Let me begin by saying that I think co-leadership is a great idea. It spreads decision making, which is healthy. It brings new voices to the table, and by its very nature it presumes a level of humility and understanding that a solo leader may never grapple with. That said, is it a cure-all for what ails the museum world? I’m not sure.
In his recent blog post, Making the Case for Collaborative Leadership in Museums, Mike Murawski lists a number of successful dual postings from Bowdoin College’s museum to the Five Oaks Museum, and across the pond to the Birmingham Museum Trust. But there are numerous solo director acts that, at least from the outside, demonstrate successful leadership–Christy Coleman at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Robert Krett at Connecticut Historical Society, Frank Vagnone at Old Salem Museum and Gardens, and Lisa Lee at Chicago Housing Museum. Here’s a hypothesis: It’s not the method; it’s the people, good leadership is good leadership whether it’s brought to you by a single leader, a duo or a trio.
Murawski highlights five qualities that deepen with paired leaders. He lists more effective decision making, cultivating innovation and growth, valuing relationships, promoting shared leadership across an organization, and the way a dual leadership model promotes equity and social justice within museum culture. While these are all important characteristics, they can (and do) and happen with a skilled solo leader, and might not happen with an incompetent duo. In fact, given the museum world’s current turmoil, it’s challenging to think of boards of trustees, hiring duos when many seem to be using COVID-19 as an excuse to off-load directors at an alarming rate. Were the trend toward hiring two to take hold, the pair also need to be great communicators and have enormous trust in one another. They need to acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses and know how they are each other’s better half because, as in any strong partnership, there will be days when the organization needs the strengths of one more than the other.
And while the empathy, trust, and transparency that skilled co-directors model is important, those characteristics are also possessed by good solo directors. Near the end of Leadership Matters we wrote a chapter titled “How Do We Know What We Know?” There we summarize the characteristics and traits we encountered in interviewing 36 North American museum and heritage organization directors. And what did we find? That leadership isn’t something that comes with age; that perseverance matters as leaders take advantage of repeated practice in recognizing problems, evaluating alternatives, and providing solutions. Our interviewees are risk takers both organizationally and personally.” Last, and perhaps most important here, these leaders see themselves not as lone rangers, but as part of a whole. We quote Melissa Chiu, now Director of the Smithsonian’s Hirschhorn Museum, saying bluntly, “You can’t do it on your own.
As I wrote last week, there is a lot of epically bad leadership in the museum world that’s somehow been unmasked in the COVID crisis. And bad doesn’t just mean, bullies or harassers, bigots and predators. Sometimes it’s just the slow drip of ineptitude and mediocrity. Will co-directorships fix that? Maybe? If they possess all the qualities of a skilled empathetic solo act with an extra dose of trust and humility on the side that allows them to work in daily partnership and collaboration. But one presumes they need that anyway. It’s a leadership must-have.
I wish there were a cure-all for the leadership trough we’re in at the moment, and I wish it were as simple as hiring two versus one. But I don’t believe it is. Leadership isn’t a position. It’s a way of being. It’s a practice. There are people in the museum field who are leaders despite the fact that their title is Associate Registrar or Volunteer Coordinator or Assistant Curator. Why? Because they are self-aware, they are authentic, they’re creative and not afraid to take risks, and they are courageous. Those are the people we need to nurture and mentor. The leadership problem is one that needs to be tackled on so many levels from boards of trustees to graduate programs, to AAM and AASLH. We need to understand our industry is made up of people, people who matter, and we need to nurture and invest in the next generation of leaders before they all leave the field.
This week I spoke to a researcher and statistician. She is interested in resilience, both individual and organizational, and she likened the last six months to a hurricane. Not the kind of weather event described in museum disaster plans, but epically disastrous none the less.
Disasters lay bare your weak points: You failed to get enough insurance; you built too close to the shore; you neglected to maintain equipment, and on and on. But they also expose less obvious weaknesses: organizations that stifle creativity; organizations where staff isn’t valued; and perhaps, most importantly, poor leadership.
