Women’s Lives: Are We Telling the Real Story?

women dancing

Are we not of interest to each other….It’s much deeper than that. Are human beings who are in community, do we call to one another? Do we heed each other? Do we want to know each other? There are a lot of ways that people that are aggrieved can be addressed, we all have our grievances, when grievance is really heard on the intimate level I think that does a great deal of the work of moving people forward….. We speak out of what we know and what we have lived and hopefully out of that comes something we might call the universal.

Elizabeth Alexander, Poet and Professor, speaking on “On Being” with Krista Tippett, July 26, 2015.                                         You can find the full interview here.

Hello, everyone.

It’s mid-month and time to talk about gender and museums again. As you’re aware Anne and I are embroiled in another book project, Women+Museums: Lessons from the Field. This is a book that addresses some of the inequities in our field in addition to what’s wonderful about it.  If you are expecting a cringe-worthy rant, you’ll be disappointed, but we do want to raise some questions about gender in the museum workplace and about gender on the interpretive/exhibition side of things.

A few weeks ago we sent some questions about gender in programming and exhibitions to a group of female colleagues. After exchanging emails we decided that questions this weighty deserve answers that don’t have to be typed so we’re waiting for our schedules to calm down to talk. In the meantime, I thought I’d pose the same questions to all of you in the hopes you will have thoughts you’d like to share. And if nothing else, perhaps it will start a dialog in various museum workplaces. Here is the first one: When your institution discusses marginalized groups, are women mentioned? And by marginalized, we mean groups excluded from the mainstream by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion or class. For example, if your museum is doing a thematic exhibit–let’s say art or objects based around memory–when your staff checks the boxes about who’s represented, does anyone mention women? If not, why not?

Here is the second question–and this is particularly for folks who work in history museums: Do you think women’s lives are interpreted in museums and house museums in a fair and empathetic way without presentist judgement? And by that we mean, do we talk about how women lived rather than interpreting their lives through the objects they used in a slightly pitying way because they aren’t evolved enough to have, say, heating systems that can be adjusted from the office or the car?

We didn’t just ask our women friends these questions. We also posed them to Frank Vagnone, Executive Director of New York’s Historic House Trust, and the founder and principal writer for the blog “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic Houses.” (Just FYI, if you’re not a fan, you should be.) Actually, we asked Frank twice because we’re so deep in this project, we seem to be losing our grip. In any case, here is some of what he had to say: “In my opinion, historic house museums tend to not think of the female voice as a primary player (unless it is Hull house etc.). They are just now getting to see that the female can actually expand the narrative in very interesting places. I think historic house museums understand women as marginalized when its women’s history month – after that, they get pushed in the background (not always – but a lot of the time.) The odd thing is that most of the people employed at house museums are women – In my experience, I, as a middle-aged white man (gay), have been the one to push women’s narratives at house museums that I have been involved with – pushing them beyond cook books and pretty dresses…”

And about the second question Frank wrote: “I do not know how we can do anything without some bias of our times shading our actions and interpretations. The best we can do is try to flesh out the broader aspects of the narrative in ways that may not fully ‘fit’ today’s view.”

So, not to put too fine a point on it, but what’s going on here? Why are women silent about women? Are those of you who work in 19th-century historic houses worried that you’re telling a different, more jovial, story than the time period that saw the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or the lives of women like Emily Dickinson and Matilda Joslyn Gage?  Is yours a story that glorifies ironing with a flat iron, walking the floor with a sick child in a world without antibiotics, or the menial act of getting dirt out of a carpet without a vacuum? How do you deal with issues of color versus issues of gender? What are the differences in the lives of an urban black woman versus an new female immigrant?  Do you tell the story common to both or only the story of ethnicity? Does your audience know that women didn’t receive the vote until 1920 or that the first birth control clinic didn’t open until 1916? If you’re interpreting an historic house, is birth control or its lack part of the narrative or do you simply announce how many children a family had? I realize I am sounding rantish, but it is a teensy shocking that a gay man, aka Frank Vagnone, has to push the women’s narrative at historic house museums.

So please, if you disagree, let us know. We’re waiting to hear from you.

