Workplace Trust in the Age of COVID

Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon Many Hands, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40058042

Every fall Anne Ackerson and I teach a course in museum leadership for Johns Hopkins University. It’s online and asynchronous so for much of the semester we know our students only through class discussion. Towards the end, though, they’re asked to create a career development plan. That’s the moment I frequently feel guilty because we discover how far some of them are stretched. They’re working, going to graduate school, taking care of parents, parenting children, coping with illness, looking for jobs and dealing with unexpected expenses. And, of course, there’s COVID.

I have been thinking about that experience of leadership–because what is teaching but another form of leadership–and how important it is to create a sense of trust, while at the same time maintaining a balance between personal and professional, friendliness and friendship. Feeling safe, seen and supported is key to a well functioning team, but where is the line between personal and workplace? And how much is too much? Where is the line between supportive and hovering?

I once had a colleague who completed a complicated divorce, at work, on the phone, sitting six feet from me. Every day she would settle in, turn on her computer, give every appearance of working, and then the phone calls would begin, endless, whispery dialogues about how to untangle a marriage. I suppose it was a compliment that she allowed me enough to hear so many intimate details, but that’s not the kind of trust that builds a team. Context helps, but only when it speaks to character. And I don’t know about you, but when your team is on a screen, trust building is a challenge.

When you Google workplace trust you get 265,000,000 results, and that’s just the articles. Put the articles end to end and they’d stretch half way around the world. Clearly we all think it’s important, and yet when the rubber hits the road, how it’s implemented is a different kettle of fish. In 2019 Amy Jen Su wrote Do You Really Trust Your Team (And Do They Trust You?) for Harvard Business Review. Su identifies four areas where trust can be wonky in the workplace: Whether you trust your team’s ability to perform; whether you trust their judgement, meaning do they bring good judgement to questions besetting your museum or heritage organization? Do you trust your team to represent you and your museum? Su argues answers to these questions are more data driven and less subjective than the last group which reflect “softer” more subjective behaviors like discretion. For example, being transparent is a big deal in leadership at the moment, but it’s hard to be transparent if you don’t trust your team to be discrete. Su also asks whether you trust your team to keep each other safe, meaning can they argue without plunging into a non-speaking marathon? Do they tolerate bullying? Are they kind and appreciative of one another? She also asks leaders whether they actually create teams from across the organization to manage projects, arguing that working collectively connects us to our organization, which in turn, builds trust.

What was interesting to me about Su’s approach was that it points out in a quiet, firm way how much individual behavior affects a group. If, deep down, you don’t believe your team has what it takes to make a presentation to the board, you’re going to hover, micro-manage and potentially destroy whatever confidence they bring to a nerve-wracking experience. You control your behavior. Taking care of that first, avoids pigeon-holing your colleagues as not quite capable. For more on the architecture of building trust, you might also enjoy Brene Brown’s Seven Elements of Trust.

This winter my team is working with an experiential educator in a series of guided workshops to help us get to know one another better. When COVID arrived, some of us had a long institutional history while some were still in a learning curve. Quarantine, masks and Zoom don’t exactly break down barriers so our team building workshops provide ways to learn about one another that will hopefully lead to more confidence (and trust) as we move forward. For me though, as important as the workshops have been, working together to create a number of successful projects was equally important. Moving from idea to discussion, experimentation to implementation asks each of us–no matter where we are in the hierarchy– to give and to get, to control and let go, to be the leader and be the follower.

How do you build trust?

Joan Baldwin


Recognizing Stereotypes in the Museum Workplace: Necessary or Not?

Feewiki – CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88763980VSCO with c1 preset

There is a scene in an old Woody Allen movie where Mr. Allen and a tall, chic woman sit on a bench in Central Park, and comment on everyone who walks by. No, it’s not nice, but years before the words implicit bias were everywhere, it highlights the social stereotyping taking place when we look at our fellow humans. Every day we process, consider and judge. That’s what humans do. This week I posted an article titled How Gender Stereotypes Can Kill a Woman’s Self Confidence on the Leadership Matters Facebook page. The reaction to it, like Mr. Allen’s pigeon-holing scene, underscored the contradictions of women and work.

As the article’s title suggests, there are a host of workplace stereotypes that women navigate from pay—yes, nothing has changed about the gender pay gap—to parenting, to being liked, to how we dress, to being angry. The question Anne Ackerson and I encountered time and again when writing, and then subsequently talking about Women in the Museum is should these stereotypes matter? Variations of this question include: Why should I be blamed for the way other people think about women? Why should I have to dress, marry or have children to meet some unnamed standard? And most complex, why should I tailor my behavior to comply with absurdist, Stepford-like assumptions about women?

There are plenty of folks who believe all the restrictions and stereotyping placed on women in the workplace is bunk, and shouldn’t matter. In a perfect world, that’s true. In a perfect world museum workplaces would be human-centered, and equitably paid. But I have news: We’re not there yet, and there are plenty of folks, whether trustees who grew up in another era, big time donors who live in gilded bubbles, earnest volunteers, or our colleagues, whose places in the enlightenment circle may be different than our own, but we work with them. We make decisions, we share common goals in running museums. Their lack of enlightenment may bother us more than them, and occasionally they say hurtful things. Sometimes their expectations, often built on stereotypes, are the polar opposite of ours, and when we don’t live up to those imagined stereotypes, we’re trapped. And sometimes punished.