Years ago when Anne Ackerson and I first started writing and speaking about leadership in the museum world, it seemed as though we were the only ones talking about it. People were a little mystified by what we had to say, as if they wondered whether poor or mediocre leadership was actually a thing or just something we were whining about. Occasionally it was difficult to get a panel about leadership on the roster at national meetings because the running of museums and heritage organizations was not on program committee’s favorite topics. There was a sense that if things weren’t going well leadership wise, that the fault lay with poor choices by a given museum’s board of trustees not a systemic crisis in the field itself. Yet look at the field now. The storm of COVID-19 has laid bare a world of lousy leadership, harassment, and racial inequity. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
Not everyone entering an MBA program expects to be Jeff Bezos, but almost every MBA program offers its first year students a variation on Harvard’s Leadership and Organizational Behavior course, the assumption being that whether you lead or whether you follow, you need to understand the importance of good leadership, and its impact on organizational behavior. With the exception of programs like John F. Kennedy University’s dual degree program in Museum Studies and Master of Business Administration, the same is not true among museum studies programs. In the museum field, leadership is viewed as a choice. Students say, “I’m not sure I want to be a director. It’s too stressful.” Then, five years into their career, they find themselves leading a curatorial team of 10. They’re not the museum director, but their position requires all the same skills and decision making.
Is it possible that the hue and cry for a “new form of leadership” in museums is the result of decades of leadership by people forced to learn on the job? Some perform brilliantly–witness the 36 interviews in Leadership Matters. They are leaders who bring equal measures of self-reflection, humility and empathy to their museums every day. But many do not. Would a graduate program save them and prevent their organizations from being becalmed in a sea of mediocrity or worse, becoming poster children for harassment, bullying and racism? Maybe. At least it would point out that leadership is part and parcel of museum life, whether we choose to be directors or not.
Not every museum or heritage organization will survive the COVID crisis. Isn’t it incumbent on museum graduate programs everywhere to acknowledge that leadership training isn’t a through line to the director’s office? Sometimes it’s about behaving like a leader no matter where you are in the museum hierarchy. Mid-career museum professionals seem stunned by the fact that promotion takes them further and further from the the subject matter that drew them to the field in the beginning. Instead of wrangling objects, paintings or scientific specimens, now they wrangle humans, registrars, fellow curators, art handlers, consultants, and more. And it’s epically more challenging.
We conclude Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord with a Leadership Agenda. (To read the full agenda, click on the tab at the top of the page.) If I were to write the agenda today, I would change our suggestion for graduate programs from “Introduce leadership training and development in all course work,” to “Make leadership training a core course of study.” Whether you dismantle the traditional organizational hierarchy or maintain it, the individuals making decisions need to understand that museums are more than content. They are about people, and people need good leaders at all levels.
I don’t usually comment negatively on other writing, but Lee Rosenbaum’s column about the Metropolitan Museum’s 96 retirees was, in my opinion, a little too glib. Mostly, it blithely overlooks the idea that two things can be true at the same time. Collectively, the employees she names have been at the Met a total of almost 300 years. Leaving aside their considerable contributions, they are unusual for their long stays at the museum, an average of 36.5 years each.
But none of that makes Rosenbaum’s comment that “they [the retirees] go down as a soothing palate cleanser after the vitriol from current and former staffers who (perhaps with some hyperbole) have accused the Met and other NYC cultural institutions of “consistent exploitation and unfair treatment of Black/Brown people” and “blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees.” The fact that both these ideas–that the retirees can praise the Metropolitan while current or recently furloughed staff accuse the Met of racism– are true, pretty much sums up the museum world’s current state of mind. In brief, not everyone’s experience is the same, there is no “right” career path in the museum world, and it’s wrong and disrespectful to assume otherwise. The Metropolitan offered this group of privileged white men and women a career home. They worked long and hard and made massive contributions in the world of art history, but their experience isn’t everyone’s, and it is disingenuous to the succeeding generations of employees to suggest it is. To be BIPOC in any storied, patriarchal, gilt-edged culture is a challenge. It’s exhausting, frequently frustrating, and requires a level of daily vigilance, probably unknown to Rosenbaum’s group of retirees.
