Category Archives: Professional Development

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn

Already a dork at age 13. But, a dork in spacesuit FTW!

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn

I kinda fell into museum work, which is odd, since I’d worked in museums since I was 11. I’d had a bunch of front of house positions; guard, guide, gift shop, garage; all the entry level jobs.  But despite that, I never really thought of museum work as something I’d pursue as a career. No, thanks. I was gonna go to college to be an astronaut. Instead, I dropped out my senior year, and after a brief, disastrous stint in retail, and needing to pay the rent, wound up back at the Museum, working the Information Desk. Until one day, I had the lunch that changed everything.

It was a busy day, the cafeteria was packed and there was no place to sit. I was an hourly grunt, on a timed 30 minute break, and my clock was running. I saw a coworker of mine eating with another woman I recognized as an employee, but didn’t know. She was one of the fancy office people we didn’t mingle with. They were sitting at a table with three seats, so I invited myself to their lunch and listened to the woman complain about how overworked and understaffed her department was. She worked in the Exhibits department, where they apparently made exhibits. Now I had known this intellectually, I’m sure, but it had never really sunk in til then. People got paid to make the exhibits people came to museums to look at.  Huh! So, I spent the next several months being aggressively friendly, until she hired me as her assistant. Thus began what I’d consider my Museum career.

When I started working in the Exhibits department, I was the youngest person there out of about 30 people, and I was the least educated. I was intimidated. They were smart. They had decades of experience. They were well-educated. The office people had Masters and Doctorates. The shop staff were cabinet makers, not carpenters, a distinction you would fail to make only once. And then there was me. I was very lucky, luckier than most. I had a boss who was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, though I didn’t know any better. I thought that’s what all bosses did, right? Train you up, sharpen your skills and point you at opportunities to gain new ones. I worked on big shows, based almost entirely on my bosses faith that I could do it. So I did it. But throughout it all, I had this persistent dread that I’d be found out one day. Somebody would say, “Rodley! What are *you* doing here!? You don’t belong here!” I did great stuff, worked on amazing projects, travelled the world, and still never felt worthy, because I didn’t think I knew what I was supposed to know, what everybody else already knew (I thought).

And what changed was when we started getting heavily into evaluation. Sitting in the galleries, actually watching visitors using stuff was a revelation! I didn’t know what would happen, but neither did the old timers, though some of them were sure that it was all a huge waste of time, and an affront to their expertise, cuz they knew. But we made better exhibits because of that. And the experience of being cool with not knowing was liberating. I didn’t know, but I was gonna find out. And I was learning things that my elders didn’t know for a change. I could go toe to toe with them on decisions about projects in a way I couldn’t before. Our dynamic changed. And my story of myself started to change.

The thing I wish they’d told me when I started in museums was that it’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn that will make or break you as a professional. I thought that the old model of learning still applied, you know? You went to school, you learned stuff, and that carried you through your career until you retired. Only I watched some of the most senior people in my department, people with long, deep resumes of accomplishments, transform themselves from legends into pariahs, the folks you tried hard to work around to get something done, precisely because they weren’t willing to learn, or they thought that the pile of knowledge they’d accumulated should be sufficient. And by the time they retired, most people didn’t even know that they’d once been heroes. They’d become the people everybody hoped would retire soon. And I didn’t want to become that guy.

Being ok with not knowing, but being willing to learn is kinda scary, like those anxiety dreams where you’re at work and you’ve forgotten to wear pants, or like standing up in front of several hundred of your peers and sharing your deeply held feelings of unworthiness. But scary shouldn’t hold you back. I’ve gotten very good at telling myself “Not knowing *is* scary, always. Now get over it and do it anyway.” And I really believe that mindset is like a mental muscle; the more you exercise it, the better it gets, and the more you can do with it. That realization has become the cornerstone of my professional practice, and is largely responsible for me being where I am now, which is a place where I often don’t know what is the right thing to do and have to figure it out as I go along. And that’s OK.

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn.

Waiting for Eileen

As follow up to my post on our storytelling session at AAM, here’s the first of the stories that were told.

Waiting for Eileen by Judy Rand


It was SO cold that winter. Drafty apartment. Wind blowing in from the bay.


Time to light the heater.

The open-flame gas heater.


I had a diagram from the gas company: “How to Light Your Old Heater.”


 It doesn’t look anything like MY old heater.

Turn valve A to B.
Wait, there is no B. There’s some loopdeloop thing here.
Push down on lever C. I don’t see a C.