So…is it important for museum women to know where the mine fields are? My answer is yes. Eleanor Roosevelt, who probably knew a bit about being stereotyped, wrote, “If someone betrays you once, it’s their fault; if they betray you twice, it’s your fault.” So the first time an older trustee says that a pretty little thing like you ought to be married or when your male colleagues interrupt your thoughts during a meeting or leave you to do the scut work while they engage in deep conversations, forgive yourself. It’s the first time, and maybe you didn’t see it coming. But be self-aware enough that if it happens again, you’ve thought it through and know how to react.

If you’re a woman leader, you have two issues: First to be aware of social stereotyping for yourself, and second, to model a nimble, human-centered workplace for your staff.

If you’re a leader, consider…

  • Creating a value-driven workplace. Make your museum’s value statement widely available to visitors, staff and board so everyone understands there is an expected code of behavior on your campus.
  • Keeping your HR policies up to date, and reading them periodically so you are current on how your organization confronts problem behavior.
  • Being conscious of how gender plays out in staff meetings: Do men talk more than women? Do women allow men to talk more? Why? Because they’re weary and it’s easier to let men blather and then cut to the chase afterwards? Or because there are power differences and being silent is self protection?
  • Remembering everyone is intersectional and few problems define themselves solely around gender. They may be overlaid with race, age, class, and looks or some horrible Gordian knot of many issues at once, so try not to reduce a problem to something too simple.
  • If you’re concerned about a staff member, ask. Help your team members find ways to navigate a professional identity separate from the ways they may be stereotyped.
  • As we know all too well, words matter, and it’s a hot second from what one person deems a harmless remark or a joke to another’s breaking point. Don’t let gender stereotyping hurt your team.

If you’re a women in a leadership position:

  • Remember that you, like other women in your museum or heritage organization, likely don’t get paid equitably. Can you use your power and position to lead a pay equity audit?
  • If you’re a parent, remember that studies show parents, including men, are further penalized salary-wise and reputation. If that’s you, how can you change the culture in your organization?
  • Consider that women who are perceived as competent are frequently not liked. Be aware of the likability penalty you face.
  • Women are penalized for being angry at work because it violates a stereotype. Studies show women are rewarded for being sad, but anger doesn’t gain them anything, and in many cases it penalizes them. How will you model navigating skills so your staff sees you as authentic, someone with real emotions, but not reap the anger penalty?

What stereotypes have you encountered? How have you dealt with them? And most importantly, what will help museum workplaces move from gendered to human-centered?

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin


It’s All About Your Staff: Ending Workplace Bullying

In the past, I’ve used the first post of the year to offer hopes for the coming 12 months, but I’m a little short on hope at the moment. It still feels as though we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. So this week I’m taking a different tack. When I reviewed Leadership Matters’ 2020 data and discovered that after three years Leadership and Workplace Bullying remained one of the most read posts, maybe bullying deserves some more air time.

2021 will be a different sort of year in the museum business. As more and more of us are vaccinated, large wealthy organizations will plod forward, bolstered by their endowments, while smaller, nimble museums may emerge completely changed. And, if we’re to believe AAM’s grim prediction, one out of three museums won’t survive at all. But for those who do make it, maybe this is the year to mentor, nurture and protect staff. That means recognizing bullying for what it is, and most importantly, doing something about it.

Ever had a nightmare where you feel as though you can’t wake up? Being bullied is a little like that. When you’re bullied, you are trapped in a pattern of behavior that’s foisted on you by a perpetrator. You may feel as though you’ve been drop kicked back to middle school, surely a nadir in human emotional development. Depending on who you believe, somewhere between 20 to 25-percent of Americans experience bullying at work at some point in their adult lives, and another 20-percent witness it. That’s almost half of the workforce so perhaps it is no wonder this topic attracts readers.

What is bullying? According to researchers at the Workplace Bullying Institute, it’s “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; or work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done.” For all museum leaders out there, take careful note of the last phrase, that bullying keeps staff from doing their work.

Bullying differs from harassment in its repetitive nature. Harassment could happen just once and is often directed from a perpetrator toward a member of a protected group, for example, a younger white male toward an older BIPOC female. Bullying is not illegal unless the target can prove they are part of a protected group, but it is deeply embedded in gender and power. Seventy percent of bullies are male and 61-percent of bullies are leaders or supervisors. That doesn’t mean bullies can’t be women or your co-workers. They can. Bullying isn’t always visible, but its effects are.

