Museum Leadership: Your Observation is Your Obligation

AASLH 2019 Women WorkshopIf leaders were cartoon characters, they’d have heads topped with arrows instead of hair. Why? Because whether they mean to or not, leaders exude direction. They are points on the organizational compass. And when direction isn’t clear there are plenty of folks in the hallway, around the coffeemaker or after meetings to interpret what has or hasn’t been said. That’s a preface to what follows, meaning I may not be correct. After all, I’m only an observer.

If you couldn’t attend last week’s meeting of the American Association of State and Local History in Philadelphia, it was a good one. Anchored by the indomitable Eastern State Penitentiary, and the city’s other national historic sites, not to mention its many museums, the conference drew a large crowd. The theme was “What Are We Waiting For?” but the subtext was certainly history’s importance in understanding the present. It was there in the keynote, moderated by Sean Kelly, Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, and featuring Susan Burton, a Los Angeles-based writer and prison reform activist whose memoir details a 20-year cycle of addiction, pain, sadness and prison, and Dr. Talitha LeFlouria, a University of Virginia associate professor, and author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, where the arrow pointed directly from centuries of enslavement to decades of mass incarceration. And it was also there in Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s myth-toppling speech about George Washington’s obsessive search for his runaway slave Ona Judge. And, I’m sure it was there in the many panels, tours, and countless conversations as conference attendees struggled, argued, and supported one another in connecting past and present. If you want to interpret those directional signals, what you might say is the complacent, white, male narrative of the past is disappearing, replaced by a host of other black and brown voices, from individuals who’ve been here months, and those whose past stretches back to enslavement or others whose land was stolen, and they lived out their days on reservations.

For me though there was another signal: The four panels and one workshop that addressed women in the history museum workplace. Anne Ackerson and I have written and spoken about this topic for almost seven years, and in that time there were more than a few moments when getting one panel on women’s issues for AASLH or AAM seemed like an achievement. So maybe I’m reading too much into this, but finding AASLH President John Dichtl in a panel titled “#MeToo: AASLH, NCPH and the Field” was a sea change. Perhaps it’s AASLH’s size and more cohesive membership, but its leadership is clearly listening to women’s issues in the field. When asked to post salary ranges in their job announcements, AASLH did. And their willingness to open the annual meeting to discussions about women’s leadership, sexual harassment in the field, and pay equity tells me they’re acknowledging that while the heritage organization/history museum workplace might not be Nirvana, they want to make it better.

So, here’s a thank you: Thank you for a great conference. Thank you to AASLH’s leaders and planners for changing the narrative; thank you for publicly acknowledging the consequences of workplace harassment, and gender pay inequity. Thank you to the male leaders who showed up to represent at four of the five sessions. Kudos to all the women who spoke, especially those brave enough to reveal personal stories.

One final plea though: Do something with what you learned. Commit to personal change. Be kind. Support one another. Don’t do it because someone’s different than you. Do it because you are colleagues. If you are a leader, and haven’t addressed the gender pay gap in your organization, do an equity audit. See how bad things are. If you don’t have a values statement or a statement about the kind of behavior you expect in your museum or heritage site, write one. Don’t wait ’til next year to hear it another time and realize 12 months went by and you didn’t move the needle at all.

Make change now. Do it as individuals, do it as organizations. To quote Enimini Ekong, Superintendent of Nicodemus National Historic Site and Chief of Education and Interpretation at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, “Your observation is your obligation.” So for goodness sakes look and then act.

Joan Baldwin



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