Joan Baldwin

Why Renewal Matters for Museums and Their Leaders

ArgonautsTwo things happened this week. My husband and I spent time with some elderly relatives and I read a review of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in The Times. The intersection of these two experiences, an example of life’s synchronicities, made me ponder the idea of renewal and its importance for museums and their leaders.

Here’s the back story: Being around elderly relatives makes those of us who are slightly younger think about what that chapter might be like. After 72 hours, a group of us, ranging in age from barely 40 to 65, decided that our favorites among the geriatric set are the folks who keep reinventing themselves: Grandparents who talk to their grandchildren on Facebook; retirees who join the Peace Corps or run 5Ks for the first time, the great aunt who is absolutely authentic every time you speak with her. You get the idea. These are folks who don’t sit still, mentally or physically.

Then there was the Times’ review. While it made me want to read Nelson’s memoir/personal exploration, it also reminded me about the story of the Argonauts.  If you recall your Greek mythology, Jason and his crew set off on a long quest across the Black Sea to reclaim the golden fleece. The journey takes them through the Straits of Bosphorus and sees Jason return with a potential bride. While that relationship doesn’t work out, what’s important here is the journey, not the destination, and the fact that during their adventure the sailors replace and repair much of the good ship Argo, creating a new vessel with the shape and the lines of the original one.

It’s summer and many of us will go on vacation this month or next. We will return, hopefully, rested, renewed and rejuvenated. In doing so, we model a form of personal renewal for our staffs and colleagues. We unplug. We read what we want to read not what we should read. We play with our children. We eat good food and exercise out of desire rather than duty. We are renewed. And we serve as not only individual examples of renewal, but also as examples for our organization because sometimes as leaders, it’s important to press the pause button long enough to repair the ship. The vessel’s lines stay the same, the name doesn’t change, but we tweak and we improve, creating a constantly renewed organization behind the scenes.

One of the things my co-author Anne Ackerson always asks is “Who gets up in the morning and says I’m going to be mediocre today?” Hopefully not too many of us, but if you’re dragging yourself to the office to go though the same motions that are neither original nor creative, think about renewal. How do you re-charge? If your organization is treading water, think about the Argo. How can you lead in a way that involves creativity and change, while keeping the same ship? How can you model those traits for your staff, your department, your organization?

Sometimes museums get so caught up in their own narratives, they forget they can change. They pride themselves in stability rather than innovation. They are your parents’ house that you return to for the holidays and find the ice bucket in the same place it was a decade ago. It’s comforting, but is that what you want for your organization? We’re not talking about change for change’s sake, we’re talking about change that is driven by mission. You want the journey to continue; you want the ship to look the same, but you want to task your team with new ways to do the same thing.

So we wish you good vacations, and hope that you return ready to strive for something more than mediocrity. You may not capture the golden fleece, but you may take your organization to a place it’s never travelled.

Be well and let us know how you find renewal.

Joan Baldwin

Seven Things That Might Make Museum Leadership Different Than Leadership Elsewhere

museum hallway

As some of you may remember, Anne and I taught in a Getty Leadership program for international museum leaders at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Yesterday we, and our other teaching colleagues, received AAM’s report on both our on-site, face-to-face programs and the follow-up Webinars. While the evaluations were informative and immensely gratifying–it’s no surprise that despite the wonders of the Internet people still prefer seeing their instructor when they are learning something—there is clearly a hunger for more information about leadership. That made me wonder what makes leadership in museums different than say leadership in the for-profit world or elsewhere in the non-profit world.  What follows are my thoughts, but we would love to hear yours as well.

1. In the museum world sometimes leadership is a bit of surprise. You start out with a specialty, an advanced degree, an interest in a particular subject, and if you’re willing to move up, you find yourself no longer in charge of objects but people.

2. Not all museum graduate programs teach leadership. Not all museum graduate programs even act like their graduates will be entering a world where everyone isn’t nice and doesn’t treat them like they are immensely talented. Which they may be. But as we all know, work is vastly different than graduate school.

3. Until you arrive in an office with a window and a door, you think leadership is management. Then you realize they’re different, that reading a spreadsheet is about numbers and leadership is about reading personalities and people.

