Mistakes Were Made

There was a conference session in Baltimore called Mistakes Were Made, a repeat performance of a session at last year’s conference that I couldn’t attend. I did watch the conference on Twitter, and Mistakes Were Made was definitely memorable.

I loved how packed it was in the room. There were a few sessions that got so full they kept people out of them after a while, but they were just letting everybody into this one. That had to be good.

The idea was, we all make mistakes. Except in this session, there would be a thinning of the herd and an award given for the biggest professional mistake in a museum.  We’d break into groups and share stories and then the finalists from each group got to share up front, then everybody’d vote. Some lucky son of a bitch would have to carry around the Calder Cup sized trophy of a pig leaping through an atom or some such.

My group was all strangers. I was the only guy in the group, and I might have been the oldest. When my turn came, I found I was actually very shy about the mistakes I’d made in the field. I couldn’t decide what to tell. I tried to tell them all, but I tried to avoid the biggest one. Or that other one, maybe just as big but very different.

“I don’t know,” I struggled, “I’ve destroyed works of art. I’ve been asked to resign. I’ve pissed off donors. I can’t decide which one to tell anyone about.”

And there was sort of a silence floating out there. It was the kind of silence you get when you are in trouble. You’ve been asked to explain yourself, and you didn’t. So now there’s silence until you do. Come out with it, already! It will feel good to get it off your chest! How bad is it anyway?

“There was this time I rented out the museum for an AIDS Action Organization to have a dance party. It was out of control from the onset. Everybody got super drunk, and I’m sure there was some ecstasy going around. There was a guy in leather chaps, and it was like the Village People were all there. They did horrible things in the bathrooms. The things I had to clean up…ugh…”

I sort of drifted to the memory of my own shock and disgust at having to throw away used condoms that were on the floor. There were several. It was disgusting because it was disgusting. Like when my son or the gray old men lobbyists at work leave the seat up. Didn’t your mama teach you anything? That seat goes DOWN, dude. That’s where it lives. And by the way and way, you put your used condoms in the trash so I can’t identify them as condoms. That’s not too much to ask, right?

My group was looking really uncomfortable with what I’d just said. They were lost in their own thoughts about this, and I’m willing to bet half of them immediately thought it was the gayness that I was disgusted by. That was not the case, but I hadn’t really clarified that at all. I hadn’t explained in that brilliant Seinfeldian manner “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I was fucked now. I wasn’t go to be our finalist, not like I’ve ever been big on trophies. You can win without winning. You can win in your own head, and everybody is so sensitive about gay rights these days, you dare not sound like you are some kind of bigoted homophobe. You are encouraged to post that you are a LGBT Ally on Facebook and share something by George Takei daily. I get that. It’s like a seat I left up.

Mistakes were made. I should have told them about when I was busted by the Director with a girl in my office or when I was busted by a board member setting up my band’s amplifiers and full rig in one of the galleries to practice there at night. I should have told them the story of blowing up a Jenny Holzer installation or destroying dimmer switches. I should have told them about the time I refused to return an art loan from a huge donor because I hadn’t been directed to do so that day. Mistakes were made. We make lots of them.

GenX Museum Staff – What are your stories?

Join our Pecha Kucha during the 2014 California Association of Museums Conference in Napa, March 5 – 7. To apply, send up to 100 words on what you’d want to present about to jcaleshu@badm.org by August 10 and we’ll select a diverse array of voices to share their stories.

Generation X – How Soon Is Now? Nine presenters with 20 slides each and just 20 seconds per slide will share their Gen X leadership stories of museum life sandwiched between the much larger cohorts of Baby Boomers and Generation Y. We are no longer “emerging museum professionals” – so now what? As the response to our 2012 AAM session makes clear, this is a generation that hasn’t been heard. Generation X (born early 1960’s to early 1980’s) is squeezed between two much larger generational cohorts: Baby Boomers who won’t (or can’t) retire and their Generation Y children who are moving up the professional ladder. We are no longer “emerging museum professionals” – but are we in charge? The pecha kucha format will allow for a diverse series of voices to highlight the opportunities and challenges we face, and to build a community so that we won’t feel so alone stuck in the middle.