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Winter and Institutional Memory
The Maori of New Zealand celebrate a winter holiday called Matariki (which takes place in June usually, as New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere). It’s a New Year celebration which is kicked off by the first few nights that a certain constellation (which the Maori call Matariki, also known as the Seven Sisters or the Pleiades) is visible in the sky. I first learned about Matariki when I lived in New Zealand in 2011 – they had New Years calendars that ran from June to June, and since my birthday is in June (and I generally can’t handle resolutions in January so I tend to think of June as my ‘do-over’ month for resolutions – hey, at least I’ve got half the year left!) I was quite tickled by the holiday and I learned a bit more about it.
The main concept from Matariki I learned that has really stuck with me is the idea of the winter season as a time for learning (which makes complete sense from a agrarian cultural perspective), specifically the elders teaching the younger members of the family or group about their history, genealogy (tangent: Maori have an incredible spoken genealogy tradition, some people can recite their family history all the way back to naming the canoe their ancestors used to travel to New Zealand in the 1500’s!), when and how to plant crops, how to weave, etc. As a person who usually has a tough time in the winter, I really got excited about treating the season as an active time of learning and passing on knowledge rather than an inactive time of sitting around, being sad & cold, and waiting for things to get better/warmer.
So here we are, and it’s cold and wet outside, and for many of us in the arts, there’s a lull in programming. What if we thought about this as a time for learning about where we work, and for sharing what we have learned with others? What if we looked on this time of year as an opportunity to redress some of the lack of institutional knowledge that comes from moving at such a fast, reactive pace?
I’ve a track record of working at organizations run by the founders – but not necessarily knowing the history of the organization beyond what is mentioned in asides or in grant applications. I am sure that some of you can relate. At small organizations, the focus is so often on putting out fires or whatever the next big thing that needs done – we rarely if ever set aside time to hear the stories of how it all came to be. Yet so much of the work we do rests on that foundation, on choices that people made years or decades ago, and I would wager that learning more about the whys and wherefores of those decisions could give us valuable insights into the organization in the here and now. Even at larger institutions where the founders may no longer be with us or in the office daily, there are still elders at work who retain some of the institutional memory. We also have a responsibility to share what we have learned with our colleagues; we’ve all had experiences where we’ve unknowingly reinvented the wheel and then discovered it was unnecessary – what if we put some winter-time resources towards identifying which institutional wheels roll smoothly and explaining why?
I’ve spent some time in the last couple of months writing a bookkeeping manual for my organization. Ostensibly this evolved as a way to make sure I am doing the bookkeeping correctly and consistently every month (something that does not come naturally to me). However, as I’ve worked more and more on it, I’ve come to appreciate it as something that will be eventually be useful to others – so they won’t have to reinvent this particular wheel. It’s in my interest personally and institutionally for this manual to be comprehensive and clear. As new leaders, it’s tempting to think that we don’t have a lot of institutional memory (or that someone else is the keeper of that memory) – but I think knowledge is both wide and diffuse enough that it’s time we recognize the institutional value of what we know (and what we don’t know!)
So – here are my twin Matariki challenges:
– invite an elder from your organization out to lunch or coffee, and ask to hear some stories from before your time at the organization; and
– take a little time out on a slow afternoon to write down a little of what you’ve learned since you started (it might be a top ten list of things that work and things that need to be improved, or it might be a step-by-step of how you run a mailing. Either way, it will eventually make someone else’s work simpler).
I’ll report back next month on how my challenges went and I look forward to hearing from you all.