4. The museum world doesn’t act like there is a leadership path. It acts like there are careers that end in leadership positions and by then you should have figured it out.

5. Some museum leaders and museum boards don’t think behavior and self-awareness have anything to do with leadership.

6. Many museum boards don’t invest in staff, including staff in leadership positions, the way they invest in capital projects.

7. Unlike the library world, backed by the formidable ALA, and even the public history world, which has AHA behind it, museum leaders don’t receive similar types of support from AAM or AASLH, particularly when it comes to salary equity.

We welcome your thoughts about how YOU think museum leadership is different than non-profit or for-profit leadership.

Best regards,

Joan Baldwin

Friendship and Work: Do They Mix?

draw the line

Our research for Leadership Matters tells us that a huge percentage of today’s museum leaders, at least in the United States, work in small organizations, often small history museums. Small museums–and by that we mean organizations with fewer than 10 staff–have their own leadership issues. One is certainly the line between friendship and work, and for the director, that may be the difference between authenticity and too much information or it may be the difference between being friendly and being friends. Because sadly, if you’re a director, your friends, your drinking buddies, the folks you let your hair down with, shouldn’t be your colleagues.

Why? Well, think about it from your staff’s point of view. Suppose you’re best friends with your curatorial assistant. Your children attend the same school. You see each other at soccer games. Your partners enjoy each other’s company. What’s not to like? Well nothing except for the moment when the board tells you that you need to make staff cuts. The obvious position to lose is the curatorial assistant, but, oh, wait, she’s not just the curatorial assistant. She’s your fellow soccer parent, sharer of red wine, and lover of Orange is the New Black. You’re smart. You see this isn’t going to work. And you see why. And yet, shouldn’t you be able to be friends with whomever you like? Yes, but not in this instance. In accepting a leadership position, you put the organization first, which may mean that friendships take a back seat to workplace harmony.

And what about the difference between friendly and friends or authenticity and TMI? As a leader you need to be your one, true self. You need to be that person for you AND for your staff, but there is a difference between your true self and your self on the Dr. Phil show. Understand the boundaries. Use your life as a metaphor sparingly. There is plenty your staff doesn’t want to know and could, in fact, be distressed by knowing. Instead, be true about your feelings rather than your biography.  Model humility. Model the genuine good morning instead of abusing a social convention as you grab coffee and head to your desk. While real friendships can cause workplace boundary issues, inauthentic friendliness sets off warning bells.

Does this make you the lonely leader? Not exactly. But  rather than making friends within your organization, assemble a group of peers from your region. My co-author, Anne Ackerson, refers to these folks as her posse. More honest than your parents, more understanding of your leadership role than your average acquaintance, these are the folks who know you and what you do. They are available when you’ve had one of those days or weeks. They show up with wine and food, but they’re not afraid to tell you that you’ve been a jerk.

So if you haven’t got a posse or you’ve never thought of your colleagues, friends and mentors like that, think about it. If you’re a leader–whether it’s an entire museum or  a department–learn to be friendly, but don’t look for work to replace family and friends. And as always, let us know how you manage this boundary.

Joan Baldwin

Making Decisions Transparent


This week I want to pick up an earlier thread and talk about transparency and decision making. My workplace is involved in a search for a new head. We were told several months ago that because of the nature of the field {independent schools}, that the search would be a closed process. It is being conducted by a search firm and a committee composed of board members, faculty and staff. Nonetheless, the rest of us have had numerous opportunities to meet and comment on past heads of school and our hopes for the future. One of the principal complaints by many who met with the committee was the insular nature of the outgoing leadership. Decisions were made by a close-knit group and handed down to everyone else. The closed-door process left everyone else free to fill in the narrative. And narratives, whether created at museums or schools, whether about policy, personnel or change, take on a life of their own.

Which brings me to transparency. I want to say at the outset that not all decisions need to be transparent. In fact, it’s not the decision making that needs transparency. It’s the ramp up to making the decision that should be open.

