On remaking the world.

I have a long-standing and deeply held belief that if the world doesn’t fit you, you can either choose to remake yourself, or remake the world. The first choice sounds easier, but seems to me to be far less satisfying. The second choice can appear hard, but isn’t. If you want a job that doesn’t exist yet, find a way to start doing it, do it well, and eventually someone will probably pay you for it. Almost every job I’ve ever had, and certainly all of the interesting ones, have come not with a job description, but with just doing (usually for free, at the start). And thus the world is remade a little; the boundaries are redrawn to fit what they didn’t before. There is no reason to accept that the way things are is the way they can, should, or will be.

This week I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: How disruptive imagination creates culture, a book Seb Chan recommended me some time ago and one that fits quite perfectly with my view that the world is there to be remade. It’s a lovely book and an interesting read about the creatures in myth and life who do not fit within the existing social structures and who therefore find ways to move and change those structures (aside: it’s providing some inspiration for my IgniteMCN talk next week).

Of particular note is Hyde’s discussion about the nature of those social structures, and the communities that make and preserve them. He writes (pg 216-217):

For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve the shape is quite another, especially if, as it always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed…”

There is an act of shaping, of drawing boundaries between what is in and out (always at play in museums, in the acts of curation and collection); but then there is also an act of reinforcement and preservation. It is not enough to draw demarcation lines; they must be solidified in rules and conventions. This is how a community recognises itself as ‘community’ in order that it can function rightly in the world it has created.

Last week, Elizabeth Merritt wrote a post discussing the defining characteristics of visionaries versus futurists, which I find interesting in this context. In it, she enunciated a role for the Center of the Future of Museums in helping “museum practioners, as a field, describe [a] shared vision of the preferred future, and figure out how we can use our combined resources to make it so.” One step towards this “shared vision” (ie, the mutual shaping of a world by a community) was to invite museums to take a Pledge of Excellence, through which the shape is reinforced. The process is two step. The first is the creation of a world; the second is it’s preservation. (I do not in any way mean to suggest that those who do not take the pledge would be excluded from the community.)

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, fifty “young cultural leaders from around the world” are meeting in Salzburg this week to further develop their leadership skills. One of their tasks is articulating the instrumental and intrinsic values of the arts. The intention is that they create a shared vision around the creation and communication of value, but in light of Hyde’s discussion, I wonder whether any such vision can be maintained across a broad-spanning group of people from differing countries and cultures. Will a week together be long enough to establish the rules that would allow for the shape to be preserved? Crafting a vision is only the first stage in the process, and in terms of stability, its result might be more yurt than citadel (somewhere lovely to stop during a transition, but without the fundamental structures necessary to bunker down in for an extended stay).

In context of these musings, I’m now given to thinking about the paradoxes of creating rules for a society, and of breaking those same rules; about how worlds are shaped and maintained so that changes have more fundamental or radical impact than being merely superficial. It’s not just making a job that accommodates your own unique talents; it’s setting up that position as critical, so that if you leave, someone else then steps into the role. It’s not simply coming up with beautiful aphorisms about the changes you want in the world, but truly drawing, undrawing and redrawing the boundaries in a way that’s simultaneously disruptive and sustainable.

One aspect of Elizabeth’s post that I found intriguing was the embedding of notions of a “shared vision” into a discussion about visionaries (many of whom would be the very kinds of tricksters and trouble-makers who erode the boundaries of existing and established shared visions). It makes me wonder whether shared visions and visionaries are almost antithetical, or whether it is a visionary (singular) that creates the space for a vision (shared). Can the young leaders in Salzburg, many of whom must have come to attention because they stand out rather than fitting in, craft a joint vision when they each bring their own priorities and perspectives to the group, or instead will their individual visions be the more robust vehicle for change? And in either case, can they establish something lasting that has fundamental impact?

Finally, what does all this mean for museums in an age of disruption, particularly when there is call for change, innovation and building cultures of experimentation. Is it possible to create a culture where the established rules embrace the voices of dissent consistently? I cannot imagine it is. So what are the systems we need to establish that make room for both the drawing and enforcing of boundaries in order to create that a vision has enough strength and structure to be foundational, whilst still enabling those same boundaries to be undrawn and redrawn when they no longer serve their purposes?

I still have about 120 pages to go in Trickster Makes This World, and I have a feeling Hyde has an answer for me within his pages. But until I discover his take on things, I’d love your thoughts.

What do you think? How do those who wish to reshape museums disrupt existing structures (undraw boundaries) and simultaneously build and reinforce new walls (redrawing the line of demarcation)? Is it possible to create systems that make room for both?

4 thoughts on “On remaking the world.

  1. Your description of breaking new rules to build new foundations reminds me a bit of Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. It’s been a while since I’ve read it (undergrad days!!), but as I recall it, Dynamic Quality (the new, the cutting edge) is in constant balance and tension with Static Quality (traditions, rules, norms, memory). Static quality follows in the wake of Dynamic quality (i.e., one generation’s new and daring is the next’s norm). While Static and Dynamic might see each other as the enemy, they are also interdependent.

  2. Have been inspired by Lewis Hyde too. Seems like even very transformational individuals like MLKing had 2 things–leadership and strong, willing collaborative colleagues ( even if contentious at time- they ultimately pulled together). I think museum change needs courageous leaders and collaborative colleagues. Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

    1. Yes, I think both are essential. There needs to be both a vision (or a visionary), but also the support and buy-into that vision from peers who can then help build in the mechanisms – those rules and customs – that solidify that vision. I think we see this a lot with social networking; when an idea that comes from one quarter spreads and gets debated in detail to work out what sustainable shape it will take. It’s the articulation of a vision, and then the establishment of the working form it can take (which might be a pared down version of the original idea, but becomes more practical).

      The event at Salzburg sounds hugely interesting because crafting a vision, or a series of linked visions, in that context could have international impact. The establishment of rules or a culture around those visions might take longer than the simple creation of the vision(s), but with social media in order to maintain contacts (and likely other mechanisms in place), the ideas that emerge there could have the potential to destablise established systems or ideas and then stablise around new ones.

      The Arts Dinner-vention Project (http://blog.westaf.org/2012/09/the-arts-dinner-vention-project.html) is interesting here, with it’s aims to be “an intervention to a field that might have gotten addicted to old ways of doing things and old patterns of thinking about challenges and solutions; a field that arguably talks about getting out-of-the-box, but sometimes seems stuck within those walls.” These one-off collaborative events likely have some potential to spark something important (in fact, I’m starting to work on one myself, such faith do I have in the model), although they likely need some longer-term mechanisms to help them become more deeply grounded.

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