Museums, Leadership and Values: How does your museum measure up?

organizational values

As many of you know I am the curator at an independent school. Recently a colleague approached me to ask why there weren’t more paintings of women teachers and administrators in our hallways. While I think my colleague has a pure heart and means well, there are so many ways to answer a question like that. A deep breath might be in order. Banning puzzlement and frustration from your face is also a choice. I opted for an explanation that portraits don’t arrive at an institution without someone commissioning and paying for them, and in 2016–as opposed to 1916–we spend money to build our collection differently. But what I really wanted to say was school portraits are window dressing. What really matters is how organizationally we deal with gender. Which brings me to values.

You likely have your own set of beliefs and values. They may anchor your work and your personal life. But what about your organization? Whether you work (and lead) in an enormous urban museum or a small-town historical society, it’s important to know not just what you want to do and be–your organizational vision–what you do–the mission–but also what you stand for.  Does your museum, historical society, cultural heritage organization, science center have a value statement? Do you know what it says?

Our colleague Linda Norris writes about museums and values in her blog The Uncatalogued Museum. As someone who thinks about how we translate and give meaning to inanimate objects, Norris is frequently focused on museums’ public face, but she is no less interested in how organizational values translate behind the scenes. Here she is writing about institutional integrity: Do you divvy up your jobs into a number of part-time positions so you don’t have to pay benefits?  That’s a value judgment about your employees and their value.  If you’re a director, do you hoard information from both your board and your staff?  That embodies a value.  Do you actively seek out collaborations and partnerships.  That’s also a value in action.   I think we tend to think about values as warm, fuzzy things, when in fact, all values are not positive ones–and it’s the not-so-positive ones we sweep under the carpet. If you want to read her whole post, click here: Walk the Walk, Not Just Talk the Talk.

So yes, like the importance of a strategic plan, a values statement is a guiding document. If you’re groaning about the thought of the conversations (and meetings) necessary to create such a document, re-read Linda’s comments above and think instead about how a values statement works. And before that, consider that just because your programs and exhibitions serve a diverse audience, that doesn’t mean your workplace values reflect your programmatic values.

Your institutional values statement provides shared guidelines for how staff should get along in your organization. And just like your strategic plan, which is nothing if it languishes in a Google folder, your values statement needs to live and breathe, and you, as the organizational leader, along with your board, need to demonstrate those values in action. First, however, you need to understand your own organizational culture. Unless you are the founder, you inherited a boatload of behaviors and ways of doing things that you need to tease apart before you can understand how the place works. For example, suppose you lead an organization that is very siloed. How do you know? Well, the IT department or the design department or collections seems to live in their own universe. They “work” for their department head, but don’t necessarily serve the institution as a whole. That’s an embedded value. If you want to change that, you’ll need to bring the department heads together and help them work as a single team.

If this sounds like leadership 101, it is, but the importance of the values statement is that it puts behavior–trustworthiness, creativity, kindness, equity, whatever you deem important–out there for all to see.  An organization with an active values statement is not likely to tell two employees with an ongoing disagreement to work it out themselves. Instead, HR, the director or both is likely to work through what’s wrong based on the organizational values. So no, you cannot, nor should you try, to legislate every employee action, but if you discover that bad blood between staff members is the result of generational conflict, race, ethnicity or gender, you can point to your organizational value statement. Of course one assumes you embody (and act on) most of those values already.

If you’re interested in reading more about organizational culture, we recommend this article from Harvard Business Review What Is Organizational Culture and this one from Forbes about values: Two Ways to Ensure Your Corporate Culture and Values Align. Finally, if you’re not a fan of Nonprofit Quarterly’s Dr. Conflict, you may want to read this: Dissension and Tortured Alliances. Let us know how and if you use your values statement.

Joan Baldwin





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