Dan Yaeger & Marieke Van Damme, the resilience reminders
Museums are perfect specimens of cultural preservation and enrichment, right? Characterized by fantastically fastidious facades, glitteringly glistening galleries, eternally enticing emanations, and well, the list could go on and on. When we think of museums in this way, however, we neglect to appreciate the challenges they overcome and the perseverance they practice. Behind our postulations of perfection for the museum world are actually real people leading real lives. Behind the Barnum Museum, for example, there is Kathy Maher, an executive director who continues to uplift her team despite having seen her museum crumble before her eyes when a tornado swept through in 2010. Behind the National Black Doll Museum there is Debra Britt, a founder determined to valorize doll diversity so that no child suffers the feelings of self-deprecation that she struggled with in her own youth. And behind the Harvard Art Museums there is Kathy McGaughey, a museum guard affected by the interactions she sees on a daily basis and who advocates for tackling concerns of diversity and inclusion with the front-line staff first.
All too often, however, stories such as these are not the topic of discussion among museum people. Instead, they are sidelined and overlooked. They show vulnerability. They show difficulty. They show sensitivity. But at the end of the day, they also show strength.
That strength, or ability to absorb large disruptions without changing their foundational nature, is something worth highlighting. It is something that paints a picture of a museum world and a museum people that is/are resilient. Or what’s more, creatively resilient!
With the start of their podcast on January 11, 2016, Dan Yaeger and Marieke Van Damme envisioned a future for the museum world in which such stories of creative resilience would be championed. Their podcast, Museum People, sought to remind us all that behind the oft-assumed perfect museum facade are stories worth sharing and lessons worth learning. Over the years, their podcast has featured interviews and dialogues with leaders and workers alike, including the heretofore-mentioned Kathy Maher, Debra Britt, and Kathy McGaughey. As an avid listener myself, I have found the podcast provocative and engaging. Hearing museum leaders and workers affirm the presence of problems is reassuring in a way; it is a recognition of the fact that we are all unfinished selves and institutions collectively seeking to finish ourselves. By maintaining conversation, we allow for our human experiences to inspire ourselves and others, just like any great work of art that may bring us to tears or cause us to burst out laughing. Together, we become learners. Learners of change. Learners of transformation. Learners of life.
As our world confronts an ever-growing litany of ills and problems without passports, Dan and Marieke offer hope for museum people by instilling confidence in our collective ability to learn and to persevere. As some of the earliest pioneers of museum podcasting, too, Dan and Marieke themselves remind us of the exciting opportunities that arise when creative thinkers come together at the nexus of the arts, culture, and education.
While Museum People is on hiatus (though they both continue to work tirelessly in their respective positions: Dan as the Executive Director of the New England Museum Association (NEMA) and Marike as the Executive Director of the Cambridge Historical Society), Dan and Marieke generously agreed to speak about their superstar roles this March, with Superstars of Culture. Here is a bit of what they hoped to share:
DY: The bottom line is I love talking. I love talking with people. And with what I do for NEMA, visiting people and museums, the idea of doing a podcast meant I could talk some more… But what I learned for sure, the long and the short of it, is that creating a podcast like Museum People, well, it’s not just shoving a microphone in front of someone’s face. It’s actually a lot of time and dedication.
MVD: For me, it’s been a real blessing and honor to get to know our fellow colleagues. To highlight them. And to give them a chance to feel special as they are.
In your opinions, why ought we take the time to pause, reflect, and ask one another insightful questions -- from what our biggest obstacles have been to what we wish people knew about museums to what the value of museums is to our first museum memories?
DY: Ah yes, our favorite questions [on the podcast]. You see, these are all big questions, but big questions that we often don’t think about on a regular basis. In our daily lives we really just don’t have the time to sit back and reflect. But that was definitely one of my favorite parts about Museum People, you know, to get people to express their feelings on these things. Many times it even became cathartic.
MVD: I would add that we as a field don’t talk about our mistakes or anything negative and we need to make ourselves vulnerable to admit to them because they exist… Though I agree museums are wonderful, having been in museums, toiling away as a worker, I’ve seen a lot of injustices and things that need fixing. The podcast really was important because it showed that we are all people. We are not just nameless souls... It was never about the employers, the museums, it was about the people. It showed the field as a field of humanity.
Why does podcasting lend itself so well to storytelling?
MVD: Audio in general, I think, creates intimacy. And I think because museum workers can often feel isolated, this way of creating intimacy and bringing people together is important.
DY: I’d agree with that for sure!
You talked about the value of teamwork in episode 2 season 2. What was it like to form a team together through Museum People?
MVD: Honestly, I think Dan did the majority of the work. By nature of his job, traveling to see people in museums, it just happened that he did the majority of the interviews. And I am glad that it happened that way, but gosh I wish I could have done more too. I mean, I love talking to people too!
DY: I felt that we had a great degree of chemistry, you know, doing the lead-ins and interviews and all... Where my experience has been mostly outside of the field, [Marieke’s] experience was always in the field, and that was really helpful. I really valued [her] take on things, being much more detailed and granular… Yeah I may have done more of the editing and interviewing but putting together each episode as a final product really and truly was a work of teamwork.
MVD: Well thank you, Dan. I must say, thinking about it more now, there really is something to be said about having two people working on something. You know, I can interview someone and read it and go with it but having his analysis there too added to the end product.
DY: Number one, it gave me insight. In my work at NEMA I deal with big-picture stuff. Diversity, equity, inclusion, access. Deaccessioning ethics. But when you actually talk to individuals and take it down to that granular level, it gives insight into the bigger issues that you can’t really find in any other way. One of my favorite episodes, for example, was when interviewing Debra Britt from the National Black Doll Museum. I remember going into the interview I had met her before but what is this black dolls museum thing, you know, really. But when I went there, saw the space, and talked with her, you know, she actually brought me to tears. Her story. Her hardships as a person of color. Having that opportunity to interview her and talk to a much deeper level really affected me and it continues to inform what I do, on a more abstract-basis, with regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
MVD: Whenever you meet someone and you think of them as a potential podcast subject, you always bring a new levity to the conversation. You automatically assume they are a great person with great stories to tell. And that’s just a great way to meet a new person. It’s just a great way to think about the world. To think that any person can change your life… It’s wonderful.
Superstar snapshot: Dan Yaeger and Marieke Van Damme
Superstar strength: being empathetic (MVD) and having humility (DY)
Superstar secret talent: making lists (MVD) and having the gift of gab (DY)
Superstar noteworthy quotes: “to quote the great Wayne Gretsky, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take [mostly with regards to fundraising!]” (MVD) and “to borrow from Mark Twain, it takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech [especially regarding Museum People podcasts too]” (DY)
(photo credit: NEMA)