The exodus

May 28, 2010

In her introduction to the Museum Blog, Amy Ellsworth says, “Now you can follow us through the fourth wall, into our laboratories, storage areas, and offices to see how the Museum works.”  Well, this view isn’t always pretty.  Take the last week….

Late last Friday, a whole lot of the staff got emails saying that they’d have to vacate their current offices and labs by June 30, moving all the contents to other, usually smaller, spaces.  There were various bureaucratic reasons involving Penn’s construction and fund-raising processes explaining why nobody had been entirely sure who all would have to move and when until the very last moment but, needless to say, havoc ensued.  One planning document I saw referred to the move as the “West Wing Exodus”.  That sort of gives the flavor, if you think of it as one of those movies where the inhabitants are fleeing with all their worldly possessions, gradually discarding cherished items along the roadside.

You have to understand, space is a precious commodity in the Museum.  Wars (bloodless, mostly) have been waged over small, pokey rooms.  One of my favorite scenes from the Indiana Jones films is one that other people may not even remember:  when Professor Jones’ campus office is revealed as a boiler room!  In my time at the Museum, closets have been turned into offices; bathrooms have been made into offices; offices have been subdivided and made into multiple offices.  Every inch of space is contested.  So, when you have to vacate one entire wing to enable a construction project (even though everyone thinks the construction project is an excellent idea and the end product will be wonderful), it affects virtually everyone in the Museum.  Even those not in the affected wing have had to scootch over and make room for the Displaced.

So, in the last week, we’ve been through all  five of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief:

  • Denial:  You can’t be serious!  There’s no way in h*** we can possibly move everything by June 30
  • Anger:  This is ridiculous; you can’t possibly expect me to do this.  How am I supposed to get my work done?
  • Bargaining:  OK, I’ll vacate that space, but you have to find a place for my [study collection/wash table/summer camp/fill in the blank]
  • Depression:  That’s it; I just won’t be able to get anything accomplished for the next two years.  Fine, no problem, it’s just my career  <said with bitter irony>
  • Acceptance:   Where can I get some boxes?

But you just have to admire my colleagues.  After some initial chaos (think of a kicked anthill), everyone has buckled down and started working out ways to make the best of the situation.  We’re figuring out how to share equipment and supplies to eke out precious space.  Those who are about to go into the field for the summer are making sure everything is ready before they leave.  Anyone who’s ever gone into the field for an extended period can understand what a colossal headache having one more thing crammed into already overscheduled time is – and this is a huge Thing.  We’ve been told that it may be two years before we get back to our proper spaces.  Imagine being given 4 weeks (or less) to pack everything you were going to need for the next two years!

I’ve done my share of whining:  how can we conservators possibly fit 6 rooms worth of equipment, supplies, and staff into three smaller rooms without any ventilation, fume hood, and the only water source is down the hall?  And, even if we manage it, how will we have any room left to work?  Etc., etc.  But then, Naomi Miller, archaeobotanist extraordinaire, said something that really put it into perspective:  “well, I guess we should just think of it as going into the field”.  You see, we’re an archaeology/anthropology Museum.  Most of the staff have experienced going off to work in a far off place that doesn’t have [phones/internet/electricity/running water/safe drinking water or food/scorpion-free or leech-free accommodations/fill in the blank], and we expect that and we work with the conditions at hand and do great work.

Me, I’m off on an expedition to the Wilds of the Mainwaring Wing; I’ll keep you posted on my adventures there.