All leaders are deciders. That’s the nature of the game. But here’s the deal: Are you a leader who shuts your door, paces the room, and emerges with a decision? Or do you closet yourself with a few trusted colleagues and then let them spread the news? Perhaps you meet and talk with staff and then shut your door and think? Is your staff comfortable discussing thorny problems with one another? Do you speak with all staff members who may be affected by a decision? And last, do you think of decision-making discussions as learning opportunities for staff? Because they really are. Think about it. Here are some things a staff or department, who talks together, learns:

  • to trust one another.
  • that decision making is a process.
  • what the goal of the process is–which may not be the goal of the entire staff or shared by the entire staff.
  • respect for minority viewpoints.

Another payoff of inclusiveness during decision making is voices rarely heard may help your organization save money. For example, if you’re selecting software and only involve IT and department heads, what happens when the folks who actually use proposed software tell you it won’t work and why? And last, and this is also the leader’s role, by talking it through, a staff learns how to work with a decision even when it didn’t go the way they hoped. And it’s you, the leader, who sets that tone although it’s likely easier when a majority of the staff have participated in the process. And what does your staff expect on the receiving end of a transparent decision making process?

  • a leader who hasn’t made up her mind, who comes to the problem in question ready to learn.
  • a leader who respects her staff’s experience.
  • a leader who is willing to guide the process so all voices are heard from.
  • a leader who is open about the goals and parameters of a given project or decision.
  • a leader who really listens.

If you work at a small to medium sized institution, altering your decision making strategy may not be very difficult. You likely meet with most of the staff for major decisions anyway. If you don’t, you may want to ask yourself why you don’t. If you work at a larger museum, changing the decision making process will involve getting departments and/or trustees, who may not work together often to engage with one another. The results though are elegant. And because Leadership Matters is constantly nagging you, our gentle readers, to read outside the museum world, take a look at this decision-making matrix from University of California Davis.

As always, let us know what you think. We’ve had almost 17,000 views since 2013, and we’re honored to have you all out there thinking and talking about museum (and your) leadership.

Joan Baldwin

Why Are Soft Skills Soft?


It’s mid-June and it’s time to talk Women+Museums again. As many of you know, Anne Ackerson and I are writing a new book to be published by Left Coast Press in 2016. You can read more about the project by here. Because of that project, we’ve dedicated one post a month to all of you–men and women alike–who consider yourselves feminists and/or want to think, read or learn more about gender and the museum workplace. If you’re bristling at the use of the word feminist, the point of this post is to talk a little about gender and  language.

Perhaps you don’t think you’re a feminist. Perhaps it conjures up visions of angry, shouting women who left home without shaving their armpits? Maybe not a picture we in the museum world want to align ourselves with? And yet, ponder this: As background for Women+Museums I’ve been reading a great deal and one writer who strikes a cord is Roxanne Gay, author of a collection of essays called Bad Feminist. In an article in The Guardian which you can find here, Gay quotes Kathy Bail’s succinct definition of feminists as women who don’t want to be treated like crap. Actually Bail and Gay use a slightly more descriptive word, but you get the idea, maybe meaning that being a feminist in 2015 doesn’t have a lot to do with the way you dress or whether you wear make-up , but whether you are ready to stand up for those who aren’t treated equitably. Like those who make 77 cents to the male dollar. See how much baggage eight letters can carry?

Understanding some of the facets of the word feminist brings me to the actual point of this post and that’s another freighted word:”soft.” As in soft skills. Soft skills, in case you let your Harvard Business Review subscription lapse, are the ones long associated with women. These are skills like collaboration, the ability to read social cues, empathy, inclusion and intuition. They are often possessed by women and were once marginalized–think Mad Men’s Joan Harris and Peggy Olsen–but somehow the pendulum swung the other way and those soft skills are now the stuff of the new leadership even though they come with the girly label “soft.”

Here’s what we know about those “soft” skills. Once upon a time companies, and museums too, were interested in hard skills. At the leadership level, they wanted people with a demonstrated understanding of content who could also manage money. Typical leaders were sometimes double-degreed former curators with a gift for reading spreadsheets. Leaders learned content in graduate school and depending on what decade of the 20th century we’re talking about, sometimes learned the money piece as well. Hard skills stay the same from job to job. If your specialty is the Civil War, you can go to a number of Civil War museums and put your knowledge to use. Of course, your board might discover that while your knowledge is encyclopedic and your money management skills fantastic, that your interpersonal skills are dismal. And that’s where the “soft” skills come in.

