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


3 Comments on “Seven Things That Might Make Museum Leadership Different Than Leadership Elsewhere”

  1. Mary Warner says:

    I would add that when it comes to leadership in small museums, succession is left to fate rather than carefully planned. (Although this seems to be a problem in lots of nonprofit orgs.)

  2. That’s our experience, as well, Mary. Joan wrote a white paper on leadership succession for the Museum Association of NY in 2008 that you might find interesting and useful (you can access it at I’ve found that one of the best ways to get people thinking about succession is to begin with a very simple plan to address a sudden incapacitation of the staff or board leader. Thinking about what has to be done in the first 24-48 hours,the first month, the next 3-6 months really focuses a board/staff and can eventually lead to discussions about planned future departures.


  3. Steven Miller says:

    I love this list! Having been in the museum field since 1971 and “worked my way up through the ranks” I can attest to the veracity of what is noted. Leadership and management are not the same. Leadership is about pie-in-the-sky vision, passion, enthusiasm, and a total commitment to a subject. Management is about how to achieve stuff.

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