There are so many things that go into being happy at work. The top four might include: Loving what you do; having a talent for it; being mentored and challenged; and receiving a fair and equitable salary and professional development opportunities. But then there are the hidden qualities: Is your workplace a value-driven culture? Is it a place where equity is a hallmark of work life whether you clean restrooms, arrange flowers or write scholarly catalogues about the world’s most famous paintings? Is it a place that’s kind and supportive regardless of who you are? And last, there are the personal issues. Some of us are optimistic and more resilient than others. And life today–even leaving aside the monster of COVID–is perhaps a teensy more complex than in the early 1980’s when many of the Metropolitan’s retirees started working there. Overlay all of that with an age so uncertain and fractured, and is it any wonder young, BIPOC employees are weary? How can they be sure why they were hired? Was it talent, ambition and creativity or some chemistry of guilt, DEI necessity, and brand development on the part of museums who believe they’re doing the right thing, but truly haven’t a clue, leaving new BIPOC staff to navigate their way through a world of — we want you — but now you’re here, figure it out on your own? Perhaps that’s more complicated than any of us older white folks know?
One last parenthetical note: The Metropolitan won’t be the the first or the last to have waves of Boomers retire as part of COVID retrenchment. Leave aside what they know about content, those retirees carry with them huge institutional history. So if you are a Generation Xer or a Millennial, who’s waited for this moment for what seems a lifetime, remember two things: Some day, in the not too far-off future you will be the ones a younger generation is waiting to move off stage. So help it happen with some grace. Listen for the knowledge and context they’ve accumulated, and work to understand the mistakes they made. It will make your organization a better place. And second, if the older generation wasn’t as kind, equitable or supportive as you needed, it’s your turn now. Be the leaders you wanted.
How many times have you heard the words “I just want to do my job”? Sometimes shouted, the implication is that work is monstrously challenging not because of its tasks, but because of co-workers. If only they weren’t there you could get so much more done. You would, in fact, be perfectly content.
It’s doubtful the museum world was ever as benign and complacent as it appeared, but the combination of COVID-19, layoffs, remote work, and a long-needed racial awakening has left many workers stressed, sad, and anxious. And those are the ones still employed. Add to that the fact that many of us have returned to a workplace under threat by both the virus and what will happen if our organizations need to close again, and you have a perfect storm of issues. Not to mention, we just spent six months working from home, and only seeing our colleagues on the screen. Why is the return to work so difficult?
It’s a universal truth, that virus or no virus, some co-workers are challenging. They are poor listeners, they’re immature, and they seem to save their worst behavior for the office. Americans spend one third of their lives working so over time that bad behavior can reach epic levels. It’s as if junior high, the nadir of all educational experiences, never left us, waiting instead until we got what we were certain was the dream job, only to plunge us into an environment where colleagues behave cliquishly, rudely and emotionally. No wonder people want to be alone.
The museum world is unique in that it employs a broad spectrum of ages. Between the board at one end, volunteers, and full and part-time staff at the other, there may be as many as five generations working side by side. While that’s a sign of a healthy workplace because intergenerational viewpoints generate creative thinking, it can also be a point of contention as Millennials and Boomers, Generation Xers and Z collaborate. Overlay all that with issues of gender and benign and overt racism, and whoa, what a mess. So…unless you’re going to embark on a career where you always work alone, what should you do?
First, a few truths:
- Much of museum work involves collaboration.
- Collaboration challenges us and spurs creativity.
- You don’t have to be friends with your museum colleagues, but you need to work with them to serve the museum well.
If you work with a problem individual you should:
- Put on your empathy hat and listen. Their work experience may not be yours.
- Try a different way of communicating. Maybe they are better at hearing than reading? Ask which they prefer.
- Whatever happens, don’t take it personally; instead, make work your priority. That’s what you have in common, not your combined negative feelings.
- Be friendly, but try to curb oversharing.
One caveat, none of the above means putting up with racist, sexist or inappropriate remarks. Never enable that behavior. Be prepared to interrupt with a remark like “I find that offensive.” There are some great examples here.
If you’re a leader:
- Listen first.
- Reflect on the way you communicate. Are you rushed? Leaving things out? Expecting staff and colleagues to intuit details?
- Be respectful. Remember to lead with a positive, and assume the best about a staff member’s actions.
- Be clear, be concise, and underscore a conversation when it’s important. There’s nothing like saying, “I have something important to say, and I hope you can help.”
There are very few times when we get to hire an entirely new staff. Most leadership opportunities mean going to war with army you’ve got. That means figuring out how to encourage your team to put the exhibit, the fundraiser, the project, ahead of their differences; to see collaborative, creative thinking as the reward; to collaborate and communicate rather than compete and argue because in the end, we all–community, staff, and board– benefit when the museum succeeds.
