeing. The field doesn’t deserve it. You deserve your wellbeing, you deserve yourself. And if it’s better for you right now, take a break, take a break. It’s easier said than done, of course. And I often feel like I’m not sure this far into my career, I’m not sure what other jobs I could have. But then that’s a chance where you can work and network and talk to other friends. And this is one of the good things I think about social media, there’s a lot of networking chances, where you can say, “Here’s what I have, the skills. Who can help me find something better? Who can help me find something that might not hurt as much?”

And for some of us, I think right now, this field hurts, and that’s okay, and that’s okay. That said, my final bit of advice for you is that it’s okay to take a break. I am a pretty classic workaholic. I’m shooting this on a weekend when I should be taking time away from museums, so I’m talking two museum people on my time off from a museum. So this is hard advice, but I did actually take much of it for the summer. I didn’t do very much social media, I didn’t read very many blog posts about museums, I didn’t blog about museums, which was hard for me. I like to talk, maybe you can tell. But I felt like in the attention economy, I was spending so much time within the unrest and not feeling like I was moving anywhere. It was like driving in mud or in slushy snow, or maybe being stuck in mud or any of those kinds of metaphors, where you’re spinning and you’re not getting any forward traction. A.

Nd the thing about that is, when you do that, if you’ve ever had that experience, your engine revs, revs, revs, revs, revs, and that feels good, the sound that it’s moving. You have this sense, that almost like you’re gambling, “The next hand, it’s going to get out. I’m going to get out of this snow drift, I’m going to get out of this muddy patch.” But then what actually happens is, you’ve actually just made it worse. And then you slide a little bit further back, or your car gets iced in and you have to have a tow. And for some of us, that’s what being on social media about museums might feel like, in a time like this with so much unrest. And so for me, I took a break and I found that break incredibly powerful. It helped me listen anew, it helped me see some things differently. I wouldn’t say that it changed my mind about everything, but it helped me feel ready again to communicate about the things I felt. And that maybe is the most important part of resilience that I would advocate.

You need to feel like you are somebody who is capable of making choices that work for you, communicating them and putting them into action. If things that are happening in your life are making you unable to do those, try to make changes that allow those to happen. The first change and most important change is to decide that that’s not good for you, social media. That’s not good for you, overeating potato chips. That’s not good for you, talking to unhealthy toxic friends. But then also, immediately finding ways to find things that are good for you. So that’s good for you, reading books. That’s good for you, interacting with friends. And of course, this is a time in life where interacting with people can be different. But then look for the positive, look for the good ways you can interact with people. There’s a group of people that I know who have a pretty regular Zoom meetup and they hang out.

And the path that you make for what is good for you and what’s resilience for you is going to be different than every other person. It’s going to be different than your partner, than your kids, than your best friend. All of you will be different. You’ve all walked into this differently, into this pandemic. You’re all dealing with different things at work, you’re dealing with different things. Maybe physically, you maybe have different health concerns. All kinds of things have made your path different. And maybe the things that work for you in the pre-COVID you are not going to work for you in the current you because remember, we’re in alternate history. And what’s nice about alternate history is you can choose, in some ways, to be a different you. Alternate history you could be a better you. Alternate you could be just a different you, it doesn’t have to be qualitatively different, better or worse.

So the first half of this talk, I was talking about resilience from a personal standpoint. Next, I wanted to talk about resilience in terms of our field. Start by saying the struggle is real. This field is, they were real cracks, I think, and many people saw them. But now they’ve just broken apart, everybody sees them, it’s in the paper all the time, and it’s in the news, and it’s on NPR or BBC, or any kind of national broadcast. It’s everywhere. People you really know like friends are all over the news, everyone’s everywhere, all kinds of things are happening. And so the struggles that maybe you felt are being heard by a lot of people. And it’s true, the struggle is real. There’s positive in that, you might find community. There’s negative in that, you might feel overwhelmed. All of those things are true, and it’s okay to acknowledge them, it’s okay to be overwhelmed by them, it’s okay to not fix the field right this minute. Resilience is a marathon. And maybe that sounds scary, but resilience is something that does not have to happen immediately, it’s not a sprint.

It’s not run as hard as you can, until you can taste blood in the back of your throat, pass out, and then get a terrible cramp on your side. It’s not those things. It’s trying to work in a way that makes you feel like you can make real impact. And now, if you don’t feel like that, hey, go back to the old advice and leave, that’s okay. But if you feel like that, then what are some things I might say? The first thing I would say is, I’ve been thinking this a lot when I read report stories and things like that, there’s that saying, “Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because there’s so many things that probably all of us feel from our little corner of this field. And just because something else is happening in a different way, in a different place, doesn’t mean what you are seeing isn’t valid. It doesn’t mean what you’re thinking isn’t valid.

