9 February 2019

MOVING FORWARD WITH BOLDNESS: RISK, REDEFINITION AND RESERVATION IN THE MUSEUM

Jordan Fee | Weekend Edition


Risk in a professional setting is often perceived as something unwanted – something to avoid at all costs. We want to be calculated in our decisions, and to be sure of their successes. Rather than seeking risk out, many of us choose to cast doubt upon it.

Such is the mythology of risk.

However, on February 7th, the Museum Studies Students Association (MUSSA) took yet another step towards dispelling such myths. As part of the 50th Anniversary of the Museum Studies Program (MMSt50), MUSSA invited four incredible panelists – Jim Shedden (Manager of Publishing at the Art Gallery of Ontario), Shaniqua Liston (Operations Manager at Kingston Penitentiary Tours), Kathleen Brown (Chief Operating Officer of Lord Cultural Resources), and Karen Carter (Founding Executive Director of Myseum of Toronto) - to speak on their respective approaches to risk in professional settings.

From left to right: Melissa Smith (Moderator), Shaniqua Liston, Jim Shedden, Kathleen Brown and Karen Carter.
Photograph courtesy of Kesang Nanglu. 
Guided by moderator Melissa Smith, the panelists riffed and responded to questions such as: How do you define risk in your own setting? What is the biggest risk that you have taken in your career? and do types of museums tend to take more risks than others?

"At Kingston Penitentiary, we try to do something new everyday." -Shaniqua Liston
Photograph courtesy of Kesang Nanglu.
While we tend to think of risk as something that is intensely consequential, each of the speakers took time to underline - and celebrate - the smaller risks that are taken by a number of institutions on a daily basis. Speaking of the tours provided at the Kingston Penitentary, Shaniqua Liston noted that risk in her institution generally requires a constant negotiation with her visitors, each of whom bring their own unique perspectives to the institution’s history. Kathleen Brown also shed some light on this endeavour, noting how she, as an entrepreneur, takes risks everyday when consulting with her clients. Adding some humour to this discussion, Jim Shedden noted how in the museum business, many risks are in fact taken for us, rather than by us.

A member of the audience asks the panelists a question. Photograph courtesy of Kesang Nanglu.
So, it is clear that there is such as thing as risk-in-practice. However, as we know, taking risks isn’t only about acting, it’s also a question of approach. Many of the panelists spoke about a psychological approach to risk-taking, noting how important it is to prepare both ourselves and others for risk. Karen Carter offered some particularly insightful comments on her mental approach to risk-taking, where convincing others to take risks usually requires “translating a road-map” that she has already planned out in her head.

Ultimately, much of the discussion revolved around negotiating with risk. Some institutions can take bigger risks than others, and some are much more risk averse when it comes to exhibitions and collections. Also, some professionals in the field might have a much different understanding of risk, associating it with failure and loss, rather than excitement and learning.

Following the panel, attendees enjoyed food, drink and conversation. Photograph courtesy of Kesang Nanglu.
While museums may seem like calculated reservoirs of information and knowledge, we should all try to break the mold of purely logical thinking. Yes, we all want to be successful professionals, and rightly so. But being a successful museum professional isn’t just about following past practices; it's also about establishing new practices that help to extend the power of the museum and reach new audiences. Risk is about thinking outside of the box, being bold, and overall, getting outside of your comfort zone. Speaking of her own practice, Karen Carter noted how she is most comfortable when she is uncomfortable. (“I abhor comfort.”) I believe that we should all take a page out of her book, and approach situations that unnerve us and challenge our beliefs.

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