Last week Robin Pogrebin wrote another museum article, this time on Museum Boss Salaries for The New York Times. It’s a question that’s been in the wind recently as critics decry the layoffs taking place at large urban museums. Many of those are low-paid, BIPOC, front-facing workers. For example, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, according to Pogrebin, 43-percent of the workforce is nonwhite, of the 400 staff members cut since March almost half were people of color.
It should be noted, however, that of the 10 New York City museum directors, Pogrebin covered almost all reportedly took pay cuts to ease budget constraints as a result of COVID-19 closures. Nonetheless, the numbers are depressing: museum presidents making $1 million and up, while some staff are supposed to live within commuting distance of their Manhattan jobs on $35,000 a year.
But this story is layered. I don’t quote my mother often, but she was fond of saying you can never understand anyone else’s marriage or their checkbook. (She came from an age when checkbooks were still a thing.) You could extrapolate from there to the challenge of understanding an organization’s financial decisions, particularly in a crisis, because so much isn’t public, but the first question might be should museum directors take a salary cut during a financial crisis to ease layoffs and job cuts for remaining staff? Based on Pogrebin’s list, we know a group of museums, their boards and directors, felt that was an important step. What we don’t know is what difference it made. Where did The Metropolitan’s Daniel Weiss 20-percent salary cut go? And how long do their salary cuts last? It was reported that Lisa Phillips, director the New Museum took a 30-percent cut for three months. The New Museum saw its staff unionize in 2019. Ms. Phillips pay cut wasn’t enough to save Dana Kopel’s job. A senior editor and publications coordinator, Kopel was laid off in June just as Ms. Phillips’ pay cut expired.
These issues are complex, nuanced, and emotionally charged. It’s not simply a matter of directors making too much. Nor is it a question of staff making too little. It is a complicated chemistry of the economics of each individual museum, its location, endowment, annual budget pre- and post- COVID, its number of staff, the director’s compensation package, and the living wage in the community where its located. A second question might be how much is too much for a museum director’s salary? With a follow-up question of should boards examine the ratio of a director’s salary versus lowest paid FT staff member?
I’ve written about this issue before, but it is critical that boards, who set the director’s compensation, understand that even though we live in a global world, and now, thanks to COVID, we may work remotely, we go home to one place in one city, town or region. Using the MIT Living Wage Calculator, I looked up the hourly living wage in five cities for one adult, no children. Here are the answers: St. Louis, $11.59; San Francisco, $20.82; Phoenix, $12.29; Cedar Rapids, IA, $10.83; Washington, D.C., $16.81. You don’t need a PhD in economics to understand if you’re moving to San Francisco, your living expenses will be vastly different than if you live in Iowa. But what if you lead an incredibly value-driven organization in San Francisco? What if your compensation agreement actually caps the director’s salary in relation to the lowest paid FTE? And conversely, what if you lead a small, but very well-endowed organization in Iowa that rewards its leader very, very well and would never ask you to take a post-COVID pay cut?
Clearly, it’s not an apples to apples comparison, but here are five things museum leaders and boards might think about:
- Remember that staff hired before your tenure may be prisoners of starting salaries based less on their competency and more on gender, race or both. Consider doing an equity audit of all staff salaries in order to eliminate gaps and inequities.
- Don’t use the annual review as an arbitrary discipline tool, make sure annual reviews happen yearly, not when people get around to it, and that they include salary discussions.
- Do your homework. Know the living wage for your locale. Know comparable salaries. Everyone would like to make more money, but do you know whether your staff, particularly your hourly and new-to-the-field staff, is managing? Are they living with their parents because they want to or because they have to? Do they need second jobs?
- If you believe your staff is paid equitably, consider whether the ratio between the director’s compensation and the lowest-paid FT staff member is something you want to tackle.
- If you raise the lowest salaries in an effort to close the gap between the bottom FTE and the director, consider codifying the decision making. That way, if the board hires someone in the future at a much-inflated salary, it will do so knowing other salaries have to move forward as well.
- And last, if you haven’t already, think about whether you want to make an ED salary reduction part of any disaster planning.