If you are a bully’s target:

  • Knowledge is power, so know the signs. Are you isolated at work? Do people stop talking when you walk into a room? Are you reprimanded or belittled in public in ways your colleagues aren’t? Are you given ridiculous and impossible assignments reminiscent of the fairy story where the princess has to empty the pond with a sieve? The list goes on, but if any of this sounds familiar, you are likely being bullied.
  • Protect Yourself: Bullying isn’t something you can deal with alone so be certain you have support. If you have insurance, consider working with a counselor or psychologist to help process what’s going on. Make sure you you share with friends, colleagues and family as well, and that they understand the serious nature of what’s happening.
  • Take Action: Keep a record of what’s happening to you. I know it’s 2021, but it’s better if you keep a record in pen, preferably in a spiral bound notebook. If your organization has an HR department, talk to them when you are ready. And speaking of ready, recognize that your workplace may choose not to discipline your bully, so understand you may need to look for another position if the situation becomes untenable. Your health is not worth your job.

If you’re a colleague and witness bullying:

  • Support your co-workers: One of the hardest things for bullying targets to cope with is isolation. If you avoid the target like the bully wants and expects, if you join the bully in withholding information or by staying silent when they join a group, you’re part of the problem. Implicitly, you are bullying too. Be there for your colleagues.
  • Listen to your colleagues, empathize and respect their story. Do your best to disrupt the perpetrator’s plans: Invite your targeted colleague to join conversations, and share information with them. Offer to go to HR with them. Sometimes multiple voices resonate in ways that a single voice doesn’t.

If you are a museum leader:

  • Create a Museum Values Statement: Collaborate with representatives from the board, the staff, and volunteers, to write a Values Statement that spells out behavior your museum or heritage organization expects on its campus. And make sure your HR personnel policy is up-to-date.
  • Check in with your staff: While you’re not a counselor or a psychologist, your staff’s well being directly affects the running of your organization. Stop and ask how they are. Bullying is toxic. Don’t let it run amok.
  • Take Responsibility: Bullying is about power. It’s frequently directed by the less able towards the talented. The whole point of bullying is to control a situation. It won’t go away on its own. If your museum doesn’t have an HR department, work with your leadership team–including board members–to figure out a plan B for how to address bullying.
  • Bullying isn’t exclusive to staff: In any museum or heritage organization, it can happen on the board, from board to staff, from donor to staff, and from staff to volunteer. Be aware. Be empathetic. Be supportive, but commit to taking action.

The museum field is a competitive one, made all the more so with the huge number of people who’ve seen their jobs eliminated or put on pause as the result of the pandemic, but as I’ve written before, your staff is your organizational lifeblood. Without them, you are a fancy house with fancy stuff, a grand building with important paintings, acres of green space with living collections, or a building where exhibits and experiments go untried. Commit to making 2021 the year when your staff, whether paid, volunteer or both, feels safe, seen and supported, so hopefully when I run Leadership Matters data for this year, the posts on bullying will no longer be in the top three.

Stay safe. Be well, and best wishes for a happy, creative, regenerative New Year.

Joan Baldwin


Year’s End: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

DeFacto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45298142

Every week when I sit down to write this blog I suffer a twinge of imposter syndrome. Yes, I’ve co-authored some books. I teach in the Johns Hopkins Museums Studies Program and I’ve given some lectures. I lead a staff; I care for a collection, trying to encourage a dialog between it and my school community. But, that doesn’t stop me from feeling as though I’ve said it all before or I really don’t know what I’m talking about, or if I do, I’m not saying it well enough.

In the northern hemisphere, this weekend is the Winter Solstice, the moment when the days are the shortest. Particularly this year, it’s the time when the calendar, seasons, and current events conspire, making us all ready for a little light and some hope. This is the last Leadership Matters post of 2020. I will be on hiatus from December 21 to January 3. Like me, you’re probably glad to see 2020 come to an end. Disruptive, downright dystopian, and disappointing it pushed us all in ways we never imagined.

With over over 52,000 views in 2020, Leadership Matters turned eight years old December 13. What started as a way to promote and enhance the first edition of Leadership Matters morphed into 416 posts, most by me, some by guest writers. The favorites this year were Looking for a New Leader: Putting Equity into Action, which garnered so many views I am still convinced WordPress made a mistake. It was followed by Leadership and Workplace Bullying and The Silent Treatment (and What to Do About It). That saddens me. Those posts were written in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and yet they are among the most read on this blog. What does it say about the museum workplace that discussions of bullying and non-speaking marathons draw so many readers?

And speaking of readers, you come from 159 countries around the globe. While most of you live here in the United States, there are many of you from Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and India. And you are joined by individual readers from the Isle of Man, Aruba, Haiti and St. Lucia, and many more. This year your numbers grew to 994, with more who find Leadership Matters on Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter. Wherever you are, thank you. Thank you for reading and thank you for being part of the museum/non-profit world that cares about its workplace, and recognizes how leadership as a practice, as a way of being, changes individuals and ultimately the organization in which they work.

And speaking of work, many museum folk aren’t working. The pandemic stole their jobs, furloughing them or eliminating their positions altogether. For those of us who are working, whether from home, museums or heritage sites or some hybrid of the two, we are the lucky ones. However damaged the field is, and there is a lot of work to do, those of us still lucky enough to be employed, do work we love, which brings me to this: If you are working, and can afford a gift, make one. Here in the United States you can always give to the Museum Workers Relief Fund, supporting those who’ve lost their jobs. You can also give to your favorite museum or heritage organization or to a national, state or regional museum service agency.

