[Reflections of a Before Timer]

I sit and sew masks, surrounded by house plants.

This is fine, I say.

Strange times, etc.

In between pours of iso-wine, I catch myself reflecting on the Before Times and the weird demarcation that now exists. That was then, this is now.  The future feels a lot less tangible than it used to. Endless futures fade in and out of existence, wiped away with another outbreak/wave/cluster.

Back in the Before Time (I had to look the actually date up because time is meaningless – it was March), I headed on in to the city to attend GLAMSLAM. GLAMSLAM describes itself as “a day for all those working in or with galleries, libraries, archives and museums – to come together and talk about the pressing issues facing cultural institutions and to share their work.”. It’s hosted by the bloody fantastic Tamson Pietsch and the Australian Centre for Public History and if you’ve never been, add it to your calendar now.[1]

What sets GLAMSLAM apart from other GLAM (and particularly LIS) events is that it demands more from the GLAM sector and GLAM professionals. This is not some pat-on-the-back celebration of What We Did And Here’s Why You Should Too (that arguably/frustratingly shapes so many LIS events). Instead, it asks us to do better, be better. Question/challenge/breakdown the status quo. It is urgent, energised and optimistic about the way we can/should change GLAM.

At the end of each GLAMSLAM, I leave in awe of my colleagues. I leave reenergised and optimistic about the capacity for real change within the profession. I leave firm in my belief about my own role – both within GLAM and also as an agent of change.

This isn’t a review of the event (it was fab five stars) but a reflection on a moment that stands out. GLAMSLAM is a dynamic day. A lot happens. It is challenging, collegiate, empowering and participatory. And this standout moment is just one point of a full-of-moments day. It’s the moment Tamson broke us into groups and asked us to contemplate The Empty Plinth. What would we place atop it?

I knew instantly.  A mask. A symbol of our times, already (even in March) heavily imbued with meaning. The mask as a symbol of protest, a striking visual symbol emerging amongst the imagery of the Hong Kong protests. The mask as a symbol of privacy – a guard against/disruptor of surveillance technology. The mask as a symbol of climate change, a visceral reminder of the choking air we experienced as part of the Black Summer. And the mask as a symbol of public health, as COVID-19 started to creep into our lives. 

I turned to my group and made my suggestion, expecting consensus. My group however, did not agree. The argument was that we needed a symbol of hope, and the mask was not hopeful. As we discussed what ‘hope’ might look like, the idea of something reclaimed by nature emerged. The ‘thing’ should be made of a material that weathered and disintegrated. It should provide a home for living things. It shouldn’t leave a mark. It should be impermanent. The ‘thing’ should reflect our smallness. The ‘thing’ should be a triumph of nature over us. I didn’t disagree.

As each team stood up and delivered their plinth, this central theme of nature, of healing, of reclamation, emerged. The majority of projects celebrated nature over the built environment, and clearly longed for healing. I was moved by this. It felt like a collective response in collective mourning for what we had lost over the devastating summer. We had borne witness and now we would place nature on the plinth, celebrated and revered.

I reflected on this response during the long train trip home. I felt hope. I felt that what I had experienced in that room was the first tangible expression of what the future would look like – that there had been a dramatic shift in our thinking about the ways we interact with the natural world, and that we would demand change.

And then, of course, *everything * went to hell. Arguably, the energy that would have demanded greater action on climate change was spent instead on our collective response to the emerging public health crisis.

I can’t hold onto to the threads of possible futures. There are too many, and the future, at this point, plays out daily update by daily update.

Would I still put the mask on the plinth? Certainly, the mask has dominated my 2020. Never did I imagine having to explain why my bushfire mask was no good as a plague mask. Never did I imagine that wearing a mask would become a political statement. Never did I imagine sharing mask patterns to my work Slack channel[2].

Part of me does see the mask as a symbol of hope. I wear a mask not for myself, but for others. As I slip the loops of my ears and position the mask, I think about how this helps my community. How this small action protects us all. And if I can consider this action in these terms, maybe this thinking can inform our actions more broadly.

Maybe there’s hope yet.

(Parton Me fabric via Mount Vic and Me)

[1] Oh bless my optimism. Imagine gathering! (Also, I miss my GLAM-fam – stay safe, dear hearts x)

[2] I quite like this one, and also this one.

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