MB-one – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76476300
Museums have reached a crisis point. Directors continue to lose their positions. Many front line staff are gone, perhaps forever. Staff have been underpaid, threatened, harassed, and bullied. As a result, some have unionized. ‘Midst it all is a growing movement calling for dismantling museums as we know them. No more directors, new types of funding models, and most importantly an end to museum boards. So this week Leadership Matters writes to board members to say it’s time to step up, lean in and get busy.
Dear Museum Board Members,
It’s wrong to generalize and group board members from the United States’ 35,144 museums together, but truthfully, whether you govern a gigantic museum like the Metropolitan or a tiny historical society, you do the same thing. While there are differences in scale between being a New York City museum board member and serving on a board in a rural town, you are likely the important, wealthy folk in your particular community. But service is probably the operative word here. Just like the director and the staff, board members serve the institution, and this week, this month, is the moment for you to raise your voices. Museums need you. Your museum needs you.
You may have joined the board because a friend asked or because you have an interest in the museum or heritage organization’s subject, but once you’re a member, your obligation is to its health and safety. You may see the board as primarily responsible for protecting the museum’s assets, but it’s bigger than that. Collectively you understand the museum’s DNA, its values and its culture. You set its tone, hire its director, and know the community it serves.
So what have you done while the museum world rocks and rolls its way across such a choppy sea? How has the COVID belt-tightening affected your bottom line? Has your museum laid off staff? Has that affected staff diversity? Has it affected programming? And what has your museum done for its community during the pandemic? Do you have a community garden? A homework help program? Offer space for the food bank? Since George Floyd’s death has your board met to talk about racism and bias in your museum? Is that something that is important to your museum and to your community? Statistics tell us that 84-percent of American board members are white, male and over 55. That doesn’t make you bad people, but it might make discussing racism challenging. Can you find someone to help your board talk about that?
Perhaps you know all this? Perhaps you’ve been absurdly busy since March 15. But if not, here are five things to ponder as you steer your museum into the future:
- Lead a Value-Driven Organization: Hardly a week goes by without a museum being called out for bad behavior. Directors behave like dictators, curators harass staff, institutions have non-existent HR departments or personnel policies, and board members express surprise when people retaliate. Staff join unions because they are weary of inequitable pay. They sue because they’re tired of going to work–work they love–to be bullied and harassed. If none of these things have happened on your watch, congratulations, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune. Ask yourself what you’ve done this week, this month, this year to create a value-driven organization. Does your museum have a values statement? Does it have a personnel policy? Does your staff feel safe, seen, and supported? Even if you don’t believe that’s your job, surely it is your job to protect the organization’s reputation and its assets by keeping it out of the press and the courts? Governance that’s value driven will never take you down the wrong path.
- Take Responsibility and Apologize if Necessary: AAM tells us people trust museums, that the public considers them more reliable than books, teachers or family narratives. And yet, organizations are only people, and sometimes people mess up. Whether you deaccessioned in a clumsy way and insulted your community, whether you’ve bumbled along in a genteelly racist way insulting members of your community, whether you failed to listen to whistle blowers and permitted inappropriate or illegal behavior, sometimes the board, speaking for the museum, must apologize. It’s what adults do. So when and if you need to apologize, don’t hide. Say you’re sorry and for the love of God, change the behavior that led to the incident in the first place.
- Know Your Museum’s Staff: You may have joined the board because of your love of the museum’s subject matter, your interest in history, science or anthropology, and that’s important. But make no mistake, it’s your museum’s staff that is the organization’s life-blood. Without them, all of them, the museum is a giant warehouse. When was the last time you spoke to your museum staff? Not the fancy curators who care for your favorite collections, but the front-facing staff. Years ago, at my organization we had a trustee who always chatted with us. He was a person with a famous name, and a distinguished career, who spoke multiple languages, but he engaged. Often a week or more after the board was on site, those of us who talked to him would receive a postcard telling us how much he’d enjoyed the conversation. Speaking for myself, it made me feel seen, and acknowledged for the work I do. As we weather this storm of a pandemic, recession and social and political upheaval, it is imperative that you realize your decision making affects people, not just the rise and fall of the endowment.