Much as we all want to demonstrate our love by just showing up, and wandering unmasked through our favorite site, that’s not possible right now, so we need to figure out how to support organizations that mean a lot to us, by being present in different ways. You can shop from the comfort of your home at museum shops, take an online class, listen to a lecture or go on a virtual tour. So, if you have the means, give. If money is short right now, give in other ways. Support your colleagues and your friends. Put five museum pals together at 5 o’clock one evening on Zoom and gab. Support one another. Create a Get-A-Job team, and work together on polishing resumes and Linkedin pages. Or sign the Gender Equity in Museums Pledge and make a personal commitment to ending sexual harassment in the museum workplace.

Whatever you do, make sure it constitutes actual change, however small or personal, not the sort of global ranting social media invites. Here is my list for change in 2021:

  • Be the point person for a director search that starts by recognizing implicit bias, conducts an equitable search, resulting in a diverse, creative candidate who challenges us in new ways.
  • Continue to diversify our collections, art, photography and rare books, through acquisition and in cataloguing language.
  • Continue to shift our organizational lens so white privilege isn’t always center stage.
  • Grow empathy.
  • Nurture creativity.

What’s on your list?

Make 2021, not the year for change, but the year you change.

Be well. Stay safe. See you in January.

Joan Baldwin


Inside Out: Changing Museums in a Post-COVID World

Alan O'Rourke – https://www.flickr.com/photos/toddle_email_newsletters/21031243458/in/photostream/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79624315

This week someone sent me an infographic that read “Good libraries build collections; great libraries build communities.” Although it’s about libraries, it could just as easily apply to museums. It stayed with me because it gets to the perennial issue of which is more important, a museum’s collection or its people.

Maybe it’s the social media bubble I’m in, but I continue to read posts lamenting deaccessioning. It doesn’t matter where it’s happening or what’s being sent to auction, the subtext is that deaccessioning is wrong, unnecessary, and museums should hold onto everything they’ve got. These posts ignore the fact that the museum world as a whole has undergone a 10-month stress test that shows no signs of letting up. It has exposed every fault line imaginable from the predominant white narrative, to the number of white male artists in art museums, to the gendered, genteelly racist nature of research and interpretation. It’s caused staffs to unionize, spawned the Museum Workers Speak Relief Fund, raising almost $77,000 for museum workers who’ve lost their jobs. In short, in less time than it takes to make a human, the museum world has turned upside down.

So how will museums and their leaders move forward? To be clear, deaccessioning is primarily an art world phenomenon since it’s art that commands the kind of prices that make a difference to endowments; that leaves the door open for historical societies, libraries, and college and universities to identify their big-ticket paintings and cull their collections. But to step back, maybe it’s important to name the big questions first. Although we sometimes act like there are laws around deaccessioning, there aren’t. Expectations and ethics exist, but nothing more. And boards can do what they like with endowments. The fact that they mostly do the same thing–invest as wisely as they know how–reflects what happens when non-profit and for-profit worlds come together. But as we know, the pandemic revealed a host of museum problems, many of which we’ve talked about here. Museum staff are often underpaid, especially the non-curatorial staff as is the case at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Museum leadership is sometimes lacking as we witnessed earlier this year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New Museum. And museums, despite their outwardly liberal stance, limit artists and staff of color in benign yet oppressive ways.

So is deaccessioning an answer? Deaccessioning is a process that can align collections with mission. Purists might be happier if collections were static, but a collection that’s 86-percent white and male might need to change. Few museums serve communities that are 86-percent white and male? Is it any wonder that in Baltimore, a city that’s 61-percent Black, a largely white art collection might not have the charm of a more diverse one? While judicious deaccessioning can change collections, what about the workplace? Sadly, the problems of equitable wages, poor leadership, and workplace injustice can’t be solved with more BIPOC artists in the collection.

As this monstrous year comes to a close, what’s on your board and staff’s to-do list for 2021? Where will you build community, both inside and outside the museum?

  • Where are your organization’s stress lines? Are they internal or external?
  • What changes will you make for your community once you are able to be mask-less and fully open?
  • Do you see your organization as a place where people–possibly people with differing views on science, elections, race or gender–could come together to talk? Could your collections serve as a catalyst?
  • When was the last time your board discussed staff salaries? Not as individual compensation, but as a concept. How does your museum or heritage organization’s pay stack up in your community? Does it clear the living wage threshold?
  • Have you asked your board to talk about how important pay is? It’s important in their own companies; it’s important for their partners and their children. Why wouldn’t equitable pay also be important for museum employees?
  • Are there endowed and named positions at your organization? Has your board considered creating named positions to shift monies from higher-paid positions to lower paid ones?
  • With a COVID vaccine in our future, what changes will you make in your staff? Will you bring back everyone who was furloughed or bring back fewer, but at better wages? How will you make those decisions?
  • Is there a gender equity pay gap at your museum? Is 2021 the year to do a gender/race pay audit?
  • If your museum or heritage organization doesn’t have a DEI coordinator, would your board be willing to work with a consultant to help shift its default setting from a white lens first?

