Write with me! Creative writing for museum professionals

wild mind

I’ve been making something of a habit in my life as a poet/author of writing in museums, leading workshops on writing in museums, and writing about writing in museums. Now I’m leading a free webinar through the New England Museum Association (membership or geographic location in New England not required!) for museum professionals on how taking a creative break in your museum space can re-energize your daily practice.

WHEN:  Wednesday, May 31, 2017, Noon – 1 pm EST
WHAT: Recharge, Reimagine, and Write! Accessing Your Creativity to See Your Museum Differently
WHO:  Meg Winikates, Author/Poet and Museum Educator
FORMAT: Free Webinar

Many of us came to work at museums because we find them inspiring. But in the day-to-day operation of a museum, not to mention the pressures of outside factors and current events, it’s all too easy to fall into patterns, to stop seeing what makes our places special, and to stop feeding that inspirational, creative element of our museum practice.

Join poet, author, and museum educator Meg Winikates (also member of the NEMA staff!) to explore ways to see elements of your museum’s collection in a newly creative light, by writing an ekphrastic poem. Ekphrasis, or the creation of one kind of art inspired by another kind of art, is a natural fit for museums and museum professionals. Discover different methods of creating an ekphrastic piece, how it might translate to your job, and how to encourage similar experiences for your colleagues and your visitors.

This session is for all types of museums and all types of museum professionals. Grab your lunch and bring your imagination!

You can RSVP for the webinar here.

 

Steampunk to Starships: Workshop Summary

Last week I was lucky to work with a great team of folks to talk about using pop culture in the museum world: its successes, pitfalls, opportunities, and risks. The workshop was organized through the auspices of the New England Museum Association, and we were hosted by the fantastic staff of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, MA.

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The bike path along the Charles River in Waltham runs right along the front of CRMII

The workshop covered a lot; not just the whys and hows of integrating pop culture, but also discussing the rewards of taking risks, identifying partners in collaborative projects, and case studies in exhibit and festival design. We also got into some good and meaty topics right at the end of the day, which I’m looking forward to continuing when we do a follow up session at the NEMA conference this November.

Why Use a Pop-Culture Hook?

Mission is key, but pop culture (or anything else with a devoted following of fans) can be a great hook to bring in new audiences, or to give your current visitors a way to connect with your collections and mission differently.

There are a lot of different ways to use pop culture tie-ins, depending on the level of time, money, and staff energy that you have available. Listed below are some of the examples I used in my presentation (and a few I didn’t manage to include):

Exhibits (High investment of time, budget, and staff)

Exhibit ‘overlays’ or interventions (moderate to low investment of time, budget, and staff, depending on if your staff is doing the intervening or if you’re working with outside artists, students, etc.)

Activity Guides (moderate to low investment)

Special Events and Programs (moderate to high investment, depending on the size of the event)

In all of these examples (though least of all exhibits, which usually are their own draw), timeliness is an important factor. It’s really easy to hop onto a wave too late, or to leave insufficient time to work with the other departments in your museum to get on their project calendars for design, marketing, or fabrication. For instance, I once wrote a really cool activity guide tying the Peabody Essex Museum collections to locations and events in Middle Earth around the time the first Hobbit movie was coming out, but it coincided with a massive workload for the creative services team at the museum, who were swamped by an upcoming exhibit and had no time to design the guide. Thus, it never materialized.

This is outside my institution’s comfort zone. Why take the risk?

Exhibit designer Margaret Middleton (@magmidd) led us all in a series of exercises to help identify our own sense of risk-taking.  Were we risk-takers or risk-averse? Were we risk-enablers for others in our institutions? What topics could be considered low-risk or high-risk for a program or exhibition? In a different context, would the risk level be different?

She also strongly suggested that ‘risk’ is the wrong end of the stick. While being aware of potential hazards (and taking steps to mitigate them) is important, Margaret suggested that we should reframe these opportunities as ‘potential rewards’ instead of risks. What happens if you let a seven year old use real, sharp tools? What  happens if you host that conversation on voting rights in modern America? What’s the harm in tweeting an article about climate change if your museum has an upcoming show about the Arctic & Antarctic? How much negativity are you ready for, and how will you deal with it? Can you point to all your decisions being mission-driven, and if so, what’s the risk, really?