- Take BIPOC and Gender Issues Seriously: If you’re a white man or woman of privilege, you may think a lot of what you hear about race and gender is more whining than reality. Before you dismiss it, talk to your museum staff. Talk to the guards. Talk to the folks who clean your restrooms or transport art work or greet visitors and ask about their experiences. Listen to what they say. Women, women who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and BIPOC museum folk in general, aren’t delusional. Their lives really are different than those of us who are white and privileged, because they are hallmarked by a level of racist and sexist behavior that would astound you. Does your organization protect its female-identifying and BIPOC staff? Do you know? If you don’t, you need to find out. If they have no way to report racist or sexist behavior, your organization is heading for a cliff.
- Leadership Matters: We have said this so many times on these pages, but it really matters who leads your organization. Hiring a director isn’t a task to be handed off to a search firm. It’s not a task to rush through. It’s a learning experience for you and your fellow board members. So much depends on the person you hire. They are the bridge from you to the staff and from the organization to the wider world. Their values have to match yours. Collectively you must respect them, and they you. Just like the board, they must also be a value-driven individual who believes in people, listens with empathy, who has vision, courage and discipline. And that’s on a good day without a pandemic and recession. And remember, a good fit is a good fit. Experience isn’t a panacea. Plenty of people have been in the museum field a long time, and yet they’re terrible leaders. If you find the qualities you need in someone young, don’t let that deter you. Talk about how you might invest in that person through training, mentoring, and leadership development, and hire them.
Museums matter. Your service to museums matters. You can’t be the best board member if you don’t recognize, acknowledge and plan for the myriad changes happening in the museum world. Being part of a small organization doesn’t give you permission to do a mediocre job. Do your best. Support your staff. Make your museum a humane institution. Make it known in your community as a compassionate, creative player.
By Marquex bol – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91434866
Week after week the crisis in the museum field continues. First it was COVID. The stress began with physical spaces and collections, and quickly accelerated to furloughs, lost jobs, and epically bad communication, before moving to an unmasking of the racism littering the museum workplace, from collections, where BIPOC visitors feel as though they never see themselves, to the workplace itself. Now it’s the dog days of August and the emperor definitely has no clothes. With nothing left to surprise us, the only question is have we reached bottom yet? If the answer is yes, it’s time to rebuild.
Clearly the last six months were filled with unprecedented change. For those of us planning to open or who already have opened, the indefinite nature of the COVID universe makes change constant. As museum leaders or museum folk who practice leadership regardless of our titles, change requires a big dose of creativity followed by a massive level of adaptability, and what helps with that? Self-reflection.
My own program has a great reputation for service to our community, but our team reputation is tarnished. We’re not a group known for rowing the boat easily together. So recently we spent some time talking about the importance of personal reflection. We charged each other with reflecting daily or weekly. We didn’t specify whether the reflections needed to be written or a meditative pause in the work day or week, but rather a time to think about what went well and what didn’t. Sound too woo-woo? Perhaps you’re thinking who has time to pause? We’re in a pandemic, a recession, not to mention a time of social and cultural upheaval? But maybe that is precisely why each of us needs to reflect on the way we make our way in the museum world, however tiny our role.
Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity? A reflective practice allows us to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. It asks us to acknowledge where we went off course, imagine a second chance and aspire to a better outcome. Okay, so why does any of that matter when, if there is a resurgence of COVID, your museum may close? Organizationally, it may not matter. But if you’re lucky enough to serve a museum or heritage organization that is open and weathering the COVID/post-George Floyd storm, then reflection, both personal and organizational, will help you emerge from the same old place, doing the same old thing, just well enough.
Reflection requires you to pause. It asks you to take personal responsibility for whatever happened. It asks you to be vulnerable, and it is often discomforting. Research shows us that employees approach their leaders regarding emotional issues at work more often than their peers, and see their bosses’ role as part leader/part parent. That can be hugely exhausting for museum leaders, and without allowing yourself time to reflect you can quickly become emotionally depleted.
One of the lessons Anne Ackerson and I uncovered in Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord is that the way individual leaders behave is echoed in their organizations’ behavior. Leaders for whom self reflection is a habit generally lead museums or heritage organizations that reflect collectively. If you read Dr. Porchia Moore on Incluseum this week, you know trying to overcome a workplace with a dominant white narrative will demand a level of vulnerability. Reflection–yours and your museum’s– is the place to work on that.