As I’ve said before, every board is different, but most abhor bad publicity; nor do they like being shunned by their peers, and they are disinclined to spend chunks of endowment they and their predecessors spent years amassing. That said, if 2020 taught us anything, it taught us how powerful social media can be in giving the voiceless a voice, and fair warning to any board choosing to ignore its community.

Change isn’t about talking it’s about doing. It might mean deaccessioning, but it might also mean simply understanding where your organizational stress points are and creating a plan to address them. If the world’s scientists can make a vaccine to defeat a vicious virus in less than 10 months, what will you do to make change in the first 10 months of 2021?

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin


Place Holder or Leader: What’s the Interim’s Role?

Copyright V2Soft.IT Solutions

You don’t need me to tell you this, but in 10 months the workplace has changed fundamentally. Human interaction is reduced. At my organization, spontaneous hallway conversations are rare, and many people are only seen via a screen. And, if you’re lucky to have a face-to-face conversation, the most interactive portions of your colleague’s faces are covered. Hurried writing via email or Google chat complicates communication, creating endless email chains where once a single face-to-face conversation sufficed. Add to that, some people don’t read because they’re busy or stressed, some comprehend poorly or put off reading ’til late in the day, and by then whatever mini-crisis has passed without their input.

Imagine that into all of this steps an interim leader. I became one in July, but as staffs shrink across the museum world, there are many taking on new positions in addition to their old ones. So what’s an interim’s role? Is it simply as place holder, making sure the program, department, museum or library doesn’t burn down before the real director arrives? As an interim are you expected to lead or simply to supervise? Should you have a point of view?

I’ll be honest, organizational vision was not at the top of my list this summer when I stepped into a leadership role. COVID pushed pretty much everything off the table as we worked to figure out how to open a library, archives and special collections while also keeping our community and ourselves safe. But we figured it out, and while COVID continues to escalate, we are blessedly free of illness. Most importantly we have an operational template that seems to work; however, our search for a new director is stalled again so is it time for some vision?

As I’ve probably shared, we are working through a series of workshops led by an experiential education leader to help us communicate better with one another. The team has worked without me until now, outlining communication issues and strategies it wants to address. Currently they’re utilizing Henry Cloud’s The Power of the Other. Cloud describes four “corners of connection,” places we go, and modes of behavior we adopt that range from isolationist to a permanent feeling of imposter syndrome, to folks who need to be bathed in adoration more or less permanently. Corner four is the place we all want to be, with people who connect from an authentic but vulnerable place.

So is there room for interim organizational vision in a workplace operating in the midst of a global pandemic and beset with some typical workplace communication issues? Sometimes an organization hires an interim precisely so it can institute change without having it affect the permanent leader. And sometimes it hires an interim to hold the fort until a permanent replacement is found. If the choice is binary, we fall more into the latter category than the former. So…the vision thing? Should someone who’s holding the fort have a vision? I’m going to say yes, particularly since our organizational sense of self wasn’t rock solid to begin with. And what’s my vision? To begin with, that we should take joy in the good work we do together, and through the work to create a culture built on kindness, empathy and learning agility. Second, to stop seeing ourselves as victims. We don’t need a new director to fix some imaginary set of faults, but instead to challenge us and help us become better at what we do. To prepare for that, we need a leader who puts connection first; who models it, who looks for it, who delights in it. We also need a leader who thinks in two time frames, strategies for the moment, and frameworks for the future. I hope for the short term I can be that person. And as a team we need to think that way because we’re not treading water. Everything we do lays foundations for future building.

So if you find yourself suddenly a temporary leader, even if it’s only to cover a maternity/paternity leave, here’s my two cents:

  • Diagnose what’s happening now, and look for ways to improve.
  • Be prepared to ask tough questions, challenge assumptions, and have uncomfortable conversations.
  • Know your program, department or museum’s DNA. Understand how “now” connects to the future.
  • Take care of your team. Help them self-reflect so they grow.

Sounds kind of like real leadership doesn’t it? It is. Interim leadership isn’t and shouldn’t be the poor stepchild of leadership. Unlike, permanent leadership, it has a beginning, middle and an end, but whether it’s two months or two years, it’s leadership. And once again, especially now, especially in museums everywhere, leadership matters.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. I want to give a shout out to my colleague Anne Ackerson’s new project. In collaboration with her partners, the wise and talented Dina Bailey and Gail Anderson, she has created The Resilience Playbook, an opportunity to work with all three to figure out where your organization should go next. Built around goals, plays, and self-assessment, it seems like the perfect tool to create change and leave the COVID swamp behind. Sadly, it’s available only for organizations. Maybe the version for individuals will show up in 2021?


