Preparing to Be a Lone RangerPosted: December 4, 2016
It’s been a while since anyone at Leadership Matters was a graduate student or applying for first time jobs. (Back then it was a painfully slow business conducted via the U.S. mail.) But we suspect that in the museum bubble there are some career tropes that persist: You’ll become a museum anthropologist and spend half your time in the field; you’ll be profiled in the New Yorker for your work at a major art museum; your work in interpreting slavery or immigrants will become a model for the field. While we hope your dreams come true, it’s a fact that many newly-minted graduate students’ first job will be as “lone rangers”, serving as historic site managers for small, independent heritage organizations or managing sites for larger county or state agencies.
We were prompted to think all this when we read Robert Wolfe’s Experience Beyond the Classroom. Posted on AASLH’s blog, Wolfe’s tightly-written piece points out that being the only staff person may mean that a grasp of basic plumbing or the ability to operate heavy machinery can turn out to be as useful as the research for a master’s thesis. But we think what he’s really saying is two things: First, be open to possibility. If your pipe dream is to manage a major historic property, then realize what that means. You want to manage an old or very old property containing a lot of old or very old stuff. When you start applying for jobs a huge percentage of the competition will come to the table having completed an exhibit at a historic house or catalogued a malingering collection or done the fall school tours. But who apprentices themselves to the buildings and grounds supervisor or the director? Who watched and listened while leaders decided whether to trench the building’s exterior before or after the new roof was put on? Who sat in the back of the room while the historical society leadership went before the planning board to negotiate new signage? Wolfe mentions learning to drive a standard vehicle and operate heavy machinery. Assuming you’re not in graduate school virtually, you likely have an entire graduate school to learn from. Don’t confine yourself to the museum studies or art history program. Visit the plant manager. Shadow someone. A building is the biggest object–in fact, the container–for the rest of a heritage organization’s collection. So if you’ve been an apartment dweller or tenant all your life, recognize what you don’t know, and how to gain some experience.
You don’t need to master all the trades, but basic knowledge is helpful, which brings us to point two: be strategic. We can’t say this enough. You can want and wish and hope your way right through your graduate program, but when the rubber hits the road and you have to choose, you may end up a solo site manager. Here are some suggestions that may make the path easier once you find yourself the sole leader:
- Reach out to the heritage leaders in your area. Arrange a once-a-month gathering for drinks or coffee and an exchange of information. Learn from each other.
- Expand your posse of peeps to include a Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. Maybe it’s your father or your grandfather, maybe your best friend, but find someone who’s owned a home or two, who’ll take your call after you successfully turned off the spewing plumbing but before you meet with the plumbers.
- Know what you don’t know. You wouldn’t conserve a painting by yourself, you’d raise the money and send it to a conservator so don’t trust the care of the building to just anyone.
- Understand that there are likely people in your community who are more interested in your building and how it works than in anything inside or in the generations of folks who lived there.
- Don’t make decisions alone. Does your organization have a building committee? There are a lot of complaints about boards that don’t manage and boards that micro-manage, but when heritage buildings need help, that generally spells money. Not only should you not make those decisions by yourself, hopefully the strategy for making decisions already exists. When the roof is failing and snow is forecast is not the moment to test how your historic house functions in crisis.
- Know yourself: Do you work well independently? Will you seek community when you need it? Working as a loan ranger isn’t for the faint of heart.
Be well. Do good work, and send us your tips for life as a solo heritage organization leader.