2018 Museum Leadership Myths and Realities

burke-museum-exterior-flowers (1)Thinking about leadership is something even adept leaders don’t do often enough. As we work on the revision of Leadership Matters (2019), Anne and I are pondering how museum leadership has changed in five years. Just for fun I scrolled back to the beginning of this blog (2013). There we talk a lot about the need for the museum world, particularly the history museum world, to make leadership a priority.

Leadership Matters opens with “10 Simple Myths,” where we outline the myths that frame the museum world’s professional narrative. Sadly, many still ring true, like “We don’t have to make money, we’re a nonprofit,” or “Building collections takes precedence over building talent,” or a favorite on these pages, “Compensation is secondary because the work is its own reward.”

There is one myth, however, that suddenly feels like it might be at the end of its shelf life: “We are the source of our own best ideas.” In describing why this sage-on-the-stage mentality isn’t such a great idea Anne wrote, “Their [museums] implacable deference to hierarchical decision making insulates them from ideas and solutions flowing between and among sectors.”

We could be wrong, but it feels as though in the last five years engagement, both intellectual and actual has mutated from something only the education department thought about to something more all-encompassing. Organizations are actually reaching out, and not in the give-me-your-stuff way, more like in the work-with-us-to-tell-your-story way. Not everyone and not all the time, but it feels like a sea change. Finally, history museums and heritage organizations realize that trying to force feed communities the life stories of American furniture and tools isn’t compelling. In fact, a quick scan of leadership positions on AASLH’s and AAM’s job boards yields the following phrases:

  • .….Fosters connections with local community and history in relevant and sustained ways by building beneficial partnerships, raising the level of civic dialogues …..
  • The director is responsible for developing positive community relations and partnerships with national, state, local organizations and for developing strategic initiatives in areas of community outreach, educational programming, exhibits, public history and tourism.
  • The Museum’s new leader should embrace its deeply held values, especially the active practice of diversity, inclusion, engagement and the critical representation of our multiple communities, their histories and current issues.

But….apart from engagement, many of our 10 myths are still alive, healthy, and posing as the truth. And, it’s 2018 not 2013, and there are new conundrums and problems for museum leaders. Here are five that we think need some work:

  • That understanding community is more than an anecdotal exercise. It is data-driven. Read Susie Wilkening and Colleen Dilenschneider to see what we mean.
  • The digital world is here to stay. Museums–even tiny ones–need to get a grip.
  • Museums are community partners. They build, they renovate, they employ, they use utilities, they sell things. Non-profit doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter. Just because you’re not paying shareholders, doesn’t mean you can’t be a downtown anchor.
  • Maybe, just maybe, there’s a recognition that an all-white, all-privileged field is not such a great thing and creating a more diverse field means making it a better paid field.
  • That leadership can be learned, and organizations can invest in it just like they invest in anything else; building talent is as important as constructing a new wing.

So what do you think? What leadership sectors do you think the museum world needs to work on?

Joan Baldwin

Image: Burke Museum, Seattle, WA

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