Museum Leadership is Complex and That’s OK

Elaine Gurian MuseumNext

There are people thinking deep thoughts in almost every field around the globe. Some share with their colleagues. Others write books, give TED Talks or get interviewed by National Public Radio. The museum field is lucky to have its own thought leaders. Perhaps you read or follow Nina Simon, Frank Vagnone, the Incluseum or Maria Viachou. Principle among the museum field’s thought leaders is Elaine Heumann Gurian. If you don’t know Elaine, you have some reading ahead of you, but don’t worry. It’s good stuff.

Heumann Gurian is now retired. That just means she’s not collecting a regular pay check any more. She was, in fact, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Museums at the Smithsonian, Deputy Director for Public Program Planning at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Deputy Director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now she thinks for a living. If her recent talk “The Importance of And,” delivered at MuseumNext’s conference in Australia is any indication, she remains committed to change. And so should you.

And don’t say I don’t read stuff like that. It’s like food you think you don’t like. Try it. And here’s why: Heumann Gurian asks us to think not so much about what we do, but why and how. She doesn’t care whether your visitors get tickets, stickers or buttons. She’s not necessarily interested in your board development policies, your admission pricing structure, your digitization program or your collections management software. In “The Importance of And,” she talks about applying complexity theory to museums to break the cycle of one object/one label/one point of view that dominates so many museum exhibits, leaving vast swaths of the public underwhelmed, bored or sometimes angry by narratives that are relentlessly mediocre and opaque. She wants exhibit narratives that leave visitors arguing, questioning, writing their own questions on sticky notes. She wants visitors to find the universal stories and add their own. She wants museums to be places where people understand that every story has multiple points of view: the artist, the creator/maker, the curator, the object’s cultural context, the viewer and his or her cultural context. She wants us to internalize that wherever we stand, our view is different.

And Leadership Matters would like you to try one more thing: After reading “The Importance of And,” think about applying complexity theory not just to exhibit and program development, but to what happens in the offices at your museum as well. The world we live in is endlessly complex. So is 21st-century leadership. Complexity theory as applied to leadership asks us to think about leadership as leadership of the many by the many, rather than of the many by the few. And by few, we mean you. Being the sage on the stage 24/7 is wearying. But what if you think of leadership as a team or an orchestra, where you are the quarterback, the conductor or maybe the first violin, whatever metaphor works for you? The point is if you can accept complexity, you widen your leadership circle, more voices are heard, and the result is a more nuanced response to just about everything.

Confused? Think of it this way: Say your institution is faced with a big question–to build, to renovate or leave your building as is. Traditional leadership would say that you, the director, possibly with your assistant directors, gather and hash out responses to each possibility. You take them to the board. It hashes them out and decides which way to go. Leadership that’s more complex might put together focus groups that involve everyone from your institution’s guards and grounds folks to its shop assistants, volunteers, education staff and community, mixing the groups so museum leadership and trustees hear from a variety of voices and experiences. Yes, both paths may lead to the same conclusion, but the information gathered, and the trust and buy-in generated in the complexity approach yields its own rewards: a staff who knows it’s respected; new ideas from individuals who museum leadership might never come in contact with; new pathways of communication that lead to change.

And change is what you’re after. Who wants an organization that stays the same year after year, decade after decade? Tell us how you tackle big decisions and whether your process is messy and iterative or hierarchical and direct. And tell us why.

It’s March, 52 days into the new administration: Lead well. It matters.

Joan Baldwin

 

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One Comment on “Museum Leadership is Complex and That’s OK”

  1. Samantha Roberts says:

    Thank you Anne and Joan, for consistently providing reading material that gets me thinking about leadership and how I can improve myself, my institution, and our relationship with the community. Thanks for reminding me that deep thinking about purpose and engagement is vital to museum work when logistics and operations seem to take over the vast percentage of every day activities.


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