I know GAS is going to come RUSHING out of this pipe at me—here? Here? !!!


This isn’t gonna work.
If I light this match, I’ll blow us all up.

And by us, I meant…me.

Two-bedroom apartment, but I was living alone.
Just me and my secret.
Nobody at work knew it, but I. Was shy.

Too shy to knock on a neighbor’s door to ask for help.

I was terrified of parties.
When I go….IF I go…to a party, I hide in the bathroom.
(Luckily, I don’t get invited to many.)

I look at the heater.

                   (What could I do?)

I put my parka on.


And I wait.
I am waiting for Eileen.


Eileen was a science writer who lived two hours north, in San Francisco.
She’d come down for meetings at the aquarium. We worked together.
When meetings ran late, she’d stay over at my place. (Why not? I had a spare room.)


Eileen was amazing. She knew how to fix things. She knew how things work. She fixed my kitchen faucet. She fixed my clock!


She LOVED figuring things out. (Best of all: I wouldn’t even have to ask.)


“Gee, it’s getting cold,” she said when she arrived that evening. “Would you like me to light the heater?”


                                  Yes! Thank you! I am so grateful.


I sound like an idiot, right?Actually, I’m pretty good at my job.
I’m not shy at work. I have great ideas. I’m a PASSIONATE visitor advocate. I speak right up. And I have to!

“It’s this new TEAM,” I tell Eileen.

The Designer and I don’t see eye-to-eye.

I want visitors to FEEL the ocean.
What’s it really LIKE down there?


- The Designer’s  in a whole ‘nother world.
Circles, systems, networks. Stuff you can’t see.
He keeps shooting down my ideas.

- The Fish Person is quiet. Very quiet.
Fish people are like that. They go diving in the kelp forest, it’s quiet.
Nobody talking.
They’re like that in meetings. Nobody talking.
(What are they thinking?)

The 3 of us are deadlocked. We can’t agree.


 “Too bad there’s no way to fix that,says Eileen. “A workshop maybe.”


WORKSHOP! I’ve got one next week!

Not about teams. About visitors’ learning.

But maybe I can bring back some proof.
Convince these guys to see things my way.



I fly off to DC.

Dr. Bernice McCarthy. Learning Styles in Museums, at the Smithsonian.
(I know it’s probably gonna be participatory. That’s the new thing.
                                          That’s OK. I’m gonna sit in the back and take notes.)


Bernice jumps right in.

There are 4 learning styles, says Bernice. They’re actually steps, or stages, on a learning cycle that all of us go through when we learn something new.
But each of us has our own favorite place we like to dwell on the cycle.


Each person has their own favorite learning style.

#1s   Imaginative Learners

(1s are immersive. They seek personal relevance.
They’re people people, says Bernice.)

#2s   Analytic Learners want the facts.

Lots of curators are #2s, Bernice tells us.


#3s are Common Sense Learners.

They ask “How does it work?”
They’re the engineers of the world, says Bernice.
(Sounds like my friend Eileen!)


  #4s, the Dynamic Learners

ask “What if I try it?” They like to jump in and do it.


Bernice divides us into groups.

#1s over here.      #2s here.     #3s there.      #4s—yep, already there.


Each team’s going to come up with an exhibit scheme.

 I look at my worksheet: points on a graph. I’m a 1.

Imaginative. Yes. Immersive. Yes.

Wait a minute…did she say “People People?”


I look at the #1s. The People People.

They’re waving to me, warmly.
This is going to be awful.

Three minutes in, I am happier than I have ever been.


The #1s love every idea I have. I get them, they get me.
These people are brilliant! (Where did they come from?)


Bernice calls “Time!” Each group presents. “How did it feel?” she asks.
Everyone from every group says “Amazing. Great! Not like my team back home.”

Then Bernice scrambles us. This time we’re mixed.

1,2,3,4.  1,2,3,4.   1,2,3,4.

“Same activity,” she says. “Come up with an exhibit scheme.”


Three minutes in—crap! This is just like my team back home!


Crazy Designer Person killing my ideas. SHE wants cladistics.
Systems! Stuff you can’t see. I do my best to keep it real.

Bernice calls “Time! “How did it feel?” she asks.
Everyone from every group says “A LOT more conflict. Just like my team back home.”


Then each group presents its scheme.
They’re better.Markedly better.
                                More vibrant in every way.

