Museums and Accidental Leadership

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It happens in many careers: the thing that called you in the beginning disappears as you climb the ladder. You become a teacher because interacting with students charges your batteries, but when you’re catapulted into administration, those opportunities diminish. You become a librarian because you love research, but you’re good with people so you’re promoted. Soon you rarely interact with the public. Now you manage staff and go to meetings. Sound familiar? How many of us have similar stories? They are the professional equivalent of an origin myth–the moment you understand people actually —create exhibits, catalog collections,  study insects–you fill in the blank–for a living? Your answer is count me in. But then things change. And on one hand, that’s good. You got a promotion! That’s great. But is it?

What brought you to the museum world in the beginning–passion for history, art, natural science, good people skills, combined with imagination, humility, humor and self-awareness–pushes you up the museum ladder, away from objects, plants, rare books, paintings, whatever drew you in the beginning. Suddenly you’re miles from what once delighted and inspired you. Your new skill set includes HR minutia you never knew existed, combined with anecdotal information on fire suppression, and how best to motivate staff when it’s 90 degrees and the air conditioning fails. And then there’s the constant drum beat of money. Who’s got it. Will they give it? Under what conditions?

We can’t tell you the number of people who have told us that scenario is not something they want. Yet the pattern repeats. And in a field with chronically low salaries especially for women, leadership and advancement go hand in hand. So what should you do? Not to sound too apocalyptic, but how do you accept leadership without losing your soul? Be strategic. Be aware.There’s a lot we can’t control in life, but there is a lot we can. And your career isn’t as arbitrary as next month’s weather map. So here are some things to consider when you are pushed to move beyond your passion.

  • Understand your field. The museum workplace has many subsets, regions, communities under a very big umbrella. Do you know where you want to go?
  • Do you understand your current organization, what its leadership opportunities are and what they entail. If you take the opportunity offered, where will it lead?
  • What about your own life? What changes will more money and more responsibility bring? Do you have support outside of work to cope with those changes?
  • Have you done a self-check in?  Does it seem as though the stress of a leadership position is manageable at this point in your career? Is there time for what brought you to the field in the beginning? Can you retain that connection in a way that is meaningful?

If the answer to the last question was no, can you foresee a time when it might be yes? When your children are all in elementary school? When your parents don’t need you as much? When your organization’s building project is complete?

The point is leadership comes to many of us, and like most things, it’s better if it’s planned rather than having it feel accidental. And it comes in many forms. Being department head is not the same as being a lone leader at a small organization. Your skill set may fit one, but not the other. And more importantly, it may fit one now and the other later.

So embrace the old adage, “Never say never.” Instead, recognize responsibility when it’s handed to you. Know that you wouldn’t get it if folks higher up the workplace food chain didn’t think you could handle it. Organizations need good leaders at every level from project to program, department to museum wide.

And tell us how you choose…

Joan Baldwin

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6 Comments on “Museums and Accidental Leadership”

  1. evelyn says:

    Great article and touches on a number of good points.

  2. Connie says:

    What you talk about is exactly why after being a director of a small institution for ten years, working as a consultant for many different organizations that I settled on a lower paid research and collections position just so that I can work on the front line with collections. What I do wish in our particular institution that there were mid level positions and the ability to move up the later between the tech position and the historian position. Right now there is none. So after 40 years of experience I am compensated at the same level as someone new to the field. happily working with the collections and the freedom I am now given counts for a lot!

  3. Bob Beatty says:

    Great stuff Joan, thanks for the reminder. One of the things I’ve felt really strongly about over the years is that no matter how high up the ladder I go, I do not want to lose what got me here in the first place, my love for history. It’s one of those things I learned watching others do to themselves. We become bureaucrats or cogs in a larger wheel if we do not keep this front & center and might as well go make more money in the for-profit org, right?

  4. Kristin says:

    I jumped right into a leadership role with my first job in non-profit. Now I have a second job that is more mid-level and I find not having the stress of being at the top is much more enjoyable. Plus I’m still learning and growing, and can take or leave opportunities as they suit my plan. I find that saying Yes to leadership is not always bad, but you have to have an out if it goes poorly. And, as I coach my younger colleagues, always know what you like to do and what you do not like to do, and try to find ways to nurture your “likes” along your path in life.

  5. Got trained in Arts Policy Management and Education, specialization art education – Cultuur en Beleid specializatie kunsteducatie in The Netherlands. The training was to work in a Dutch museum. Worked at 2 museums through a co-op. Tried to start my own business – which would lead to a museum in Victoria, Vancouver Island many years ago. It did not fly. Museums in Canada are incorporations. They run like businesses. The Dutch culture is very different then the Canadian culture. Both cultures are very proud to be unique. The Dutch degree fits in Holland only. There is very little openness regarding culture in Canada. Canadians, like the Dutch believe their culture is not to be meddled by external ideas. When it comes down to it, to me the university education was more about learning to think for oneself, understand ones own identity, and ones place in the world then anything else. Each individual needs to be able to critically see their place in society. It is through studying an post degree diploma in Mental Health and Addictions, that I was able to learn the Canadian culture. The role of the artist, for example is very different within the ways Canada looks at him/her. In Holland the role of the artist was holy, while in Canada the role is linked to mental illness through the medical model. They are almost polar opposites.

  6. Chloe Jones says:

    I currently have my BA in Sociology and I’m looking into starting my own museum someday. I’ve received countless advice from many individuals and I was curious to know if any knew some of the steps that I could/should take in order to reach my goal.
    Is there a master program that you’d like to recommend? Thank You.


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