How Fiction Saved My Museum Mojo

Summer Office

My summer office


I do some of my best cogitatin’  sitting on my side porch, early in the morning, with a cup of coffee.   And this morning, in fact for much of the past month, I’ve been pondering how best to use my time to surface opportunities for museums in the area of ancillary activities.  Now, my ancillary may not be your ancillary.  I’m looking to describe case studies, or perhaps user stories,  that illustrate random acts of kindness,  not-so-random efficiencies of practice, micro-changes in attitude and behavior, as well economies of scale.  I’m looking for small but continuous changes that can occur to significantly improve the work environment in museums, creating engaged professional and volunteer staff  members, who look forward to coming to work each morning, and doing their best work.

For five years now I’ve blogged about museums, museum technology, and life in general.  I love blogging but cannot escape from the reality that blogging is essentially a short-term outburst on a subject, somehow related to museums, that flits across my radar screen.   Teaching allows me a slightly wider scope to field ideas about change but still 13 weeks is only 13 weeks.   I’ve slowly come around to the decision that my route to describing the changes that can occur in the arc from dystopia to something headed towards, but never quite approaching, utopia, is fiction.   This is not a new idea for me.  Around 1992, when I was associate curator of European art at the San Diego Museum of Art, I took a two week leave of absence and outlined a mystery novel, set in a museum, that allowed me to explore the ups-and-downs of working in an art museum..  Life and work intervened and my protagonist, Joe, has been sitting patiently in the back of my brain, occasionally commenting and having ideas about plots, scenes, and characters.

Two years ago, I finally sat down and wrote most of the first draft, not of the original mystery, but of the prequel to the original mystery.  And as it turns out, the mystery isn’t really about the ups-and-downs of working in a real museum–the story (murder and mayhem aside) is about how Joe has to rediscover why he wanted to work in a museum in the first place.  In the beginning of the new book Joe has lost his museum-mojo and needs to find it again (he does).  In November of last year I picked the text up again, finished the draft, and sent it off to six friends to read  (a doctor, an artist, a museum employee, an attorney,  an art history professor, and my mother-in-law).  The response was favorable, I made some changes, had the draft copy-edited, wrote a synopsis and a query letter, and have sent it off to a first round of literary agents for consideration.

Since December of last year I have outlined the next four books in the series.  I find am excited at the thought of describing a museum that functions, a staff that works well together, and an environment that is constantly challenging (particularly when a murder or two is thrown in).  My world is different place from a year ago.  In  news articles about museums or in conversations with students, friends, and colleagues in the field, I’m constantly thinking how Joe and his colleagues might respond.  Like Cinderella”In my own little corner, in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be.” (The Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella, not the Disney version).  Fiction allows me to posit a museum in which it is safe to explore the controversial issues as well as the everyday operations and to bring to life a profession that is fascinating, complex, intellectually rigorous, and infinitely satisfying.   Not only did Joe get his museum-mojo back in this process but I did too.

5 Responses to “How Fiction Saved My Museum Mojo”

  1. Beate A Jensen says:

    “a museum that functions, a staff that works well together” – We know this part is fiction for sure!

    Love your blogs, I am sure the books will be fun as well.

    • Holly Witchey Holly Witchey says:

      Dear Beate,

      Thank you for the funny and the kind comments. I do love museums and museum work but sometimes wonder why everyday operations don’t run a little smoother.

  2. Holly, you’ve inspired me to quit procrastinating on my blog for this week. I’m not quite to the fiction/write-a-book moment, but I can certainly imagine the possibilities. Now that I’m finished with my JHU Museum Studies degree :-), I might actually have time to consider this! Thanks for your terrific ‘motivational speech’ this a.m. My coffee is calling….

    • Holly Witchey Holly Witchey says:

      Congratulations on your new degree, and thank you for your words. Here’s one of my favorite quote about writing from novelist Thomas Berger. “Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.” I think that’s why I do it. Enjoy your coffee, mine is right here within reach, in my favorite “Ben’s Cookies” coffee mug.

  3. […] just finished reading Holly Witchey’s account of How Fiction Saved My Museum Mojo and her return to fiction writing. Some of her descriptions of what happens in the real world of […]

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