I would say, to go back to the break thing, it’s useful to take a break, step back, reassess what you think. But if you still see it, you have good evidence, you really believe that, then that’s okay. The step and the real key to resilience and the theme on all of these is the real way that you show that you’re resilient, and the field shows that we’re all resilient, and supports the resilience of our colleagues and our teams, is that we then work together to find the solutions. So then we say, “Okay, so this is what I’m seeing, and this is where I see next.” That’s of course the toughest thing because I’ve started thinking that the museum is sort of like in the 19th century, when science phenomenon were being described. That’s where I kind of feel like a lot of practitioners of the field are going. We’re creating an encyclopaedia, the best and the worst, and the best and the worst, and the challenges and the problems, and we’re trying to make sense of it.

And we don’t really know, we don’t know where we’re going. So we don’t know if we’re going to follow Darwin or Lamarck, we don’t know if it’s one field of museum work or another field of museum work. Right now, all of those options are available to us. And it’s very hard to be in the midst of such cultural change in our field, and know which one’s right. Hindsight is, of course, 2020. And in this case, hindsight that we’re having, and that’s 2020, is that we had a lot of problems. When I talk to people about the problems in the field, we often talk about things like overexpansion, the problems with the way that things were collected, the problems with the way that things are displayed. You can look back and really understand phenomenon when you have a good set of data, and you can see along a long expanse. And when you have critical distance from the people doing the thing.

It’s a lot easier to say, “Woo, they did it wrong,” youch, than to say, “I did these things wrong.” Because you are the person, it’s hard to get critical distance on yourself. So as a field, what does that mean? Well, that goes back to taking a break. As a field, we need to work together. To be a resilient field, we need to be critical but kind with our colleagues, and say, “These are some ways that it might go.” And there’s a lot of colleagues that are in MuseumNext and in the social media community who are doing a really good job of that, they are not just saying what’s wrong, but they’re also saying what could be right. Here is a possible future that I’m hoping for, here is a possible solution. And actually, to me, that is the greatest act of resilience. The greatest act of resilience is to say, “Tomorrow, I’m going to do this one thing to make it better. Tomorrow, I’m going to read this one book to help me understand why it’s happening this way. And then I’m going to propose a solution.”

And for some of us, we can do them within our institutions. And for some of us, we can’t. Sometimes our institutions just aren’t going to allow that. And instead of beating ourselves about the head or against the wall, we instead choose to do it in a different way. And I see so many people in this field doing that. They are making those choices, they are choosing to make solutions, they’re choosing to say, “This is a better way to do this.” And that, to me, is the most powerful act of resilience to choose a future action that puts what their beliefs are into play. There’s nothing better. We could be crying like the tears of clown, or we could be actors, we could be doers. Anybody can, any one person can make a choice to enact something. They might be able to enact change in their space, they might not be able to. They then might be able to enact change in a different way. They might be able to work with a colleague in another institution and brainstorm, and try to figure out a better way to do this.

They might just listen to another person in the field and allow them to share these feelings. This is actually a very generous thing Jim did because I’m able to share my feelings with you. The world is now in a place that we could do that. That is actually listening to our colleagues and active resilience and making the field better. Especially if, once you hear it and you really listen, which is something I’ve been really practising , and I think actually everyone in this field could do a better job listening, and then together with the person you’ve heard, talk up, what’s a solution out of this thing you can do. And a lot of those solutions probably will be the you ones, the first half of this talk. They’ll probably be about them maybe leaving, maybe taking a break from social media, maybe focusing on the positive, or they might be about, “Okay, the struggle is real. What’s next?” They may be, “Hey, wait, I’m going to connect you a person. I can’t figure out what’s next, but this person can.”

So sometimes it is about networking, this is a field that networking is important. But the most essential part of resilience as a field for me is that we can’t be crying and silent. We have to choose where to go next. The most resilient thing we can do as a field is to do better, to be the phoenix, to be out of these terrible ashes and go somewhere else. It feels overwhelming to say it, and it is overwhelming. I myself can’t do it alone, I don’t even think to do it alone. We, as a field, can only be resilient if we, as a field, together, look for the next choices, the better choices, out of the ashes. Use all of those critical skills, many of us spent countless dollars, pounds, krona, whatever, in university, and spent countless hours reading lit review, doing lit review. We have some amazing critical thinking skills. Many, many of us are front of house, visitor experience people. We have person skills, we have some amazing emotion intelligence.

I think some of probably most emotionally intelligent staff, people on our staffs, are probably front of house people and security guards, because both of them have probably the largest base of human interaction of our field. And they can probably tell immediately from somebody’s body posture of what they’re going to do. We have all of this. We have emotional intelligence, we have critical thinking, we have people skills, we have the trust of many of our communities. We have each other, we have such diversity in our ranks. And we were all self-selected. This is like when they say that, one of the things they say about armies, is that drafted armies are not as strong as chosen armies because they meant to be there. And I don’t really like militaristic metaphors, but I do think, in some ways, we are a chosen army we. Chose to be here. And that choice alone makes us inherently resilient. We chose to be here and we can choose to change this field.

And so finally, I would go back to the beginning, and that idea of, I chose to think a positive thing about when I was asked to give a talk about resilience, in the same way, I choose to believe that we are all part of a group of people who are going to choose to make this field better. And that choice, the fact that we have choice, we have agency, is the most powerful part of resilience that we have. We have the agency to transform everything, ourselves, our field, and we can do it. Thank you.


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