Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Whipped Cream and a Cherry on Top

This week brought a convergence of ideas. Yesterday, at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference, in a session on sustainability, Elizabeth Merritt of AAM's Center for the Future of Museums spoke long-distance in a session on sustainability. She spoke about a number of trends, but then encouraged us all to consider a game-changer. Some change in the future that would change everything--and she suggested that the "what if?" could be "what if there was a revolution in education?" a total change in the way we educated our citizens.

Today, Thomas Friedman's op-ed piece in the New York Times suggested just why we might want to do that. He writes:
As the Harvard University labor expert Lawrence Katz explains it: “If you think about the labor market today, the top half of the college market, those with the high-end analytical and problem-solving skills who can compete on the world market or game the financial system or deal with new government regulations, have done great. But the bottom half of the top, those engineers and programmers working on more routine tasks and not actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want, have done poorly. They’ve been much more exposed to global competitors that make them easily substitutable.”

Those at the high end of the bottom half — high school grads in construction or manufacturing — have been clobbered by global competition and immigration, added Katz. “But those who have some interpersonal skills — the salesperson who can deal with customers face to face or the home contractor who can help you redesign your kitchen without going to an architect — have done well.”

Just being an average accountant, lawyer, contractor or assembly-line worker is not the ticket it used to be. As Daniel Pink, the author of “A Whole New Mind,” puts it: In a world in which more and more average work can be done by a computer, robot or talented foreigner faster, cheaper “and just as well,” vanilla doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put on top. So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.
Think about it. Are you a "plain vanilla" museum worker? Or even more critically, are you responsible for a "plain vanilla" museum? What makes you plain vanilla? In my book, there's one striking factor that seems to characterize these institutions and people--a reluctance not just to think outside the box, but even to look outside the box. I'm always surprised when I talk with people who don't read museum publications, blogs, or even take the time to visit other museums. And that's not even counting all the other places we can draw inspiration and ideas from.

And one more convergence--in his talk at MAAM, AAM president mentioned that AAM has (finally, in my opinion) opened full participation to those of us who work in museums but not as staff members. I see a growing number of creative, interesting people who have chosen to work outside a single institution. Every day I use skills, knowledge and perspectives I gained in my work as a museum and service organization director. But...the opportunity to put the chocolate sauce on that easier to do from my perch as a independent museum person? For me, at least, the answer is yes, but it does pose some interesting questions for the future of the field.

Photo: Macs, in Penn Yan, photo by Drew Harty

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