One important opportunity in both risk-taking and risk-mitigation is to invite outside voices into the museum process, as advisors, local or content experts, and enablers. Margaret offered up this worksheet as a way to identify who can help fill the holes in your project development team.

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Workshop participants test their Coat Hanger Catapults (because everyone needs a good catapult activity, it ties in to so many themes!)

This sounds exciting, but where do I even start? My collection is huge and pop culture’s even bigger.

This is where calling on your friends and family, coworkers, local librarians and booksellers, and the internet can help. Everyone has a passion, which usually comes with insider knowledge: book and movie release dates (helpful with the timeliness factor aforementioned), connections to specific communities like book groups, crafting circles, or fan conventions, etc.

You can start with some of the topics listed in the slideshow above under “geekstorming activity” as well. Some are specific and time-sensitive (Hamilton is the hot new thing on Broadway that’s getting attention from lots of previously-non-theater-goers), others are more general (board and video-games are perpetual favorites as a broad topic). Then use this worksheet (geekstorming template) as a visual way to tie the objects or strengths of your institution, plus people in your circles who might be able to help you, to specific topics.

Case Studies and Take-Aways of Exhibits and Festivals

In the afternoon, museum consultant Emily Robertson told us about her work with the Star Wars: Science Meets the Imagination exhibition produced by the Museum of Science, Boston, and Nick and Jillian Perry, the founding artists of Emporium 32, spoke with Bob Perry of CRMII about the triumphs and pitfalls of running a large town festival with niche appeal, the Watch City steampunk festival.

Emily’s major takeaways from the development of a huge project like Science Meets the Imagination were as follows:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. You never know who’s going to say yes.
  2. Keep your mission in mind. The educational goals are what’s important, and what will defend against the nay-sayers.
  3. Listen to the fans (but plan for non-fans as well!).

Nick, Jillian, and Bob offered up this advice for planning festival-type events:

  1. Expect that your audience and returns will build over a series of years; plan for it. Don’t expect immediate success.
  2. Work with the community you want involved throughout the year, not just when you want them to turn up/volunteer at your event. Host meetups, offer other ways for them to greet and engage with each other and your institution.
  3. Recognize that a big festival event is a huge time commitment; plan for having staff or a paid outside coordinator; volunteer coordinators can be great, but not always as reliable as you want.

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Emily Robertson talks about bringing hovercraft, droids, and hyperspace to real life at the Museum of Science.

Further Topics for Discussion

Right at the end of the day we touched on some interesting topics to hopefully explore further at the NEMA Conference in November. Here are a couple of questions to consider, and I’d love your input in the comments below!

  • A lot of ‘pop culture’ (including past classics that are still popular) is very mainstream/white/Eurocentric/majority-dominated. How can museums help widen the discussion and give space to other voices and stories while using more familiar pop culture as a hook to bring people in?
  • “High” vs. “low” culture: is this still a thing? What are the arguments we can use with our curators/board & trustees/unconvinced coworkers that prove all art is in dialogue and that pop culture is worth the perceived ‘risk?’

 

 

 

NEMA Wrap up 3: Discussing Diversity

At the 2014 conference, NEMA launched a new set of sessions styled as “Think Tanks,” or opportunities to have thought leaders and conference attendees work together in structured brainstorming to consider issues in the field, and what museums’ assets, opportunities, barriers, and possible action items are to create change.  The Think Tank I attended was on improving and promoting diversity in the museum field, especially in museum employees.  Though this has been discussed before, in light of recent studies that show how quickly the traditional museum-going public is being eclipsed by the growth of other segments of the population, the question remains key in the quest to retain museums’ relevance in the 21st century.

PEM's "Museum Action Corps" intern program was a paid internship that targeted students from underserved communities, and featured a collaborative project each semester.  This one, from 2007, was an oral history video on the changing face of Salem.

PEM’s “Museum Action Corps” intern program was a paid internship that targeted students from underserved communities, and featured a collaborative project each semester. This one, from 2007, was an oral history video on the changing face of Salem.

