Story 04: Where Did the Ideas Come From?

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Story 04 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

Introduction: Mike Spock

My father was having trouble covering his office expenses during the Depression and was employed one month each summer as the resident doctor at a remote Adirondack resort where he was asked to perform such simple tasks as recording blood pressures and removing an occasional fish hook from a guest's ear.

One of my earliest memories was talking familiarly with a wonderfully approachable older man when I suddenly noticed that resort guest Mr. Lovejoy was missing a finger! A REAL FINGER! I ran from him in horror and avoided being in the same place with him for the rest of that summer. I even asked my parents to bring meals to me at our tiny cottage that also served as my father's dispensary. I was not about to risk catching a glimpse of Mr. Lovejoy's damaged hand on the way to the dining room. Generations later, my father reported that he had been terribly proud when, on the first day of the following summer, he saw me walk straight up to Mr. Lovejoy and shake his hand, missing finger and all. Somehow I had figured out how to cope with my terror and revulsion about his handicap. Paralleling my early childhood preoccupation with amputations, I also remember being completely fascinated by the mummies at both the Museum of Natural History (Andean) and the Metropolitan Museum (Egyptian). I never stopped by those familiar museums without visiting their mummies too.

I have frequently tapped these powerful and useful memories throughout my professional career. I remembered that kids, like me, were always looking for ways to conquer unapproachable ideas and emotions that lurked in our childhood imaginations and nightmares. What was a more important goal than having the museum become a safe place for exploring those scary ideas? Thus, there wasn't even a hint of hesitation that allowed me to get on board to endorse Janet's and Elaine's two exhibits, What If You Couldn't...? and Endings, and for all the programs and learning materials that anticipated and followed them. They were the experts. From their personal experiences and passions, it was obvious that I should follow their leads. And besides, in the earliest negotiations between us, Elaine and I agreed that those decisions were hers to make and live with. I had other fish to fry. My job was leading the museum, not deciding which exhibits to endorse.

For many years the collective values we shared among ourselves at the museum could be counted on for making decisions about what was okay and what wasn't. These values were used by managers, board, staff, volunteers, colleagues in picking exhibit and program topics, in deciding whether to collaborate with another organization, funder, or sponsor, in advertising campaigns, and even in the design of logos and the selection of photos. In fact, without putting them into a set of written policies, "it just didn't feel like us" was all we usually needed to explain the reasoning for making our intentions known to ourselves and others. Everyone pretty much understood and was in agreement about why we decided things each way.

But the two controversial exhibitions that Janet Kamien and Anne Butterfield write about in this story tested the resolve of some other stakeholders. For me—at least for me as the director—making these decisions about what exhibits, programs and materials to develop was pretty straightforward. I didn't feel I was on the spot, or subject to any real pressures. In fact, I was surprised that some people thought I was exhibiting courage in making some of these calls. Or maybe I was just naïve, or out of it!

However, I was preoccupied by plenty of other pressures around operating decisions: coming up with a budget we could live with for the coming tough year, whether we could hold onto Museum Wharf when the Museum of Transportation gave up the ghost and the banks and bond holders were about to call in their loans, and dealing with the postpartum depression that swept the staff immediately after the exhausting preparations for the opening downtown. But I didn't loose sleep thinking about whether our decisions, including those about exhibit topics, difficult or otherwise, compromised our organizational values. In those value-heavy issues we usually seemed to be of one mind.

And while I felt I could comfortably navigate the shoals of our collective value systems, I saw specific exhibits and programs like What If Your Couldn't...? and Endings as opportunities to take on and come to grips with tough and primitive emotions, ones I had struggled with on my own as a kid, and therefore made them prime topics and experiences for visiting kids and their caregivers.

Next: A Hothouse of Ideas