Leadership Means Articulating Value (as a Group) Not Just as Individuals

download (1)Recently Slate’s photography blogger Jordan Teicher wrote a piece called “This is What a Librarian Looks Like.”  There he describes a project by photographer Kyle Cassidy who attended the American Library Association’s mid-winter meeting with the express purpose of documenting its membership. Perhaps Cassidy was hoping to unwind the cultural stereotype of Marion the Librarian with his photographs of librarians with pale orange glasses, pink hair, and skin that is many shades of brown, not just white. I suspect, were he to attend the American Alliance of Museums meeting this May, he would find his share of museum folks who look no more like Cary Grant playing David Huxley, the befuddled curator in Bringing Up Baby, than the ALA’s librarians resemble stereotypical librarians. But…I worry that museum folks might not talk about the field as a whole the way these librarians talk about libraries. Here are some quotes:

“Libraries are the center of the community, the last place to receive truly unbiased information. Libraries are the poor man’s university, the place where you can have all the knowledge of the world for free.” Edwin Maxwell, Brooklyn Public Library

or listen to this one

         “I have two things to say about libraries. The first is that libraries are a place to make it happen. And the best quote I found about libraries is actually by Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. He says, “When you’re growing up there are two institutional places that effect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.” J.P. Porcaro, New Jersey Chapter Councillor for ALA

or

        “Libraries are the last safe, noncommercialized space that truly welcomes everyone in the community and brings them together.” Jenny Levine, ALA Internet development specialist

There are more quotes, all of them strong, all of them interesting, and all of them about the library field as a whole. And here’s what worries us: Museums, particularly history museums, and particularly history museum leaders, need to be able to articulate value in much the same way, and we worry that in too many instances, museum leaders talk about their own institutions and not about the field or history itself. And every time that happens the public fails to see history museums in the aggregate. Museums don’t have to be the “a last safe space” or ” a community center,” but perhaps they are places where the average person learns history, not in a put-you-to-sleep-only-dead-white-men-are-important kind of way, but in a way that has meaning for an individual life. A place where learning about big concepts like democracy, individual rights, religious freedom not only makes you a better citizen, but helps you understand your life in context.

The idea of connecting past to present is the subject of numerous blogs and online conversations, most recently Frank Vagnone’s Anarchist’s Guide, but we think it has to become second nature. If you’re a history museum leader and someone asks you about your museum, how do you respond? Is your answer couched first in the particular? The Blah Blah Historical Society owns an important house with a beautiful and rare collection. Sigh. Or the Somewhere Historic House was occupied by the British during the Revolution. Snore. What is the real value here? Isn’t it that all history museums are threads in the warp and weft of a national narrative? That they seek to offer places where people can reflect and understand the concepts that make the United States unique?

If someone asked you what history museums do, what would you say? And if you’re tempted to answer anything that begins with collect, preserve and protect, take a breath and think again. Float up 30,000 feet and think about why cataloguing, conservation and exhibitions matter. Then answer the question.

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