Are we working from a foundation of fear? Part 3

by Joelle D. J. Wickens

Let’s assume at least some of us are working from a foundation of fear. Let’s also assume we don’t want to be working from that foundation. What are we going to do about it? I don’t really know, but I have some thoughts about what we can try.

First, anyone up for letting go of perfectionism? We are afterall a profession of many perfectionists. Who but a perfectionist, would call a very carefully thought through action that produces an unexpected outcome, a mistake? For me, a mistake is something I should have been able to avoid. It is something that happens when I am careless, distracted, or in a hurry. If I am following a dye recipe and I add 0.5 ml of solution rather than 5.0 ml that is a mistake. If I’m folding a piece of blue board and I make the fold at 20 ¼ inches rather than 20 ¾ inches that is a mistake. But if I am reviewing environmental parameters with an institution and we have reviewed many years of historic data, and the condition of the collection, and the capacity of the building, and we agree that broadening the environmental parameters the institution maintains is likely to be safe for the collection and the building, and two years down the road there is a mold outbreak, was our decision a mistake? If I’m wet cleaning a sampler, and I’ve tested every possible combination of fiber, color, and wash solution, and they all appear colorfast, and I then immerse the sampler in the wash solution and one of the dyes begins to bleed, did I make a mistake? The way we talk about our work certainly suggests we identify these things as mistakes. If we are perfectionists, disappointed with anything but perfection from ourselves, our definition of mistake sets us up for failure. And perfectionists certainly fear failure. We can’t get rid of the fact that we work in a world where we are constantly dealing with no two objects or environments that are the same. Things are going to behave in unpredictable ways. We can stop expecting the impossible from ourselves and from each other. When we do we disarm the bully within, the bully at the mic at the conference, the bully colleague, the bully professor. And once the bully is disarmed, perhaps the fear dissipates?

Second, anyone up for figuring out where you have power and using it to build others up and disarm fear? I’ve watched seemingly powerless students with a wide variety of backgrounds and knowledge come together and decide to openly share information, ideas and skills with each other. The end result of using the power to share tends to be a group of students who realize they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and there is room for them all to succeed. This is huge in an academic environment that often leaves people feeling powerless. I’ve watched a junior colleague use a well-funded exhibit as the vehicle to push past unfunded internships in a highly resistant institution. If we all focus on where we do have power, and use it for good, I think we could wipe out a lot of fear.

I’m really interested in what you think of these ideas. Could they help move us away from fear? Share a comment in the discussion section to the right, and/or sign up below to participate in our Zoom discussion on Thursday. 

And come back to on Monday, February 14 to find out what Anna Rose Keefe, Textile Conservation Assistant, RISD Museum has to say about our next topic, Are we following the wrong rules?

Author bio

Joelle D. J. Wickens (she/her) is a daughter, sibling, wife, parent, educator, mentor, student, facilitator, preventive conservator…. Others identify her as disabled. She prefers phrases like, uses a wheelchair to navigate when outside of her home. She is an Assistant Professor of preventive conservation in the Art Conservation Department, University of Delaware, USA, and the Associate Director of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Her current work in preventive conservation is dedicated to evolving the practice of the specialty to place social, economic, and environmental sustainability at its core.

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