Leadership and the Power of Things

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Here at Leadership Matters we don’t often wade into interpretive waters. There are plenty of able bloggers out there writing about museum collections. (Linda Norris’s Uncatalogued Museum, Frank Vagnone’s Twisted Preservation or Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 are  good examples.) For the most part, we are concerned with how leadership does or doesn’t function in the museum workplace. We write often about pay equity, workplace bias, gender issues, and the importance of human capital in the museum world.

Recently, though, we were struck by the synchronicity of things. First, came this quote from President Obama’s Farewell Speech in Chicago, IL, January 10. “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.” The quote sits at the end of the speech where Obama reminds us not to take democracy for granted, citing George Washington who reminds us to protect democracy with “jealous anxiety.”

What struck us about this wasn’t the sentiment, which is really important, but the idea that the Constitution is just parchment until people give it power. We believe there’s a connection here to the museum world, particularly the world of history/heritage organizations where there’s a lot of moaning about whether people care about history any more. Is that really true or are we a little lazy? Is it possible that with the visual wealth of the internet visitors aren’t so awestruck by reality any more? And really why should they be? Anybody with a phone or a laptop has access to a gazillion images. Seeing them lined up in a museum with tiny labels that sometimes repeat the obvious might not be so compelling in 2017. So who gives objects power? Who engages communities in giving objects power? In our world, that would be museum staff. And how exactly does that happen in our frenetic, media obsessed world?

One answer might be the creation of context either in time or through time. Think about parsing an object the way you would a poem. Never did that? It’s not hard: Who made it? What does it do? What are its component parts? Is it something we use today? In today’s material culture, what are its descendants? Is it beautiful? Why? Who used it? Do they matter? If not, why not? Of course no one would stand still and do this endlessly, but if three objects in a room of things move from mute to thoughtful speech, and if those three things are linked together ideologically, visitors may leave with a sense of connectedness not only over time, but to today’s ideas and concerns.

But the real lesson here is that the history museum field has to want staff who thinks this way. One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters left the history field, moving to an art museum. Her reason? She was adamant that museum staff charged with interpreting culture should be as invested in the present as the past, and she felt that far too many history museum staff were in retreat from today’s world. But it doesn’t have to be that way, which brings us to the second synchronicity. This weekend Old Salem Village in North Carolina made a connection on its Facebook page between contemporary life and the way the Village’s original Moravian residents welcomed visitors. It was simple and direct. With no falderal it pointed out that over centuries there have been communities and there were “strangers.” It made you think about the way we’ve either welcomed and fed newcomers or stoned them into leaving. The Moravians, by the way, felt welcoming strangers was important.

So invest in your staff. Objects are important, but too many history museums are like badly written essays in need of good editors. Those editors (your staff) are as important as the objects they serve because they make them speak, and in making them speak, they make them matter.

Joan H. Baldwin

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2 Comments on “Leadership and the Power of Things”

  1. Ed Varno says:

    Nice job Anne. I like the rapid fire questions about an object. Sometimes this attitude about interpretation can be innate. But not in all of our professional colleagues. I wonder if it could be nurchured particularly in the minds of museum milleniums.

  2. Annie C. Holdren says:

    Yes–the context is key! As another example, looted artifacts lose much of their meaning (potential for analysis and interpretation) when they are removed without documentation from their archaeological contexts.


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