So in a world crowded with social distancing and air quality measurements, PPE equipment, reduced staffing, reduced income, and understanding how your workplace and your collections became so invulnerably white, stop, and pause:
- Don’t take on too much. An hour of meditation each week might be a bridge too far. Pick a length of time that works for you in your world.
- Pick a method that meets your needs: On your morning walk, in a journal at day’s end; online in a long document; alone in a quiet place or together with a trusted colleague.
- Don’t expect answers unless you’re willing to ask questions. Think about your work over the course of a week or a day.
- Ask yourself mindful questions: Consider how you helped or how you hindered; consider where your own biases impeded your work or the work of others or how your team meeting might have gone better. Where did connection break down? Where did you find empathy? When did you feel vulnerable?
We know the museum world must change if it’s to survive. But it’s not a monolith. It’s made up of 300,000-plus individuals all serving a huge variety of museums and heritage organizations. Change won’t come in a lightning bolt from on high. Change comes when each of us makes a commitment to change. Reflection helps with that. And you can’t be with people–in the workplace, in exhibits, in historic settings—unless you understand the bridge from vulnerability to empathy. So just try. Start this week. Break down some walls.
Kudos and a round of applause go to organizers June Ahn, Rose Cannon, Emma Turner-Trujillo. As someone who’s been an observer and a participant in the museum workplace for a long time, this conference was one of the most thought-provoking I’ve attended. Twenty four hours later, while on my morning walk, I was still ruminating on many of the conversations from the day before. And isn’t that what a good conference should do?
The day opened with a talk by Dr. Porchia Moore. She defined this moment as a point of crisis, a moment of shared trauma, especially for BIPOC museum staff, and she pointed out that the constant harping on “when we can return to normal,” is yet another slap in the face to so many, since “normal” for museums meant a racist, patriarchal, poorly paid, gendered workplace.
As an older, cisgendered white woman, I can’t disagree. There’s no doubt we’ve failed. It’s as if we’ve taken each object, each historic site, each painting, and told half its story. That silk wedding dress, worn by the wealthy landowner’s bride had a story before the wedding itself. Who tended the silk worms, who sacrificed to make the fabric, who shipped the fabric, who made each tiny stitch, who made sure it was spotless, not wrinkled or stained? And who was threatened and harmed if it was? For every object there is a dominant narrative and an untold narrative. If you’re white it’s too easy to revert to the dominant. It’s what we’ve always done, while making some audiences comfortable and disenfranchising others. Clearly to give our collections their full due, we must showcase their interwoven context, giving many narratives an equal chance to be heard.
I am less sure how Death to Museums or perhaps its aftermath, applies to museum leadership. Not because I don’t believe museum leadership needs an overhaul. It does. When Anne Ackerson and I wrote Leadership Matters in 2012 and its revision in 2019, we saw museum leadership clinging to mediocrity as a place of safety. No where is that more evident than in the thousands of mission statements telling the world museums preserve and protect collections. Cryogenic preservation facilities do the same thing, and they don’t pretend to be half as important as museums.
And there is no doubt museum leadership has made a world of bad choices regarding its workforce. Many of those choices–poor pay, anti-union, the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, no HR departments, workplace bullying and other forms of inhumane behavior–have made the news recently, and many are documented and discussed in blog posts here.
But let’s imagine, it’s a new day. Gone are today’s museum boards, peopled with wealthy white men over 55, intermingled with the occasional, acceptable BIPOC. Their annual gifts are gone too as are their connections to wealth managers. So where will the money come from? Will museums follow a European model and be mostly government funded? What does that look like? Are our current federal museum workers happy at work? Is there racism, genteel or otherwise, at the Smithsonian or in the National Park Service? What does it mean to take the King’s shilling? Would museums be subject to the four or eight year cycle of political change that comes with elections? And on a more local level, how will museums run without boards or without a single leader whose role is, at some level, to be the decider?
Maybe I’m naive, but after a lifetime of working with and for, a variety of humans, it matters less to me what an organization’s structure is and much more what kind of people are in charge. Working in a museum ,where decisions are made by a group as opposed to an individual, is no guarantee of a humane, equitable workplace. In other words, to me it’s not the structure as much as it is the people in power.