Finding Hope in a Post-Pandemic World

Iceberg with a hole in the strait between Langø and Sanderson Hope south of Upernavik, Greenland. Kim Hansen – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2847421

After Thanksgiving, I’ve often found inspiration for these pages in the best aspects of the holiday: kindness, collaboration, trust. This year, finding goodness in the waning months of 2020 seems a Herculean task. Many museum workers are no longer employed. One in three museums nationwide may never reopen. Those that have opened, did so under strange and constricting conditions, only to find themselves closed again as the pandemic sky rockets. And the museum field continues to make headlines, not for its great exhibitions or good works, but for poor leadership, lack of concern for its workers, and monetizing collections, aka deaccessioning.

Sunday morning I woke to discover Tony Hsieh, entreprenuer and Zappos founder had died. One of my leadership heroes, the 46-year old Hsieh made headlines in the late 1990’s when he bought a shoe company called ShoeSite.com that ultimately became the Internet giant Zappos. Hsieh believed trust and friendliness were what create return customers online or in person. His decision-making-at-the-point-of-transaction philosophy, where call center staff were encouraged and trusted to make the best decisions they could in the moment, transformed Zappos. Later he embraced Holacracy, a method of decentralized management and organizational governance, changing and challenging Zappos still further.

What does any of this have to do with museums? Maybe nothing, but Hsieh’s ideas of empowering staff and creating an organization where a call center employee has an equal voice in creating change echo a lot of what many museum thought leaders have written and spoken about since the start of the pandemic. And yet, when the National Gallery of Art (NGA), along with museums of art in Boston, Houston and London’s Tate cancelled their joint Philip Guston exhibit, social media was swamped with opinions and feelings about how wrong they were.1 Midst all the noise, NGA director Kaywin Feldman suggested that, among other reasons for pressing pause on the show, were the security guards. She described them as “experts in the general public, and they know much more about our public, about public reactions and understanding, than I do sitting in my office up here.” When was the last time you heard an art museum director reference their security guards’ opinions in a public interview and how Hsieh-like was that? Feldman also makes the point that her thoughts are about NGA only, and that the other partner museums have their own approach, community, staff, and reasons for wanting to press pause.

If the Guston exhibit is a microcosm of the kind complex problem museums will continue to confront post-pandemic, shouldn’t we as bystanders be equally nuanced in our response to their choices? The debate has aligned itself in two buckets: whether museums are about people (staff and community take precedence) or about things (collections are preeminently important). When collections take precedence, the museum’s role is to protect, preserve and exhibit. On the human side of the argument, staff are seen as key to making collections speak, hopefully telling an object’s full story truthfully and without bias, overlaying the knowledgable expert with diverse and authentic narratives.

When we think about how the museum world might move forward, it’s worth remembering there are some 35,000 museums in the U.S. Yet art museums comprise only 4.5-percent of the total, even though they’ve garnered 100-percent of the of the news recently. So it’s helpful to remember that art museum problems are not always a reflection of the museum world as a whole. In addition, there is social media, an ever- hungry animal, encouraging us to respond quickly, to “like” something or to comment. As a result we find ourselves commenting not always on facts but sometimes on opinions perpetuating a narrative that isn’t fact-based, but amplifying a museum chronicle where staff is mistreated, DEI issues are rife, boards are groups of uncaring, entitled, privileged white folks. Some or all of that may be true for some institutions, but let’s be clear that not all 35,000 museums suffer these symptoms in concert.

So where do I find hope? This month, I saw it in our Johns Hopkins graduate students, in NEMA conference participants, in Gender Equity in Museums Facebook members, and in my friends and colleagues throughout the field. They are committed, smart and intentional. They don’t expect some faceless power to make change for them, but, instead, are eager to make change for themselves, their colleagues and the field as a whole.

Some days it’s hard to know what matters and what doesn’t. If nothing matters, there’s no point. If everything matters, there’s no purpose. It’s up to this next generation of museum workers to find the bridge between the two.

As you look toward a post-pandemic museum world, where do you see hope?

Joan Baldwin

  1. Smee, Sebastian. “In Postponing Guston Exhibition, the National Gallery and Three Other Museums have made a Terrible Mistake: The Cancellation of “Philip Guston Now” is Patronizing and Outrageous.” WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post.

Change Starts in Our Own Corner

W.carter – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85575441

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program is that each semester I learn things. This week, one of our students suggested museums aren’t a monolith. Specifically, he said, “Unlike Amazon and most companies, museums do not have a blanket statement for organizational culture.”

It’s a statement I might have skipped right over, and yet when I stopped to think about it, it’s startling. Think about all the talk over the last nine months about the ways museums should or must change. We’ve heard people say museums should be more invested in their communities. The sentence “Museums are not neutral” is practically a meme. We’ve read that museums must be held accountable, and they should close the gender salary gap, making salaries equitable. We’ve watched as old and distinguished organizations grapple with their racist and colonial roots. And on and on, each cry for change suggesting that museum culture is a single thing. But is it? Or is it a whole with many distinct parts?

