The Museum Leadership PipelinePosted: January 19, 2016
This week I was inspired by Michelle Zupan’s blog posting titled “What They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School”. I love its direct, frank tone. What Zupan glosses over though is how many graduate students with dreams of working with collections and “doing history” end up as museum leaders.
If you use the Smithsonian’s list of Museum Studies Programs–and there are others–there are now 71 programs that offer a master’s level degree in public history or museum studies. I am not delusional and I understand that universities are not in the business of altruism. They open programs to make money, but it seems to me that if you unleash bright, enthusiastic students into the museum world every 18 or 24 months, you have an obligation to prepare them for that world.
I also understand that some graduate programs may do an excellent job at the things Zupan found wanting in her own preparation, and that it’s dangerous to condemn everyone for the mistakes and omissions of a few, but we all bear the brunt of those omissions. So every spring new graduates are hired at museums believing their new job will resemble a graduate school practicum or their internship until it isn’t. Some take jobs and then find themselves catapulted into leadership positions. Others zoom right to leadership because of its allure, and then, as Zupan points out, realize that not only do they get to do everything, they HAVE to do everything. She says that an understanding of HVAC 101 might be helpful while pointing out that new hires might also need a basic plumbing class along with Quickbooks and Excel under their belts. Not only is it stressful for the newly hired, it’s also wasteful. Museums can’t move forward when leadership is constantly learning and re-learning the basic tools of running an organization. It is why, we suspect, some museums and historical organizations hire one beginning director after another. They leave because the job has been enough of a learning experience to launch them to the next rung on the ladder. Or they leave because they can’t learn fast enough and frustrations mount up.
So for all of you out there heading toward your first pay check in the museum world, here’s the Leadership Matters list of skills/knowledge you might want ahead of time.
If you haven’t accepted a position:
- Understand what comparable salaries are in the city or region before accepting a position.
- Explore the local housing market: Can you afford to live near your job?
- Be willing to negotiate if #1 and 2 don’t seem right.
- Is there a ready-made network of museum professionals and colleagues in the area? How about other arts organizations and non-profits?
If you find yourself suddenly on the road to leadership, you might use:
- A healthy dose of self-awareness.
- Courage and a great sense of humor.
- Clarity when you speak and write.
- The ability to craft a budget and a spreadsheet and a sense of humor if you mess either one up.
- The ability to listen without interrupting either in your head or in conversation.
- A mentor or boss who sees you as someone to invest in, as someone whose personal and professional growth is important, not just to your new organization, but to the field as a whole. And who will also be someone who will support you when there’s an ice storm and your museum loses power for a week.