Bernice says it’s proof.
When a 1 works with a 3…when a 2 works with a 4…your opposite learning styles ensure the strongest results.Your strongest collaborator is your opposite number.


If, Bernice says, you can manage not to kill each other.


Ohhhh. Oh!
Is that why my Designer drives me crazy? (I must drive him crazy too.)
                        We’re opposite numbers?
But wait. Eileen is a 3—I’m sure of it! I love Eileen!


WHAT IF…what if…the next time the Designer comes up with a crazy idea,
a how-does-it-work idea, I look at him….and imagine it’s Eileen.
Imagine Eileen’s head on Designer Person’s body.


This could work!

What we’d do together WOULD be better if we didn’t kill each other.


This one idea—‘opposite learning styles’—changes my work-life. Forever.



BACK HOME Friday, the apartment’s warm.  
Team meeting is good.  


One problem.
I’ve been invited to a party.

The Fish People party.
It’s going to be quiet.
Everybody standing there holding their beers. Noooobody talking. They’re waiting for their one talkative guy—John O’Sullivan—to arrive.
Shark collector, big, fun-loving guy. Got a story for everyone.
Until John-O gets there, it’s going to be QUIET.
(Makes it hard for me to hide.)

End of the year. I have to go.
I drag myself over to Gil’s house. (Yes, a Fish Person named Gil. This is a true story.)


Gil answers the door. He looks morose.
“Gil, what’s wrong?” I ask, stepping inside.
“John-O can’t make it,” Gil says. (Oh no!)
                                                             Everyone’s quiet.


I’m ready to retreat—but then I feel this strange….warmth…come over me.
Like I felt surrounded by my #1s.


I say to myself, “You. Are. A. PEOPLE person.”
“Gil needs warmth. Help Gil out.”


I start telling Gil a penguin story. (It’s funny.)
I see Freya smile. And Peter.
The party warms up. I tell another story.


And THAT moment changes my life-life. Forever.
I DO care about people—not just visitors.
I DO have love to share.
I don’t have to hide in the bathroom, scared.

Thanks for coming to the party. It’s great to see you all here.

© Judy Rand, 2014

Telling Stories about Storytelling @ AAM 2014

One of the highlights of my AAM 2014 experience (and the source of the most dread), was the storytelling panel that Seattle-based exhibit planner Judy Rand and I organized. AAM included a “storytelling” format this year in the call for proposals, and we thought it’d be interesting to put together a session that wasn’t the usual “people sitting behind a table talking while the slides went by” kind of presentation. Judy suggested we explore the power of storytelling based on the model of The Moth Radio Hour. I suggested the theme of “The thing I wished they’d told me when I started in museums” and we were off!
A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating... and a rug and plant.

A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating… and a rug and plant.

Over the next few months, we expanded our roster of speakers to include Catherine Hughes, Director of Interpretation at the Connor Prairie Museum and Nina Simon, the Executive Director from the Museum of Art and Science in Santa Cruz. Catherine’s an actress, Nina’s a former slam poet, and we knew they’d rise to the challenge of telling compelling stories within pretty rigid time limits. Judy and I, both more writers than speakers, had more to worry about. Coming up with a way to tell a compelling story is very different than writing a compelling story. Writing for the ear is, for me, much harder than writing for the eye. I don’t think I ever spent as much time practicing a conference presentation, cutting and tightening, as I did for the eight minutes I was alone in front of a room full of my peers telling my story.
The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

In the end, depsite the angst it caused me, it was a great session. The stories we heard were amazing. Judy told us of her intense shyness in public and of the revelation of taking a personality test and finding out that it classified her a “people person.” Catherine described her love of museum work as an addiction and drew out a number of very funny, if slightly disturbing, analogies between her career path and an addict’s. Trust me, it was good. Nina told the story of her struggles as a new museum director and what it means to really be an activist instead of just talking about it.
Judy sharing her story with the audience.

Judy sharing her story with the audience.

When we asked the 200-odd people in the room to pair up and tell each other a 2-minute story, the noise level was deafening. Instead of having the usual question and answer session at the end, we invited audience members to come and share their stories with the audience. It was great.  Here are the handouts we made:

Our Storytelling Resources handout

Our 2-minute storytelling activity handout

I wrote about my own story over at PEM’s blog, and that prompted me to get this recollection down, and to include Judy’s and Catherine’s stories as well, in future posts.

Now back to editing CODE|WORDS essays and trying to write my own!