Defining Diversity

The first task the Think Tank took on was trying to encapsulate what kinds of diversity we seek as a field.  Recognizing that ‘diversity of thought is even more important than diversity of look’ to promote change, while not underestimating the impact of the ‘this place is for people like me’ effect, meant that our definition in itself was diverse.  The questions raised included ‘how can we define/identify what diversity is – and should we?’ and ‘what kind of diversities are priorities for museums?’  These are both much bigger ideas than we had airspace for in an hour long session, but I would love to hear your thoughts!

According to our brainstorm, museums seek to promote diversity in their staff, board, volunteers, and (eventually, hopefully) audience in:

  • age / lifestage / generation
  • culture
  • race
  • economic background
  • language/bilingual
  • physical ability
  • learning styles
  • gender (& gender identity)
  • orientation
  • mobility
  • religious
  • neurological/non-neuro-typical

We then split into groups to discuss the following topics.

Assets and Opportunities

How are museums well positioned to diversify?  What do we have in our ‘toolbox’ that can help solve the problem, and what opportunities do we have or can we create to improve the state of diversity in our field?

This is a really positive place to start, and while it’s both true and unfortunate that the group who chose to work on ‘barriers’ was twice the size, there was still some really good discussion here.

Here are a few of the places where my discussion group felt like we had real advantages or options for taking a more diverse path:

  • volunteer opportunities for high schoolers or younger (including a discussion about why this is an important experience)
  • mentorship
  • a core mission of telling human stories
  • location (where museums are central to their communities)
  • collections (what strengths and diverse experiences do we already have represented in our beautiful, interesting, important stuff?  What about the stuff that gets overlooked?)
  • sense of place

Focusing on these strengths with an eye towards diversity can hopefully lead to:

  • increased strength, power, sustainability and credibility of museum individuals and the organization as a whole
  • increased attendance
 Barriers

The group that discussed barriers to diversity had what appeared to be a lively and honest conversation in the back of the room.  They were focused on identifying impediments to diversity, and potential ways to mitigate them.  Some of their discussion points included:

  • unpaid internships (in fact, compensation at most levels was mentioned as being a potential barrier, but internships got top spot as a matter of concern)
  • lip service to diversity without true institutional commitment of time, money, and other resources
  • facilities (one possibility is to try to provide accessible and gender-neutral bathrooms)
  • negative histories/dislike/distrust of institutions (lots of minority groups have justified issues with museums based on past interactions)
  • location (not all museums are easy to get to or located in an area that is prime for diversifying)
  • only telling a narrow storyline (need to make room for more voices!)

Some of these barriers are easier to knock down than others, but there was some good follow up discussion on how to get there, enumerated below.

Specific Suggestions for Progress

Aside from the suggestions specifically directed at NEMA above, the group came up with some other ideas about ways to bring a more diverse set of applicants and attendees to the museum world:

  • Sensible job descriptions – reducing the entry barrier by making job descriptions and requirements more feasible for a wider range of applicants.
  • Putting a commitment to diversity in the mission statement, inquiring at new jobs what their commitment to diversity is.
  • Consider: where are we posting jobs? where are we advertising? Do we only talk to ourselves?
  • Can’t only be externally motivated & funded (i.e. by grants, accreditation assessments, etc.)
  • Diverse staff should be in every section : curatorial, board, education, facilities, front line staff, everywhere.
  • Seek partnerships with the organizations that are working where we want to – we are each others’ assets.
  • Get to know your coworkers – they’re probably more diverse than you’re aware of, and have connections, skills, and ideas that aren’t being used.
  • Existing is not enough if people targeted are not aware/interested: make sure you have what people need/are looking for, spend the time and effort to get the word out once you do, and make it lasting, not a one-time thing.

And a few things to consider when we’re trying to figure out how well we’re doing:

  • Metrics : when have we reached the goal/balance?  How diverse is ‘enough?’ Maybe we’re never there, always need to be thinking, working, aware of changing contexts.
  • Being realistic about the effort, not just seeking to fill quotas: what does success look like? Results do matter, but numbers are not the only method of measuring institutional change.
  • Open dialogue is important, more important than comfort, even.  If we’re outside our comfort zone, that’s probably a good thing!
 And a final reminder that I think we all need, lest we get discouraged:

Next Steps

In the time it’s taken for me to assemble my thoughts, the conversation around museum diversity and responding to social justice issues has continued.  If you haven’t yet checked in with the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson discussions, here are a few good links:

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and related events
Responding to the Events in Ferguson and Beyond: The Northwest African American Museum’s Example
Twitter Chat: #museumsrespondtoferguson
#Museums respond to Ferguson – Things must change.

