Museum Leadership: Being vs Doing

Doing vs Being

There’s something we’re puzzled about. There are now a lot of graduate programs in museum studies. There are even more if you include the ones in nonprofit management. But here’s our question–what if you’re mid-career, whether it’s your second job or your fourth and suddenly you find yourself managing people more than things. Huge junks of your time are spent on personnel, and short and long term planning, rather than what lured you to the museum field in the beginning. And whatever you learned about leadership, assuming it was part of your graduate school curriculum, has long since left your brain. Where should you turn?

Just for fun, we looked at AAM’s and AASLH’s websites. At AASLH we found “Leadership” and “Professional Development” both listed as topics under Resources, and some leadership and management topics specifically listed in “Continuing Education.” So far so good. AASLH also has some of its sessions–some very interesting–from its 2017 annual meeting available for purchase, but few about museum leadership. (And just to be clear, for us leadership isn’t always a corner office, a sophisticated board, and a multi-million dollar budget. Sometimes it’s a team of three, and a budget of $1,500.) However, the options for a person who wants to be a better leader can be few and far between.

AAM has a tab called “Manage Your Career,” where one can find the Salary Survey, links to various affinity groups and professional networks, and connection through Museum Junction. AAM also has a wealth of information on career transition, but weirdly many of its career tab links are from other job sectors and no longer connect directly. What’s even stranger is there’s almost nothing–with the exception of posting your problems on Museum Junction — that addresses leadership, management, and career problems or the “being” part of working in the field.

There are also the regional and state professional organizations. We looked at New England (NEMA), the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), the California Association of Museums (CAM) and the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Of this limited search, SEMC offers a long-standing program for leaders/managers and CAM is gathering trend data and case studies that touch on several aspects of leadership. Like AAM, NEMA separates career support from museum resources, making the former about getting a job and the latter about advocacy, funding and policies. MANY, too, spends web space on jobs and advocacy. Don’t get us wrong. There is nothing wrong with any of these web page topics. They are necessary and important, but it’s curious how the field, whether its service organizations or graduate programs, puts greater emphasis on doing–what job do you want, how to advocate for your organization, how to advocate for your field–than on how to “be” in the museum workplace. And by “be” we mean how to be a good curator, not as someone who knows content, but someone who knows her staff or someone who leads with self-awareness, courage and vision.

Museums are tricky, complicated places. They require a wealth of knowledge on the content side coupled with massive leadership skills. Why does the field continue to ignore one for the other and what should a museum leader in the midst of an existential crisis do? How do you know if what you’re experiencing relates to your inexperience, some anomaly related to your site or to the field as a whole? Who should you turn to? Obviously, the type of advice and support you seek depends on the nature of the problem, but leadership is leadership, whether it’s an organization with a staff of 2.5 people or 250 people. You can be a bad or successful leader in both instances.

It’s a Leadership Matters tradition to offer advice for different strata within the field, so here goes:

If you have no money and want to stay local: 

  • If you don’t already have a peer network, kitchen cabinet or advisory group, now’s the time. These should be people who know your work, but who aren’t your friends.  They should be people you’re comfortable baring your professional soul with, but not your grandma. Presumably she likes everything you do. Invite them for drinks or coffee and pose your question(s). And before you meet with these folks, listen to this: to the Ted Radio Hour on how to break out of your comfort zone.
  • Contact your local Chamber of Commerce. See what it has in the way of resource groups and continuing leadership education. Ditto for your local community college or university.
  • Link to Harvard Business Review. Not everything will help, but much will.
  • Read regularly about leadership. If you haven’t read Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence and Sheryl Standberg’s Lean In, get them. At the risk of causing monumental eye rolling in your workplace, you may want to assign one to your team.

**If you have money and board support:

**This is by no means a complete listing and we welcome other suggestions for mid-career leadership training for museum professionals.

Last, but not least: 

  • If you feel your state, regional or national service organization isn’t offering what you need, say something. Say it the moment the 2018 meeting is over. Be specific. If  friends or colleagues feel the same way, get them to join in your ask. These are membership organizations that exist to support the field and the field is you.

Joan Baldwin

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5 Comments on “Museum Leadership: Being vs Doing”

  1. Jane Severs says:

    For those with the ability/support to pay for training, I recommend Oxford’s Cultural Leaders program. It’s an investment, but as someone who participated in the program and paid tuition and expenses entirely from my own pocket, it was worth every penny. I can honestly say it was transformational.

  2. Naomi Grattan says:

    I did an MA in Leadership at Royal Roads University (Victoria BC, Canada) and they graciously accommodated my request to have joint supervision of my thesis.

    As usual, I had an internal supervisor from the program on leadership literature, and then I added an external supervisor from the museum world (Dr. Robert R. Janes, editor emeritus of the journal of Museum Management and Curatorship) and that worked really well.

    I did my research project in partnership with the Canadian Museums Association on the state of museum leadership in Canada (and your book Leadership Matters was a great source!).

    I don’t know how expensive it is for international students, but I think it’d be worth investigating: http://www.royalroads.ca

  3. I found the Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy from NAS really valuable: http://www.artstrategies.org/programs/executive-program-in-arts-culture-strategy/

    And as President of the Small Museum Association I have to promote our conference scholarships; for the past several years, our Board members have worked to ensure that there is conference content on leading an organization or directorial decision-making: http://smallmuseum.org/


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