Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"So What? Who Cares?"

The question, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The question is blowin’ in the wind.

The winds of change are blowing across our continent. The winds are not named Mariah this time; they are named for Baby Boomers like me and my juniors. The 1945 calendar on the wallpaper of the Schowengerdt House in Warrenton marks the beginning of "my era" on the earth. "My stuff" from childhood is in museum displays now. I'm about to be a voice from the past. My theme is a phrase from a song that Bob Dylan wrote about twelve years ago:

Walking through the leaves falling from the trees,
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees.

There is no clear demarcation between my parents’ generation and mine. The border between generations is broad and blurred. When I retire next year I won’t be on the cutting edge of the Boomers; I’ll be behind it by a couple of years. The trailing edge of “The Silent Generation” overlaps my generation. I’m made up of both. If you’re in your fifties, you’re solid Boomer.

This national wind of change will last about 15 years. People over 50 are part of it. “Empty Nesters” are past midlife now and they are reorganizing their stance in the world for greater meaning. They are entering nonprofit life with technical know-how and with attitudes about learning that represent a big step forward for museums and libraries. They want to make a difference as never before.

To give a few examples, my late wife and I were in our 50s when we made a three-year pledge to the capital campaign of our church. We were also in our 50s when we made our first thousand-dollar gift to a nonprofit other than our church.

Our involvement in the capital campaign surprised both of us. We were at dinner with two friends who had agreed to spearhead the campaign. They were not soliciting us over dinner; we were just discussing how the campaign would be broken down into levels of workers. I volunteered to be one of the workers who would solicit a set number of other parishioners. Then I started thinking in terms of what would be possible if I selected a number representing “spare cash” in the weekly flow of money through our checkbook. I picked $20 and multiplied it out over three years. I said, “Do you realize that a commitment to allocate an extra $20 a week to this cause would enable us to make a pledge of $3,000 over the three-year campaign?” Our friends were amazed at the magic of breaking down a big challenge into something doable on a weekly basis. We pledged that amount on the spot.

My point is that we had financial means in our fifties that we didn’t have before then, and we wanted to use those means for the benefit of organizations that meant the most to us. During the same period in my life I became more actively involved in developing a curriculum for a horticultural organization to which I belong, and I served as President of my garden club and as a board member of a national association of state humanities councils.

The youngest Boomers are in their fifties now, and the eldest will retire this year and next. They constitute a wind of change in the nonprofits in town. The question that’s blowing in the wind is the one we ask of the institutions our parents set up: So what? Who cares?

In the museum and library fields there is a natural tendency to think about the stewardship of objects or environments. We want to create clean, well-lit, “inviting” spaces for the public. We want to provide “access” to information of all kinds.

Ten years ago when I said to a group of library people that I supposed the inherent mission of a library was to nurture “better readers,” they recoiled. They wanted nothing to do with helping people appreciate good writing. That couldn’t be considered part of a library’s mission.

Seven years ago I said to a group of museum supporters, “How do you imagine you will use the new space you think you need to succeed? If you had twice the space, would the museum be twice as boring?” Of course, when people start to imagine a lot more space, a lot of the space is empty, so people can move around better and have a better experience. I suggested they create the space they dream about by subtracting display cases and objects in the current square footage. Pull your vision of a better future into your present; don’t wait for it. This was the beginning of my conversion to visitor-centered thinking.

Visitor-centered thinking goes well beyond creature comforts like clean carpets and a quiet, well-lit room. Those are helpful, to be sure, but they are not in the realm of “So what? Who cares?” Visitor-centered thinking is concerned with engaging and nurturing the intelligence of the visitor. That is the only source of an answer to “So what? Who cares?” That is the beating heart of an educational mission.

I see failures of stewardship everywhere I go. The maintenance problems of museums and historic homes are often crushing. People base appeals on what they suppose to be the inherent importance of the institution. Unfortunately, the mere existence of an institution does not provide an answer to “So what? Who cares?” The institution has to provide an active benefit to the population.

There is hope in that proposition. It is possible to become a community’s engine of learning even while the wallpaper peels off and the place needs better climate control. In fact, it is necessary to be an engine of learning in order to persuade the public that the institution deserves support. The most noteworthy failure of stewardship I see is the failure to stimulate the intelligence of the population. This is a failure that can be reversed much more easily than mold in the basement.

I see huge educational potential everywhere I go. Last week in Warren County I visited the historical society and led a discussion exercise in which each trustee and volunteer was asked to tell one personal story of a connection to the county’s history. Two of the trustees spoke of personal research projects using primary documents in the collection. I encouraged them to share their passion for these materials with visitors. The person telling the story of research has to be regarded these days as “part of the collection” and “part of the display.”

Two others recounted memories of growing up just after World War II. These were “Boomer” stories, but they seemed to emerge from a time warp. The town of Warrenton had been electrified in the 19th century, but one museum trustee grew up in a rural home with kerosene lanterns. Another trustee remembered that when her father expected the water in a local creek to rise, he would park his car on the opposite bank. If he needed to drive somewhere, he would disrobe at the creek, wade across with his clothes held high, and dress on the other side.

As we sat around the table comparing those memories – Boomer memories, all of them – we began to imagine that one theme of that county museum has to be about “Town and Country.” The gap between Town and Country closed in our remembered past, and “country life” became so easy that Warren County attracted new people.

The most important assets of a museum or library are the people who engage the visitor’s intelligence and help it grow. A library that does not care about more and better "reading experiences" is not in a position to answer the question that is blowing in the wind. Why should a library be less interested in promoting that than Border’s or Barnes and Noble? If you look carefully at what retailers are doing these days, you’ll see more and more “staff recommendations.” I see them on the bulletin board at Whole Foods Market, too. Retailers are “personalizing” the experience, giving big places a human face and personality. I see this as part of the new, questioning wind.

You can catch this wind. It can fill the sail of your little boat. “So what, who cares?” demands the energy of motion. It’s up to you to make that motion refreshing, not just another blast of hot air.

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