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

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