Now, as our session leaders urged us, it’s your turn to “go out and talk to one other person that wasn’t here!  Start the conversation somewhere else.”

Or, keep talking to me here! Do you know of any projects or initiatives that are working to make the museum world a more inclusive one?

NEMA wrap-up 2: Cultural Consumption and Gut Reactions

Time for NEMA Wrap Up 2: Numbers and emotions!  (Those do not usually go well together, but we’re going for it anyway.)

informal feedback board from NEMA 2014

Feedback, whether formal or informal, is the most constant thing on the menu for museums who want to figure out what’s actually happening in their spaces.

Culture Track: Understanding Boston Museum-Going Audiences

Have you noticed how data-hungry people are these days?  From fitbits to count your number of steps per day to ways to measure your driving habits, your energy consumption, and the efficiency of your home heating system, everyone seems to love a bunch of numbers to crunch.  The museum field is no different.

Fortunately, Boston’s MFA recently paired with the folks over at La Placa Cohen to create the first city-focused Culture Track study of museum audience behavior in the greater Boston area (these are usually done at the national level).  The announcement, with links to the entire report and the summary presentation, is here.

The study aimed to understand audiences, not just “What are they doing? How are they engaging in culture? Why do they decide to participate?” but also “What’s really driving or discouraging audiences?  How do local trends compare to national ones?”   The study was also planned as a test case as a way to establish “shared & actionable data” for museums in the area.

These were a few highlights I took away from the session (though I encourage you to check out the full report as well!):

  • Since 2011, the percent of respondents who attend at least one cultural activity per year has increased in almost all fields.
  • The youngest audiences drive the market in Boston: cultural attendance among the younger ages of respondents is much higher here than the national average.
  • People are looking for “entertainment and enlightment” but the social aspects are very important:  almost half of millenials won’t go if they are going alone.
  • Audiences in all age brackets are looking for convenience (low cost, easy parking and opening hours) in addition to there being interesting topics and activities available.
  • All  culture-consuming Greater Bostonians are info-hungry and seek out information about their proposed activities ahead of time: websites, news articles, brochures, youtube videos, etc.

There were also a number of good questions brought up about further possibilities for study, including tracking visitors who only attend free events, or thinking about ways to improve the perceived value of memberships as organizational support.  Lots of food for thought!

Objects and Emotion

Rainey Tisdale and Linda Norris, authors of Creativity in Museum Practice, led a really interesting and highly entertaining session on provoking emotion through objects in museums.  In their typical style, this was a highly participatory session too, starting with a question like “Does incorporating strong emotion in the museum world make us nervous?” and then asking us to remember and consider objects in our own lives that provoke emotion.  (A lot of us chose gifts/remembrances of lost family members, which was interesting.)

The importance of emotion – especially strong emotion – is that it is closely tied to memory: both memories already held, and those created in that moment.

“Every memory comes with an emotional ‘stamp’ attached to it.  The stronger the emotional value the more likely sensory information is to pass this inital inspection and be admitted into memory.” – John Falk

In fact, according to Norris and Tisdale, in a study soon to be published by Reach Advisors, Susie Wilkening will report that ‘transformative’ or ‘aha’ moments need these elements: immersive environments, real objects, narrative/story, emotion.  (This is not surprising, perhaps, but as in the post section above, everyone loves the data that will prove it!)

In the exercises that followed, we were asked to pick a favorite object from our own museums, and to then call out a number of emotions.  Then we all sorted our objects into one of those emotions, ranging from ‘wonder’ to ‘anxiety’ to ‘confusion’ to ‘skepticism’ and beyond.  And we were asked to consider these points when going back to our own institutions to design a new visitor experience:

  • Some emotions are easier for museums than others (abundance, nostalgia, pride, tragedy).
  • Emotions are complicated – how do we get to the less explored territory beyond the emotions mentioned above?
  • An object can prompt the same emotion in multiple people and/or different emotions in different people. (All equally valid!)
  • Providing opportunities for emotion is more important than dictating what they should feel –  let people find their own resonance.

