New Director’s reflections

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Like everyone starting in a new job, my first task on March 23 was to arrive at the office in Chambers Street to complete some ‘starter’ paperwork, register for a new email account and pick up my new staff-pass and lanyard. But March 23 wasn’t any ordinary starting day.

In fact I arrived two weeks early, because this was the day that National Museums Scotland completed its procedures for moving to ‘working from home’ for all but the security team and those undertaking essential work caring for the buildings and collection. After that everything was safely locked down as we turned to face the collective challenge of the coronavirus. It was my last glimpse of the inside of the Museum before the world changed.

I started in the role ‘officially’ on April 6, not with the usual ‘first day at school’ nerves and straightening of the tie in the mirror before hitting the road to work, but with a short walk from my kitchen to my study, a switching on of the laptop and that slight feeling of dread that the WiFi connection would fail and I wouldn’t be able to master the video-conferencing technology. It is a new morning ritual that many of us have become used to since everything changed. Now, four weeks later, like a large part of the population, I’m an accomplished master of ‘tech’ and a late-career home-worker. It is a revelation!

My carefully prepared induction plans are still on track, they’re just happening in a way none of us could have predicted when I eagerly accepted the post of Director last December. And while it goes without saying that all of us would rather be spending our time in the physical environments, work routines and world of social connection that we took for granted; in many ways I am grateful for the opportunity this challenge provides for reflecting, connecting and taking a fresh look at things.

So, a few informal, ‘early doors’ observations on working at the Museum from home:

I’ve been enormously privileged to have my first ‘virtual’ conversations with my resilient, talented colleagues in the privacy of their homes. Where I might have been discussing our approach to collection storage, budget planning, our future exhibition programme, or the management of a working-farm or airfield in galleries or the back of museum offices, with all their sense of familiarity and ‘business as usual’ distractions; now I can really focus on what makes us all tick. I get a strong sense of the personal passion that drives everyone to make our museums the best they can be. And everyone can see and talk to me without the expected trappings. I’m not in a Director’s suit making an orchestrated visit, but amongst my books and clutter, with a coffee cup to the side. As a result, every conversation feels authentic and life-enhancing – despite the cut-outs and WiFi wobbles.

That said, working through the interface of a laptop is no replacement for interacting with the real world and it’s in those breaks for lunch or the daily exercise walk that I ‘download’ all the information I’m receiving, and compensate for the temporary lack of people, galleries and collection that drives us all to work for Museums in the first place. I have a need to make the world a museum around me in order to compensate for that lack of physical connection.

I wander around the house, picking up random objects, sensing their weight, thinking about the human stories they tell. I’m drawn, within the allotted hour, to walk to those corners of Edinburgh I’ve paid less attention to before, curious to know what they reveal about Scotland’s history and identity and how this might be communicated to visitors were we in the Museum. And in this glorious Spring, my senses pick up the spectacle of the natural cycle like never before. I tend the garden as if it were a display case and barter plant specimens with the neighbours – eager to make ‘new acquisitions’. It’s as if the Museum has broken its boundaries, proving its relevance in the ‘new normal’ beyond its physical walls.

If coronavirus hadn’t developed as it did, these first few weeks at work would have included trips to New York, London and Cardiff. Instead events have been postponed, hotels closed, flight and train schedules cancelled. There are some upsides, most importantly for the environment. But I also believe the truism that travel broadens the mind and that great national museums are part of the fabric that extends across territories and borders – connecting humanity in important ways. The small compensation is that this new way of working encourages national and international collaboration. Connection via email and conference calls with my peers in other institutions, nationally and internationally, to share ideas and approaches, is strengthening the sector in its response to the challenge. Less competition, more synergy.

While our sites are closed, the wealth of information on our website about our collections and programmes is invaluable to me as an aid to getting to know the institution. Museums have spent years ‘digitising’ their collections, sharing their research practices and findings, and reaching out to new audiences through innovative on-line learning and engagement programmes. Now that investment is paying off a hundred fold. It cannot replace the in-space, in-time experience of visiting a museum, but it adds a fourth dimension. I am so proud of the ways we’re sharing it right now, when the experience of learning and creating is so special and valuable for many.

I look up the verb ‘to induct’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. It means ‘to introduce formally into office’ (with particular relevance for the clergy and the military). This has been one of the best inductions of my career. It’s not been at all formal, or official, in the way we’d intended it to be. But in these extraordinary circumstances it’s filled me with hope and excitement for the future of museums and for National Museums Scotland.

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