Good leaders are good leaders whether they govern in groups or alone. I believe at the heart of good leadership is a strong sense of personal values, and an equitable, empathetic understanding and respect for staff, from the ones furthest from the seat of power to the ones closest to it. Any organization without that is an organization headed for peril.
Some museums–albeit not many–used the pandemic to reformulate. Yes, they had to let workers go, but they used the pause to reorganize, bringing workers back to more equitable wages, clear job descriptions and better-written HR policies. Anne Ackerson and I concluded each volume of Leadership Matters with a Leadership Revolution Agenda. Here’s my amended and abbreviated agenda for 2021 and beyond:
Leadership Revolution Agenda
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. If you’re white, recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down.
- Know what you don’t know. Pledge to recognize and fight against your own biases.
- Develop your own leadership practice.
- Figure out if you are an active listener. If not, learn.
- Practice self-care.
- Assist with or take responsibility for leadership training and development activities for your team, your department, your volunteers, or if you’re the lone professional, for yourself.
- Stand up for your colleagues when they become targets. Be a voice for the voiceless. Be an ally and an accomplice.
- Speak up for the counter-narrative whenever it’s absent.
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. Recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down. Apologize and own your organization’s past behavior.
- Acknowledge the importance of all your staff. Pledge to make yours a human-centered museum.
- Build something new. Complete an equity wage review. Pledge to resolve issues of wage imbalance based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
- Give staff a voice. Create space, virtual or otherwise, where staff can bring issues of inequity to the fore without fear of punishment. Pledge to listen and make change.
- Insist upon institutional support of the emerging leader and lone professional, and the diversification of governing boards.
- Don’t maintain the status quo; instead make a difference.
Use this moment and make change.
I want to conclude by honoring and thanking again this weekend’s speakers. They are the future and as complex as it’s clearly going to be, they are a courageous and awe-inspiring group.
Congressman John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer Friday. There aren’t many Congresspeople whose impact on the museum world is measurable. Lewis is one. He was a tireless advocate for the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture [NMAACH], working closely with Lonnie Bunch III, now Secretary of the Smithsonian, who writes “He was involved spiritually and strategically in almost all aspects of the museum.”
NMAAHC makes all of us proud to be in this field. It highlights the gaps and biases in the way American history is taught, told and understood, asking those of us who are white to open our hearts and minds to what we’ve failed to learn and understand, and it celebrates a culture and history long neglected. But apart from all of that is Lewis’ courage. Whether you were his constituent or not, whether you knew who he was or not, he stood up for justice and equality, advocating for the voiceless. There are those who are a steady force, advocating when the rest of us don’t have the courage, speaking out when most don’t think it’s their business. John Lewis was one of those people.
It’s way above my pay grade to think about who AASLH or AAM might honor in the coming year, but if ever there were an individual who deserved a national museum award in his name, it’s John Lewis. Not just for his work with NMAAHC, but because of his courage to speak up. Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of speaking up in the museum field at all. Ever. In fact, 25 or 30 years ago, the young were counseled to let things go, to look the other way so as not to “ruin their careers.” (I was one of those young people.) Their job wasn’t to ruffle feathers. Their job, wherever they were on the museum food chain, was to accept what powerful and monied board members wanted, and make it happen. These days, it feels as though that long period of acceptance, obeisance, and failure to act might be coming to a close. So what better time to honor courage in our field, then to name an award after the person who said, “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.”?
There is so much that’s not right in our field at the moment. A workforce that’s overwhelmingly white, without recognizing it perpetuates not just the symbolism, but the hierarchy of a job sector mired in the previous century; board members who haven’t sorted out that board membership isn’t about privilege but service; a field crippled by poor pay coupled with a monstrous gender pay gap; and leaders who mistake their office as an opportunity to lead badly, while bullying, harassing and failing to act in the face of ethics breaches.
Museums do a lot of good in the world. They are trusted. They are places people want to be. But they can no longer be the beautiful place with the important stuff sitting on the sidelines. They can’t be neutral, and neither can their staffs. What better way to acknowledge this change than by honoring Congressman John Lewis, and those in our field working for the voiceless, whether in their communities or in their own workplaces? Who knows whether an award like this would ever happen. Like I said, it’s way above my pay grade, but in the meantime, we should all be our own John Lewis, speaking up, and standing up, so when our children ask what did you do and what did you say, we’ll have an answer.