Navigating Fear as Museum Doors Open

People can cry much easier than they can change. James Baldwin

At the best of times leadership is a journey over peaks and valleys. Now is not the best of times. As of May 20 each of the 50 states began the slow march, from closed to open, towards some sort of post-COVID normalcy. As a result, museums and heritage organizations are also opening their doors. And museum leaders, like leaders everywhere, begin the summer with a boatload of new problems as worries over social distancing, appropriate cleaning, reliable testing, and devastating financial loss overlay the normal organizational problems of visitation, capital improvements, programs, and staffing.

And into all of this, there’s the question of personal fear. On a given day, leaders and staff may struggle with their own issues surrounding failure, criticism or discrimination, but COVID-19 adds something new. After months of self-isolation, Zoom meetings, and the comfort of your home cocoon, returning to work may be scary. Yet as a leader, whether of a tiny heritage site or a large science or art museum, need to work through these new fears and move organizations forward because COVID-19 has a legitimacy our own personal demons lack. Having killed 100,000 plus, it’s a diabolical enemy, deadlier than our personal angst about clowns, airplanes, or speaking in public. So how do you move forward while keeping your anxieties in check?

  1. Trust your team: If ever there was a moment to learn leadership is about collaboration, this is it. Yes, you’re the leader, whether of the program, team or museum, but trust those working under you. Grant them the autonomy and authority to make decisions without running every bit of minutiae up the organizational ladder. Utilize the diversity and skill of your leadership group by having them create or expand teams to address major organizational problems in the post-COVID landscape.
  2. Protect your staff: They know your collection, care for and love your site, and hold its institutional history. Yet some may have coped with separation, illness, and death or huge financial loss. Acknowledge what they’ve gone through. Create a leadership group whose charge includes protecting staff as well as visitors, recognizing that some staff deal with the public daily while others not so much. Side note: If you ever wondered about creating an organizational values statement, now might be the moment to write one. Being transparent about organizational beliefs will support both staff and your wider community.
  3. Be as transparent as possible: Fear of the unknown is a real thing. If you name it, whether it’s the monster under the bed or the fear of cleaning public restrooms, it lessens its power. Communicate clearly. Let staff and visitors know what you don’t know, and also what you’re trying to do to ameliorate problems.
  4. Frame the questions: By asking big questions with the most elastic borders, you’ll get the most information. When team discussion drifts into the weeds, delegate someone to identify the minutiae and find the answers. Don’t waste the group’s time theorizing about things better left to those who do them every day.
  5. Reflect, and reflect again: Panic and fear makes us want to act quickly. While it’s hard to learn new organizational patterns in the midst of crisis, ask your museum leadership team for data as opposed to anecdotes. Then, reflect on what’s worked so far, and more importantly what didn’t. Hold each new piece of knowledge against the particularities of your museum or your site. Make decisive, but measured decisions.

Last, you’re probably as weary as I am of hearing that “we’re all in this together.” But like it or not, we are. And we’re all scared and anxious together too. And it’s not just the virus. Museums and heritage organizations will reopen not just in a post-virus world, but also on the eve of a national election in a country newly scarred by racist behavior. We must be empathetic individually and collectively, building community by offering space for reflection, discussion and understanding as we move forward. And last, but not least, if your team is onto a good thing, whether about fear or another COVID-19 issue, share it this week through the brilliant and virtual #museumsurvivalkit.

Joan Baldwin



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