There are rules museums hold in common, ethics and practices they uphold, but there are still an infinite number of differences, as museums sites and heritage organizations, each with its own culture, navigate daily life. Remember the ICOM kerfuffle over a new museum definition and the hackles it raised? And that was what the world’s 55,000 museums believe they do, not what they actually do, not the cultures they create, the communities they foster, the many buildings, objects, paintings, or living things they hold in trust.

Those who read this blog regularly know my devotion to NPR. Friday, in a StoryCorps interview, a Massachusetts man described hosting Thanksgiving dinner for strangers for 35 years. As extraordinary as that is, it’s not why I bring it up. Instead, it’s his philosophy. NPR quotes him saying, “I can’t fix the country or the world or even the town, but I can brighten my own corner.” Without sounding too Pollyanna-like, maybe this is the solution to the museum world’s post-COVID systemic racism/classism issues. Maybe all of us who blog, speak, write, and post should posture a little less and do a little more, not nationally, but in our own corner.

So….if you are a museum leader, here are half a dozen changes you might set in motion, but please add the ones that better fit your museum.

  1. Look for ways your organization makes whiteness the norm. Commit to an end of “othering” non-white humans in language, collections, cataloging, the museum calendar.
  2. If you don’t have a DEI Committee, form one. Too small? Gather with other community arts organizations or museums and form one together. Who knows what will flower?
  3. Accept that talking about these issues may make you, your board, staff and volunteers uncomfortable.
  4. Figure out what being “not neutral” looks like for you. Your non-neutrality may be very different from your sister museum’s down the road.
  5. Don’t make changes in a vacuum. Be transparent. Involve your community.
  6. Create an organizational action statement for 2021. Post it on your web site. If 2020 was a year of pain and disruption, make 2021 the year of change for the good.

And if you are a museum follower, here are five things you might do as an individual:

  1. Understand racism isn’t just police brutality that happens outside your workplace. Know how and where it rears its head in your organization.
  2. Speak up when you witness racist issues at work. Ditto for issues of gender or intersectional issues of race and gender.
  3. We all make mistakes. Forgive yourself.
  4. Believe your colleagues when they describe racist, misogynistic or bullying behavior. Be empathetic. Offer your help.
  5. Examine your work, and pledge to change words, policies, and programming that don’t uphold an equitable museum.

None of us needs to be reminded we’re living through an unbelievably tough time. After a horrific spring, COVID has the country in its clutches again. Many museums that just returned to a new normal may need to close again. And many in the museum world are out of work. About the only thing COVID can’t stop is discussion, reflection and planning for a time post-vaccine when heritage organizations, science centers, and museums everywhere open again. Instead of pontificating about change, let’s post the ways our own organizations model change, and the ways we as individuals brighten our own corners. After all, when COVID ends, who doesn’t want museums that are kind, creative, empathetic, dynamic community partners?

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin

Leadership Matters will be on hiatus Thanksgiving week. I hope you have a safe, socially-distanced gathering. I’ll be catching up on reading, Zooming with family, and walking with my dog Scout.


Another Leadership Dilemma or The Queen of Hearts is Not Your Role Model

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=629697

The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking around. Lewis Carroll

Every leader out there knows some weeks are just not your week or as an old friend used to say, “Some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” I’ll just put this out there: a) What is life without irony? and b) How funny is it that after eight years of writing about leadership as a follower, now the shoe is on the other foot?

I understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of a leader who can’t apologize or who can’t make decisions to save their soul. I’ve thought deeply about what it means to be bullied at work, to have your colleagues shun you because supposedly you can’t get along with the person who’s bullying you. But in those situations I was only responsible for myself. Leadership is different, right?. I know, duh?

As a leader I’m responsible not just for myself, but for my team, for their well being and professional growth at work. So here’s what I’ve been thinking about: I have a team member who appears to collaborate, who appears to listen, who seems friendly and nice, but I’ve come to realize maybe what’s happening is more like a facade where credit is given, but where collaboration is absent. Why? Well maybe there are some control issues going on, maybe there is some insecurity, but I’m an interim leader not a psychologist, and all I know is absent real collaboration we don’t get a multiplicity of skills, voices, and creativity.

Let me pause and say that the work in question is good and in some instances very good. It’s brought our team attention, compliments, and respect. So what’s not to like? Well, sharing credit with your colleagues isn’t sharing ideas. And despite the rhetoric, it’s exclusionary. People are left out, and when they’re excluded often enough, they stop trying, which in a weird way fulfills the bias of the bossy team member who acts as though they weren’t good enough in the beginning. What makes a person want to do everything themselves? Why don’t they trust their colleagues? I don’t honestly know, but here’s the journey I’ve been on this week:

  1. First, I had to get my own feelings out of the way. I’m someone who would likely walk over broken glass to avoid out-and-out conflict, so there’s that. Sitting down to explore something negative isn’t my go-to place as follower or leader.
  2. I also had to figure out whether my distress was because another team member had been hurt or because my own ideas were being stone walled. That meant exploring this pattern of someone who says they’re happy to partner, but only if things are done their way, while making everyone else feel a teensy useless. Was I just cranky because my own ideas weren’t being applauded? The answer was maybe, until I realized this wasn’t about me. Projects and programs are outward facing, and in this case, the community needs to decide what’s useful, not an individual, and particularly not me.
  3. Next I had to talk about what was happening without making it personal, and hopefully to help our team member be not only self-aware, but socially aware, conscious of how their colleagues are feeling.
  4. Then there is that old saw, listening. Perhaps we all need periodic re-sets on whether we’re really listening or just waiting to speak.
  5. And last, as part of listening, to discover a way team members can identify their strengths so when they do collaborate, they contribute the best of their skillsets?