They are, in fact, the womanly skills of interpersonal relations. And with the flattening of hierarchies, they are increasingly important. Whether we like the girliness of the word “soft” or not, women utilize them far oftener than men. People in business started to notice this a while ago. In a 2010 McKinsey Global Study the company reported that 72-percent of executives believe that there’s a direct connection between a business’ gender diversity and its financial success. And among Fortune 500 companies those who promote women to executive positions have a 69-percent higher return than those who do not.

So….I have a two-fold question for all of you out there in museum land: First, knowing this, why do the oligarchs who select men as CEOs and Presidents for museums with budgets over $10 million, and, in a profession that is 45-percent female, why are we women not better at valuing the soft skills we bring to the table? Last, let’s stop calling them “soft.” Let’s call them core leadership skills because that’s what they are. Let us know your thoughts about language, about the workplace, and about gender.

Joan Baldwin  



For those of you in leadership positions there’s probably a moment you can pinpoint; it’s the moment when you “drank the Kool-aid” or “jumped on the bus” or any one of a dozen idioms that mean you got with the program. It’s part of leadership. Even those of you with the most sympatico boards have likely faced a time when you realized you were not going to get what you wanted. When the board’s decision is antithetical to yours, what do you do?

Before we answer that, we should break down our title phrase. Its origins aren’t exactly warm or fuzzy, and like many business idioms, it probably should be banished from the workplace vocabulary. Although today it refers to individuals who embrace an ideology without question, it originated in the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, when members of the Peoples Temple died after drinking a drug-laced grape drink. Thirty seven years later it’s identified more often with workplace behavior than with a utopian experiment gone totally wrong. But history aside, there are moments in all workplaces, especially in museums and non-profits, where a board of trustees exerts its authority, where leaders are faced with two paths: one is the path as director, chief curator, or team leader they chose. The board stands on the other.

I started thinking about this idea after listening to an interview on NPR with Admiral William McRaven, chancellor for the University of Texas System. Texas has just passed a law that permits individuals to carry concealed handguns on college campuses. McRaven is new to academia. In his former life he was part of Navy Special Operations and oversaw the raid that killed Bin Laden. He opposes the new law, but here’s what he had to say about upholding the state legislature’s decision: “My time in the military has always taught me that, you know, you argue a point up until a decision is made. And the state legislature has made a decision–and presuming that the governor signs the bill–and it will go into effect. And then my job as chancellor is to make sure that we continue to make the campuses as safe as possible, and we’re going to do that.” You can listen to the entire interview here.

What interested me about the Admiral’s reaction was that he is comfortable arguing fiercely for his point of view, but that once a decision is made, he seems to suggest you enter a new reality, one where you support the decision in the best way possible. That means bringing your team on board, while harnessing their creativity and energy for the board’s (or the leadership’s) decision, not your decision. I understand how that works for the military, but I wonder how it plays in museum land. First, how many of us feel comfortable arguing our point of view? Sometimes workplaces create cultures where arguing isn’t something people do. Some staffs don’t know how to argue and keep it about the project, the decision or the mission. It gets personal way too fast and people shy away from arguing or worse, they don’t, and that’s its own special problem. Second, I wondered how often museum leadership is transparent enough so directors share what’s happened, meaning “I made our case. The board made its decision. It did not go our way.” And last, I wonder how long leadership can remain comfortable when you and the board find yourselves on different paths?

Like most aspects of leadership,  decision making demands self-awareness and transparency. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but what might be surprising is it’s not that decisions need to be consensus based. They don’t. But the process of reaching a decision still needs to be open and inclusive. Julia Tang Peters argues this in her book Pivot Points and backs it up with research. One of the leaders she interviewed called it MBWA or managing by wandering around.  By connecting with his team, often in doorway conversations, this leader created a culture where his employees were comfortable speaking frankly or perhaps arguing about company decisions. They didn’t just feel included in change, they were included. But the boss was still the decider.

What’s your experience with carrying out decisions that weren’t quite what you had in mind? And how transparent is your decision making? Share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Joan Baldwin



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