Some suggestions for ways to get to those emotional resonances included:

  •  cataloging by emotion (adding tags to your catalog based off staff assessments of a work’s emotional weight)
  • collecting by emotion (asking your community to donate objects with emotional resonance, complete with the stories about why)
  • tagging by emotion (getting visitors to use post-its or other ways to tag objects on view with the emotions they feel when looking at them)
  • designing to provoke emotion (lighting, stories in labels/media accompaniment, juxtapositions with other objects, visitor feedback areas)

If you’re looking for more information or a good emotion-bank starting place, here’s the handout from the session: ObjectsandEmotionHandout

Do you have a particularly emotion-laden object in your museum or personal collection?  What makes it resonate?  Share it in the comments!

NEMA Wrap-up 1: Pop-Up Museums and Peer Learning

The week before Thanksgiving was a big, busy, thought-provoking whirlwind of interesting issues in the field of museums.  I had a great time at the New England Museum Association (NEMA) annual conference, and as you may know if you follow me on Twitter, I had plenty to say!  For the next few posts I will be pulling together some of the highlights from the sessions I attended, and I’ll wrap it up with a summary of the session that I actually presented.

Highlight 1: “Pop-Up Museum” pre-conference event

IMG_20141118_200409106_HDRFor those of you who haven’t run across the Pop Up Museum concept before, the brief explanation is that it is a short term event, in which participants (usually from a particular community based on location, profession, interest, etc) create the ‘museum’ by bringing objects to share related to a theme, writing a label, and then talking to other participants and interested viewers.  There’s great in-depth information on the concept available from Michelle DelCarlo’s Pop Up Museum blog and Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0. (and a toolkit at the first link in this section)

This event’s theme was ‘things you do and create outside of work,’ and featured painters, photographers, sculptors, collectors and enthusiasts, voiceover artists, gardeners and more.  I brought poetry (see my ‘author’s point of view’ post here), but in the middle of being a poet, I was still being a museum educator, and here are some of my museum-centric takeaways:

  • Theme matters.  The theme was one people were passionate about and they were eager to tell their stories.
  • The label writing session was fun and needed about 3 more minutes than it got.  Brevity on labels is hard, we all know this.  A little more time for editing would have helped!
  • The “Ask me about…” prompt for the labels was the best part, as it promoted conversation and allowed an icebreaker for starting conversation with strangers.  We can and should do more of this kind of thing when we have artist demos, residencies, and facilitators on the exhibit floor, because it empowers our audience to be the ones to start a conversation.  Signage, buttons, nametags, whatever works.
  • A little more time for the participants to circulate to interact with each other before letting in other guests would help–we all wanted to see each others’ works but felt the pull to be near our own as well.

If you’d like to find out more about the objects people brought, a number of us posted 45 second clips up on Brad Larson’s Story Kiosk, and he’s got a great wrap up of the event, with playlist.

Highlight 2: Peer Learning

I went to three sessions that focused on different aspects of adult learning: professional publishing, new research in adult learning in informal spaces, and reflective practice.  It is important to remember, of course, that no matter how long one has been working in museums or in education or in whatever one’s chosen field, there is always something new to learn.  That’s what makes life fun.  And it is equally important to support one’s staff as learners as well as teachers, so here are the highlights from the peer learning sessions:

  •  Involving people from all levels in the process of setting goals and developing evaluation methods increases buy-in and aids in the development of a shared language.
  • Variety is key: evaluation methods stagnate as easily as anything else, and you can’t learn more if you’re only ever measuring one or two points of ‘success’
  • Feedback and reflection and observation are tools not to prove that people are doing things wrong but to highlight ways to improve.
  • Keeping up your reading in the field is important not only for providing shortcuts to finding the methods and language that works for you, but to help you figure out what you want to be doing next.

Pledge to Play

From "Let the Public Play," a recent exhibition at the Cambridge City Hall Annex, photo by me.  See more from this exhibition at "The Playful Season" post linked below.

From “Let the Public Play,” a recent exhibition at the Cambridge City Hall Annex, photo by me. See more from this exhibition at “The Playful Season” post linked below.

