Museums and Leadership: The Story Continues

British Museum Visitors

We began writing this blog in 2013. We’d just sent Leadership Matters off to the publisher and wanted a way to keep the discussion going. The book is a collection of 36 interviews with museum and heritage organization leaders, speaking frankly about the thrills and challenges of doing their jobs. Not all were directors since we believe  leadership happens throughout an organization.

Now, five years later, we’re revising the original. Five years doesn’t seem that long, but the first interviews took place early in 2012, and a number of our interviewees have retired, changed jobs or left the field. So, we’ve begun to write and interview again, and, if all goes well, the revision will be available in fall 2019. But most importantly we are thinking deeply about how (and why) museum leadership today is different.

In some ways the museum world is the trailing indicator, slow to change and late to the party, perhaps not so much at the front of the house, but in staff rooms, offices and around the coffee machine. Six years ago we approached this project with real concern about the field’s understanding of leadership, and the need for boards to grapple with it. Today, leadership as a concept, seems more universally accepted for individuals and organizations who want to move the needle from mediocre to extraordinary. However, toward the book’s end, there’s a chapter called “There Be Dragons Here.” There we ask how 21st-century museums and heritage organizations navigate their communities while remaining truly and authentically themselves. To be honest, this is a place where there are still dragons. Too many organizations find themselves landlocked, unable to intersect with the communities they serve because of lackluster leadership.

Over the next six months we will try to pinpoint change. So, in the tradition of our book and our blog, here’s a preliminary list of places where leadership intersects with the lives of individuals, directors, organizations and boards.

For individuals:

  • The job market remains highly competitive and graduate school is still the admission ticket.
  • This is still a field where too often one is asked to work for no money in the form of volunteering or internships before actually making too little money.
  • This is a field that too often fails to train for leadership, but asks for independent, creative forward-thinking employees.
  • This is still a field where race, class and gender are barriers: Race because too often young POC are hired for the wrong reasons and asked to represent a race/culture rather than being treated with equity; class because poor salaries continue to make it easier for wealthy individuals to enter the field; and gender, because for women, particularly women of color and most especially trans women, even the most casual Facebook survey points to a boatload of bias.

For leaders:

  • The back of the house is as important as the front of the house. Museum workers who have a long tradition of not retaliating when mistreated have started to react individually and collectively.
  • Museum workers and museum audiences expect (and want) organizations to be values driven. Sorting out what that means for a given museum or heritage organization is one of the tasks for today’s leader.
  • Leading an organization means engagement not just presentation.
  • Leaders need to understand how and where personal and organizational leadership intersect and mirror one another. A self-aware leader means a self-aware organization.
  • 21st-century museum leaders need the courage to tackle the hard stuff.

For organizations:

  • Organizations need an HR department or its equivalent and an understanding of employment law.
  • Organizations need an active, current personnel policy that addresses all human and family needs.
  • Organizations need to engage not just present; they need to be real community partners.
  • They need courage to tackle the hard stuff.

For Boards of Trustees:

  • They need to understand the meaning of service.
  • They need to understand the museum world, its ethics and values, its standards and expectations.
  • They should want a values-driven organization keenly, if not more so, than their staff leaders.
  • They should know the value of human capital and what it takes to advocate for, support, and celebrate a creative, engaged staff.
  • They should understand their communities, whether local, regional, national or international.

Tell us how you think leadership has changed or is changing.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Museum Insider

 

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3 Comments on “Museums and Leadership: The Story Continues”

  1. lindabnorris says:

    Joan and Anne–I’d love your thoughts on how our professional organizations fit into this picture. Where do they, from your perspective, fit into this picture now?

  2. Steven Miller says:

    There is no question that, as with most endeavors, leadership matters for museums and always has. Great museums had and have great leaders but only if boards of trustees allow it. Great leaders know their subject and are passionate about it (both what a museum is for and why, and, the subject of the particular museum they lead), know how to engage and work with the incredible wide range of personalities found in this field, they are creative, and have the patience of Job. To get things done, which is what leaders have to do, great leaders do not rely on statistics, metrics, business models, rubrics, surveys or all the other management balderdash voiced these days as if it will magically transform an organization. They are practical visionaries. Passion is their key to success. I’ve been there and done that and I can safely say that what was accomplished was done collaboratively by staff and others, with a few trustees involved to keep the others from messing everything up.

    Steven Miller
    Doylestown PA

  3. […] Museums and Leadership: The Story Continues → […]


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