Thinking (and reading) Outside the Box

Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.
                                     Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

It’s no secret that many of today’s history museums are struggling. The heyday of the Bicentennial is long gone, and with it the idea of packing the kids in the car and spending an afternoon at a historic site. Surveys and focus groups indicate that today’s families can’t see the relevance, not to mention the perennial comments about how historic houses don’t change. In a nutshell, they ask: If I visited in 4th grade do I really need to go back? (For a chorus of voices on this subject, join Frank Vagnone’s Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums discussion group on LinkedIn.)

Many of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters struggle with these questions. They talk about the difficulties history museums have establishing value in their communities. As a group, we found that they see history less as someplace sacred and more as a dot on a continuum that connects to other dots. Witness interviewee Dina Bailey’s Invisible: Slavery Today, an exhibit on human trafficking at the Freedom Center. As David Young, director of Cliveden in Philadelphia said, “We know now that museums are more than just venues for intelligent learning, but places for emotional and even spiritual learning. We need to meet visitors there. People need to see museums as places where community needs are met.”

What does this have to do with leadership? Once again, we discovered that our group of 36 leaders are readers and thinkers. They are self-aware, authentic, courageous and visionary. They ask hard questions. And they read. A lot. Here are some of the writers, books, magazines and websites mentioned in their interviews: Amanda Sinclair’s Leadership for the Disillusioned; Good to Great; Purpose Driven Life; Institutional Trauma; books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; David McCullough; New York Review of Books; books by Dalai Lama and Barack Obama; Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums; Donald T. Phillip’s Lincoln on Leadership; Michael Watkin’s The First 90 Days; and Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum.

And that list is the tip of the iceberg. In committing to leadership personally, this group of 36 individuals know that institutions can’t lose when staff is active and intentional about their work. We know that individuals influence and shape organizations, and vice versa. Leaders who model courageous and visionary behavior lead organizational change. And history and cultural heritage museums with that kind of leadership are transformed. So read. Read widely. Connect the dots. Pull your museum’s collection, kicking and screaming, into the present. 

And while you’re at it, let us know what you’re reading.

2 Comments on “Thinking (and reading) Outside the Box”

  1. Anne,

    Much has been made of enlightened philosopher-monarchs, but you raise the necessity of philosopher-leaders for the history enterprise who can wield the power of history more effectively. Strength begins within, and what’s within is what we’ve consumed and digested and applied. As historians, I believe leaders of the history enterprise should be reading not only modern works, but also those from the past that have shaped our present.

    To that end, what have I been reading in the last few months?

    Ackerson, A. W. (2011). The history of museums in New York state: a growing sector built on scarcity thinking.
    Townsend, R. B., (2013), History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the History Enterprise in the United States, 1880-1940.
    Meringolo, D. D., (2012). Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a Genealogy of Public History.
    Tyson, A. M., (2013). Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines.
    National Education Association, (1894). Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies. (Report #8 is on History)
    Brown, C. E. (1911). The state historical society. In B. F. Shambaugh, M. M. Quaife, S. J. Buck, C. W. Alvord, & L. B. Shippee (Eds.), Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, 1908
    Britton, J. D., & Britton, D. F. (Eds.). (1994). History outreach: programs for museums, historical organizations, and academic history departments.
    Tuckman, H. P., & Chang, C. F. (1991). Methodology for measuring the financial vulnerability of charitable nonprofit organizations.

  2. Thanks for this eclectic list, David! It’s an interesting example of reading across a spectrum and it mirrors the sort of reading many of our interviewees shared with us.

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