I've been quite frustrated lately. Some of it relates to the crap that gets dug up in analysis (that's another story for another time). Some of it is a by-product of stress, and a lot of that stress comes from how my time gets used or abused, both by myself and by other sources.
One of the sources of my frustration is an internal fellowship offered by my college. Participation in this fellowship is absolutely an honor and a privilege because the applications were quite competitive and because we meet with some world famous curators of museums that you have heard of -- that everyone has heard of. Yet, I'm not feeling so honored and privileged. In fact, I'm losing respect for some of these curators, not so much for their ability to put together an exhibit -- all of the exhibits are naturally world-class -- as for their complete ignorance history and of the goals of our fellowship. In fact, this fellowship, which I was so looking forward to for nearly a year, has not really met up with my expectation (which were probably too high) nor their descriptions (which, on reflection, were sort of vague).
The organizers of this fellowship had decided that the theme this year should be "social justice." Such a theme would fit with all of my classes, and I had hoped that this fellowship would show me new and creative ways to look at exhibits that would then help me to focus and refine my current assignments. They also promised us "behind the scenes" tours of museums.
I confess that, on that last point, I had visions of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. No one could maintain those high standards, and I knew it. Still, at the very least, I expected the "curator's tour" of an exhibit, which was explicitly listed as one of the activities of the fellowship. With the exception of the smallest and most neglected museum of the fellowship, we did not get any behind the scenes tours.
Nor did we get a curator's tour of any exhibit. We sometimes did not even have time to go through the exhibits without a guide. "Oh, you can do that on your own time," came the response to complaints. "This isn't about seeing the exhibits, this is about the discussions with the curators." Actually, we don't discuss until the last 15 or 20 minutes of the 3 hour gathering, and the problems with that will become apparent in a moment.
As for the theme of "social justice," only one of the museums offered up their best exhibits for that subject. All of the others opted instead to give us the rotary club presentation of their newest and coolest exhibit. In once case, they gave us the rotary presentation for two exhibits that haven't been up for 5 and 10 years respectively. Furthermore, when asked about social justice in relation to the featured exhibit or even the museum as a whole, most of the curators were completely unprepared for the questions.
One curator, who came in second on pissing me off, explicitly dismissed the subject from his exhibit, and therefore discussion. When one fellow asked if he could recommend other exhibits that might be helpful in teaching about social justice, he replied, "oh, you'll just have to look around." (To completely brag on myself, I later gave about five or ten examples of places in the museum where that fellow could find the subject either discussed or implied in the exhibits. She was thrilled and told me that was the most useful part of that day's seminar.)
By the way, the curator who pissed me off the most said that historians lump all Native Americans into one category, making no distinction between tribes, and describing them all as "savages." Has he not read a book published in the past 30 years on the subject? Furthermore, that museum hadn't even got the memo for the "social justice" theme.
So, I voiced my concerns. Some of the other fellows chimed in. We then received long responses about how we were expecting to be "spoon fed," that we shouldn't expect the curators to be "experts in social justice," that we need to look at what "is absent" from the exhibits, and that we need to look at the absence as an opportunity for discussion. That is one approach; but that was not the approach that was offered up to us at the beginning of the fellowship.
None of us expect the curators to be experts in social justice, but we do expect them to have thought about the subject in relation to their exhibit or museum since they are participating as a sort of "faculty" member in a fellowship that has been geared toward the subject. If, as we were told, "they have to grapple with issues of social justice every day," we expect them to be able to speak to that. Furthermore, we do ask about the absence of this theme in some exhibits, and the curators are again unprepared.
I had started to complain about the problem, but decided that a more productive way to engage would be through suggestions of ways that the fellowship could be improved. When I suggested that the fellowship organizers include people from the museums' education departments to address teaching tools, I was told, "oh, they only do K-12 and wouldn't be any help." I suggested collections management staff so that we could discuss how materials are collected and the political implications of collection or lack of collection. The response was, "oh, they wouldn't be help either." Then, I suggested that they dump such a theme as "social justice" and focus on something more general like "museums as a tool in college education" or something more complicated like "museums as culture-making institutions." I was told that a more general theme would be too boring, and I haven't heard back about the second suggestion.
See, I was trying to give them feedback, which they ask for constantly, "because we want to know what you think so we can improve." I was voicing a frustration that was shared by other fellows, and rather than just bitching about it, I gave suggestions. All of thiss was dismissed, then followed by a lecture on how the fellows weren't approaching the fellowship in the correct way. I took this as, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, and the fact that you don't have anything nice to say is all your fault."
I later learned from someone, who had her own set of frustrations in the same fellowship a few years back, that she got the same impression as well. "They ask for input," she told me, "but I think what they mean is praise."
This all bothers me for a variety of reasons. First, as a historian, I'm really disgusted that two curators in charge of major historical exhibits seen by thousands of people in a single day are either ignorant of research into their subject or are creating exhibits that rely upon and perpetuate myths. Second, I'm worried that I'm now considered a trouble maker, a malcontent, someone who is not grateful for this opportunity, and "not a team player," and that this could adversely affect me down the line. I know that I will no longer be the person asked to promote this fellowship on my campus. This is not at all the path that I want to follow.
Finally, I'm wondering if I could have handled my frustration in more constructive ways. What link in this "feedback" chain am I missing that causes them to become so defensive? What about me causes me to become defensive? Am I not creating that "criticism sandwich"* well enough to be heard constructively? Am I interpreting some of the discussion on the problems of the fellowship as being more hostile than they are and reacting to that? Am I too stressed in general to be positive about anything? Am I simply really a perpetual malcontent?
Did I have too high expectations, thinking that this fellowship would be more challenging, more scholarly, and include more pedagogy than it does; and so was destined to be disappointed? Do I already know too much about museums, too much about some of the content covered in these museums, and too much pedagogy on using these museums for assignments for this fellowship to be useful to me; and again was I destined for disappointment?
Am I too terrified of being perceived as rude or directly challenging the curator if I voice some of my critique of the exhibits during the discussion period? Is that, as a result, a failure on my part to bring my experience to bear on the discussion and therefore move it forward?
Also, I suppose another question here is, "how does a person survive a bad fit in a good way"?
I'm trying to work out my frustration here through bitching. It's sort of like a big tangled knot that I'm trying to unravel without making it any worse. I tend to make such knots worse or just walk away from them. Neither approach is particularly useful in this case, so I'm trying to figure out a third alternative that is not yet among my resources for conflict resolution.
*Criticism sandwich: First you say something complimentary, then you give your criticism, then you say something complimentary again.