So What Does Your Museum Stand For?

Core values

This blog is starting to sound like a broken record. For more times than we can count, we’ve advocated for museums, heritage organizations, and museum service organizations to be value-driven entities. And what do we mean by that? We mean organizations willing to stand up for their beliefs.

Remember the T-shirt that says “Museums are not neutral”? Maybe you wear it proudly, maybe not. If it’s not a slogan you support, is that because you believe leadership is separate from your own beliefs and practices? How does that even work? Is caring about and for objects, buildings, art or living things a value system? No. Collecting, preserving and interpreting might be what your organization does; it’s not what it believes. So what does your organization stand for?

Our beliefs follow us to work. They influence hiring, board and volunteer selection. They weave their way into job descriptions. They affect curatorial decisions, programming and communications. Beliefs can keep staff inured in their own privilege, preventing them from walking in another’s shoes. And when we allow personal beliefs to influence organizational culture negatively, it’s called bias. Like, when a museum hires a diverse team, and then expresses consternation when its ideas land outside the traditional, patriarchal, often white organizational bubble. This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, you don’t hire a diverse staff just for the photo ops do you? Remember, unchecked bias and absent values can cripple museums and heritage organizations, not to mention the staff they harm.

Once again we’d like to suggest that as leaders, your self-awareness affects not only your ability to understand others, but through you, your museum’s ability to adapt and change. You begin by knowing yourself, and knowing what you believe in. If you are an open, warm, empathetic person, who leads with her staff rather than in front of it, you model core values. Whether you acknowledge it or not, those values influence your museum’s decision making.

Suppose you have a department chair who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The good news is her staff constantly pushes itself to meet her expectations. The bad news is she’s demeaning and disrespectful when things don’t go her way. You find her staff pacing far from their offices, trying to shake off the latest slights. Her department is famous for resignations that cost your museum money and reputation. Worse, because she doesn’t lead with, she’s alienated the very people who might advise her to behave differently. Clearly if you’re the ED, it’s time for a conversation. How could a museum values  statement underpin this conversation? Would it be easier to ask for change based on a shared set of values that include equity, empathy and understanding?

Perhaps a values discussion and the creation of an organizational values statement is on your 2018 to-do list. Don’t put it off. Sit down with your staff and board, and talk about what matters. Do environmental issues top the list? Then how do your museum’s policies and practices reflect environmental preservation? How about gender equity? Is that something you, your staff and board believe in? What changes can you make in governance, HR, exhibitions and programming that reflect an equitable workplace?  Does your board and staff believe history has a role in changing communities? How should that resonate in your workplace? Say what you mean. Write it down. Then stand behind it.

An organizational values statement may seem like just one more piece of woo-woo fluff that bloggers and self-help books throw at you in the midst of real life riddled with budget shortfalls, rising health insurance, deaccession proposals, and staff turnover. Maybe. But we suggest that in times of crisis, it’s values that hold organizations together.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

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One Comment on “So What Does Your Museum Stand For?”

  1. Rebecca Herz says:

    Thanks for this, Joan. As I read this, I found I simultaneously completely agreed, and was concerned that these “values” would not include concern about the work of the museum itself. Institutional values should not only create a positive culture and a useful reference point, but they should also relate to the collections and exhibitions work of a museum. So, for example, part of the institutional values statement might indicate WHY collecting, preserving, and interpreting are worth doing. What is the value in this concern for history, or art, or science?

    I admit that as the Director of a Children’s Museum this is easier, since we are “for” rather than “about” to start with. But at my museum I think we capture this in one of our “core values” statements, which states that we are catalysts – that our job is to inspire curiosity and learning that continues beyond and between visits. This does not replace other values statements – we also have values statements around equity and collaboration. But it does help us keep focused on the value of what we do, and why we do this (instead of any other type of non-profit, community-centered work).


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