Change is a challenge, but it’s necessary to keep us all growing. There are too many days when like Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts we’d like to say, “Off with your head,” rather than ask open-ended, thought provoking questions that create a safe space for creativity. But it is creativity we all need to move our team, program, museum or heritage organization out of mediocrity. So let’s play to our strengths, listen, and let ourselves be vulnerable. Who knows how we’ll transform.

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin

P.S. In one final nod to the ongoing deaccession discussion, if you haven’t read Glen Adamson’s In Defense of Progressive Deaccessioning in Apollo Magazine, read it. It’s beautifully expressed, thoughtful without being ranty, and it makes it clear deaccesioning is more than a binary choice of keep or sell. Done right it is thoughtful, nuanced and about the future, not an apology for a century of bad choices.


Looking for a New Leader: Putting Equity into Action

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1765908

As some of you know, I am spending this academic year as an interim library leader. Has it changed my work life? You bet. Instead of being the leader of a collection of inanimate objects, paintings and rare books, and the occasional historian for my colleagues in archives, I’m now the boss of myself while leading a department of seven. One of my charges is to ready our team for the hiring process that will take place in 2021 when we seek a permanent leader.

While there are pieces of this process that are organizational–which search firms to use, adding voices and layers to the interview process, having job description language checked for bias, eliminating implicit bias from the interview process–there are also details that belong to us. Those need to be unpacked before the process begins in earnest. This is not our first rodeo. We began in 2018 believing we could hire a two-year interim, someone who would offer us 24 months of stability while we got our house in order. It worked a decade earlier, but this time, no one wanted the job. We began again in 2019, only to be interrupted by the pandemic, ultimately stopping the search while travel and our organization shut down. Now we’re on the cusp of beginning again.

As a staff and as an organization we are committed to DEI. Last summer we wrote an Anti-Racist statement coupled with a programmatic action list. Yet, when we were asked recently whether we would consider someone without a master’s in library science as a way to make hiring more inclusive, there was a degree of consternation and pushback. Why? Well, probably lots of reasons from the most subjective–I struggled to get this degree, why should a director receive the big salary and perquisites when they didn’t–to concerns that someone without the degree literally wouldn’t understand the workings of an academic library, archives and special collections. And yet, the degree is a barrier. It is expensive, and in most cases, it teaches content not leadership. Too much content knowledge can plunge a leader into a this-is-the-way-it’s-always-done behavior, and cripple creativity. Perhaps in this moment we need a human who believes in what we do, who is empathetic and a good listener, someone who will translate the arcane necessities of our work for the larger organization; someone who makes us shine.

Recently we spent a staff meeting identifying qualities we’d like to see in a director. One of our colleagues mentioned she was more interested in hearing about a candidate’s ideas for the future than their past experience. In short, she’d like to hear where they want to take us. There was something hugely revolutionary in that statement. It pointed toward not finding the person we’re used to, but the person who will take us–maybe kicking and screaming– where we want to go. That might mean hiring someone younger, more agile, someone with more passion than experience or more experience than degrees.

We’ve also reflected on the type of questions we asked in the previous go rounds. Ten years ago we needed a leader to replace a retiree with a 40-year tenure. At the time, few of the team had graduate degrees, and many were part-time. After COVID we are a smaller group, but the vast majority have one or two advanced degrees. Below are the four considerations we might incorporate into our search. What would you add?

  1. Doing everything we can to break down our own biases about age, experience, education, gender and race to make us open to the widest variety of applicants, and galvanize our future.
  2. Hiring for our vision statement–even if we never get there–not for our past, whether personal or collective.
  3. Having the self awareness and understanding who we are now, and what kind of leader we need now.
  4. Accepting that challenge and growth means discomfort, and that mediocrity is boring.

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin

A Coda for the Baltimore Museum of Art: Last week I wrote a piece about the BMA’s proposed deaccession. Since then the Museum pulled its pieces from Sotheby’s before the auction. The seas were too rough and clearly Director Christopher Bedford believed pulling back could salvage some of the pending damage. Nonetheless, for the BMA and many other museums, the problems of collection diversity and salary equity remain. And they are huge. Money isn’t going to fall from the sky in the post-pandemic world. It’s difficult to hear voices on social media castigating the BMA while also protesting gender and race pay gaps. And suggesting these issues aren’t somehow as important as the artwork belies all the post-George Floyd discussions. We’ve allowed these problems to metastasize, and they aren’t going away. Two years ago in these pages I suggested it was time bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the museum field to tackle the problem of museum salaries and the gender wage gap? AAM, AASLH, and AAMD, where are you?