Museum Leadership and the Power of Words

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The place I work has several hundred employees on a 500-acre campus. The majority of us work and teach in several core buildings, but in the years since the tech revolution email is our primary mode of communication. It has its pluses. As the sender you have a record of when you communicated and what you said. You can think about what you want to say. You can attach images or links. On the minus list? Email allows a “gotcha” office culture to zing people with “I already told you that…” Other minuses include the fact that a lot of people don’t read. At least they don’t read carefully. (For more on that, see below.) Then you have to email a second time calling out the things they missed or those you glossed over.

I raise these issues because this week I’ve been a participant in too many long email strings where the overwhelming theme is confusion. I ended one yesterday by picking up the phone. Yes, you say, I do that all the time. If that’s true, kudos to you. But for those of you who work in organizations that are highly email-dependent, try talking. It’s quicker. There’s less typing and hopefully less confusion, and you can always follow up with an email as confirmation.

This question of email versus speech struck me in the wake of a Ted talk I heard and a book I am reading. The Ted talk was by Nicholas Christakis, Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale,  and is about social networks. You can find Christakis’s talk here: Nicholas Christakis Ted Talk. The book is David Denby’s Lit Up. You can find The New York Times‘ review here: Lit Up Review. It is an exploration of how 10th-grade English is taught. Both speak–I think– to the larger issues of communication faced by 21st century museum leaders.

Christakis talks about how ideas spread, creating social networks that have memory and persist over time, meaning, for example, that my workplace’s network is one where email is the norm rather than conversation. While Christakis and his team examine everything from obesity to smoking, drinking and altruism, he ends his talk by addressing the question of emotional contagion, describing the way emotions spread as a primitive form of communication. How can we as museum leaders not think about this? Who hasn’t noticed how a room changes with the inclusion or exclusion of certain people? There are those whose addition to the network brings an outward-facing view, with each member linked to one another, while those whose friends and colleagues are isolated from each other sometimes bring a darker view akin to Harry Potter’s dementors. Then there is Christakis’s conception of how ideas spread. As educators, programs or communicators it’s important to understand what we mean when someone says an idea is “in the wind.” That’s what Christakis does. He studies the wind.

Denby wondered whether the current generation of high school students actually still reads for pleasure or only because it’s a course requirement. Why should that matter to us in the museum business? They are our community. And if they aren’t our community now, they will be soon. If, as Denby tells us, they are not born readers, what does that mean for those of us who craft exhibit text, web text or who someday will be their bosses and expect them to write some version of felicitous language? The students Denby meets at three different schools spend more than 100 hours each week on media. At one point, one of the teachers he profiles asks the class how they have time to talk to their friends. The answer is they don’t. They spend their time with their friends listening to music, watching movies or doing homework, but they aren’t talking. Again, how do we program for people who happily multi-task, but whose neurons and synapses are used to the skimming, hopping reading style of the Internet?

I realize these are cultural issues and problems that go way beyond the world of museum work, but they speak to how important it is for museum people to be interested in our communities not just the stuff we care for. The world–writ large and small–is our community. My advice: study how ideas and emotions spread in your workplace; talk, read deeply and encourage your friends to do the same. For me, words still matter.

Joan H. Baldwin



One Comment on “Museum Leadership and the Power of Words”

  1. I am an email fan, it is quick and you can communicate at 6;30 am or 11 pm doesn’t matter. i can send documents and pictures. I have too many co workers who love to chat but not about the topic at hand and it is hard to stop them, they repeat themselves in multiple ways saying the same thing over and over. I hate using the phone and playing phone tag with people. I hate not speaking clear or loud or slow enough for hard of hearing little old ladies, most who use email regularly. I sometimes attach read receipts to make sure my message got out there, if it was unclear, the onus is on the recipient to ask for clarification. I can repeat the same message to multiple people at the same time, set up meetings etc. why not love email?

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