I’ve been blogging over on PEM’s Connected again, this time about the importance of intergenerational play.  Did you know that playful behavior in adults can improve your mental and physical flexibility, but that play involving adults and children can also improve empathy and conversational skills on both sides of the age divide?

Check it out here: The Playful Season.

Do you have any playful plans for this summer?  I’ll be overseeing/sitting in on a watercolor painting class, for one, and looking forward to digging out my diving gear in a week or two as well.

Varying your Information Diet

Photo by Nevit Dilmen.  Creative Commons license.

Photo by Nevit Dilmen. Creative Commons license.

Remember that post I made a few weeks ago about Creativity in the Workplace?  Authors Rainey Tisdale and Linda Norris ran a related networking and creativity event at the USS Constitution Museum last week in cooperation with the NEMA-YEP group.

With the blood-and-attitude-shifting assistance of music and a dance circle, Tisdale and Norris led participants in a speed-networking creativity discussion, challenging each of us to consider and then share what we were passionate about, what we wanted more of from our jobs/careers, what we were good at, and how we could implement and incorporate into our daily routines elements of their steps to creative thought processes.

River tributaries, courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (public domain)

River tributaries, courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (public domain)

One of the steps they list to help prepare your mental ground for creativity is to vary your information diet.  With the easy availability of tailored information streams now (everything from RSS feeds to Twitter streams to Pandora channels), it’s easy to wrap yourself in a comfortable bubble of information you’ve essentially pre-selected.  One solution, of course, is to vary the tributaries that are feeding into your stream.  Here are a few quick and easy ways to do that:

Have a Tumblr? Freshen up your Dashboard!

A lot of museums and libraries have gotten into publishing fun stuff from their archives and collections, visitor images and videos, and even staff-created music videos on tumblr.  I recommend just poking around the museum tags until you find some that appeal.  Who doesn’t want neat and beautiful art and animals and whatever on their screen every day?

NPR has thoughtfully collected a list of their own and other public media tumblr blogs, featuring news, science, arts, politics, history, food, all of the above, and more.

The fun and passionate folks over at We Need Diverse Books are doing a summer reading series, where they recommend books by diverse authors and/or with diverse characters that share elements with better known works, ie ‘readers of Harry Potter will probably like Nnedi Okarafor’s Akata Witch.’  They’ve just started, so you have a whole summer of fun kids’ and YA lit recommendations ahead of you.

Looking for a few more ‘grown up’ reads? Try the folks at Go Book Yourself, where real live readers recommend 4 books you might like that have similar characteristics to a book you’ve read and liked.  (They also have a Twitter feed.)

Interesting Stuff in 140 Characters

I have such a love/hate relationship with Twitter.  People post all these cool links and then I end up with roughly a bajillion tabs waiting to be read.

Yes, thank you, New Scientist, exactly what I mean.  (You might want to follow that link, by the way, it leads to some really interesting book reviews!)

Aside from New Scientist, here are a few other feeds I follow that promote the kind of brain-popping curiosity experience I love:

  • Think Progress – lots of interesting and occasionally fairly terrifying news about global environmental, political, and other newsworthy news
  • Creative Nonfiction – for those of us who like our true stories to sound like stories
  • Education Week – largely, but not exclusively, an aggregator of news from all over US school systems
  • Crossed Genres – speculative fiction publishers with an emphasis on diverse story telling, in all the ways that can be interpreted
  • American Museum of Natural History – fun science facts, all the time!
  • Two Nerdy History Girls – a pair of authors who are also amateur historians.  Highlights the hilarious, wacky, and cool bits of history
  • Future of Museums – Some very museum-focused information, but also wide ranging idea pulling from other fields

There are, of course, many more, and if you have suggestions for me, feel free to add them in the comments!

Meanwhile, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by information overload, either, and remember to give yourself time to reflect and ponder and daydream and make those brain-popcorn connections between information and ideas…or in Norris and Tisdale’s term: Incubate.

 

The PEM contingent at the #creativemuseums DIY photobooth.  Yes, I'm the one with the sword.

The PEM contingent at the #creativemuseums DIY photobooth. Yes, I’m the one with the sword. Naturally. Don’t you think better with a lightsaber in hand?