Election Scenario Planning for Museums

The past couple of weeks, I had the chance to participate in election-related scenario planning with a number of my colleagues. I became involved through what I can only describe either as a textbook example of serendipity or the fact that I happen to know some really awesome, creative people (probably both).

It started with the remarkable Andrea Jones (who just joined the equally remarkable Melanie Adams at the Anacostia Museum), asking on Twitter if any museums had begun thinking proactively about Election Day and the days after.

Nearly simultaneously, I receive an email from the equally talented and creative Sarah Jencks, announcing that she and others have been working with the National Conference on Citizenship on some election scenario planning for museums and were seeking facilitators.

All it took was one quick look at the document they’d created to help generate interest in the actual event and I signed on immediately. (Andrea did also, before I even got around to pointing her toward it.)

I was intrigued for two reasons. The first was because it gave me something to do with all of my free time. Yeah, I’m kidding. It was actually because I was spending a lot of time thinking about the election and its implications for our communities, which include our museums and history organizations, and for American society in general.

Second was when I saw the POWERHOUSE planning team. These are people whose work I admire and emulate. These are people from whom I have continued to learn as I’ve further honed my skills as a museum educator — the museum world I came up in. (I’m serious, y’all, take a look at the list of people below — it’s like the 1927 Yankees of 21st-century museum education.)

We participated in a two-hour training, and a week later conducted the actual two-hour scenario planning workshop with several hundred museum professionals from across America. I was inspired enough that I asked Jamie Engel of NCoC for permission to use the material again, and ended up conducting three more scenario planning workshops with two client sites — Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia — and with the Museums-As-Progress Community from Kyle Bowen of SuperHelpful.

In each of the four workshops I conducted we worked through a scenario I’m sure most of us feel is likely, but really don’t want to live through: a winner was declared election night and when ballots were finally counted, Trump had lost and he was stirring things up dangerously.

The gist of our discussion was what the museum and/or staff could do to prepare in advance of this. Each workshop began with a discussion about voting, voting process, voting rights in the community. From there, we game planned the scenario for Operations, Messaging, Staff Care, and Programs.

Here are some lessons I learned from conducting four of this with a total about 30 people:

  1. Dust off your emergency plan. Look at it as if the fallout from the election is the “disaster” you’re planning for.
  2. Communicate NOW to your staff what’s expected of them. This includes not only messages about safety and security, but also what to tell guests who may “challenge” them with election-related talk.
  3. Now is when to think of the public messages you’ll send out via social media and email. Don’t get caught off-guard like everyone was after George Floyd’s assassination and end up serving the community weak tea. Consider carefully the messages you’ll send. It probably won’t be appropriate to treat this as a business-as-usual message day.
  4. Lead with democracy. Remember that it is impossible to be non-political but you can be non-partisan. Share the stories from your own community about elections and voting.
  5. Museums aren’t necessarily first responders in these moments, but we partner with many who are. Identify those people/organizations now, connect with them, ask them what they need, and boost their voices.
  6. Be brave. This is the time to put your money where your mouth is regarding how you speak of and address injustice. Your community is watching you to see if you’re for real here. Show them that you are.
  7. Think about how you can serve protestors (if there are any). Can you open your lobby for restrooms? Can you serve water and give folks a place to rest?
  8. Take care of your staff. I can never say this enough, and there’s no such thing as too much caring for your team in the midst of community trauma.
  9. Take care of yourself. Plan, prepare. We’re all pretty exhausted right now, but this is part of what the mantle of leadership is all about. We’re going to have to summon the energy we need over the next little bit, this weekend may be the last rest you’ll get for a bit.

I don’t necessarily feel like an expert after conducting these four rounds of scenario planning, but I will tell you that I feel more mentally prepared for tackling the next phase of our work. And more than that, I am inspired by the goodness in the world in the midst of all of the ugly.

ps: The amazing Gabe Dixon, keyboardist for Tedeschi Trucks Band, has just released a truly beautiful song for our times “Bend the Curve.” I encourage you to click the link and check it out, and read Gabe’s inspiration for the song: https://www.gabedixon.com/bend-the-curve.

pps: One last little bit for you. This piece came across the transom sometime this past April, “10 Secrets People in Recovery from Addiction Know that Could Help Us All Survive this Global Pandemic.” It was a little bit of a low time for me in the early days of the pandemic and its words really resonated strongly. Perhaps they will with you, as we enter into our eight month of dealing with Covid-19 and Trump’s abysmal response to it.

President of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit firm providing community-focused strategies for planning, assessment, and interpretation.

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