How Much Lipstick Can the Museum Pig Wear?Posted: September 20, 2021
If you saw any social media last week, you’re aware that recently more than a few museum directors left their positions. It’s a disturbing trend, and while tempting to blame on COVID, as if life minus the pandemic was ducky, we know that’s not true. COVID threw open a Pandora’s box of problems, but the seeds were sown a decade or more ago. With that in mind, how long can the field move forward, without acknowledging what’s going on backstage in museum offices? How much lipstick can the museum pig wear?
Change threatens the weakest points, and sadly, museum leadership and governance has been wobbly for a while. Why? There are a number of reasons, but before going there, let’s acknowledge how COVID makes each of us vulnerable individually and personally, leading to a nationwide level of workplace stress. Nothing is as we knew it. Many jobs were lost. Many were sick, and more than 600,000 lost their lives, meaning at least twice that number come to work grief-stricken. Childcare was affected, and now with the Delta Variant, parents need to calibrate risk on a daily basis, balancing children’s need for school, over the risk of exposure. My point is only as the museum workplace reaches a boiling point, we would do well to remember that for the last 20 months nobody’s had their eye on the proverbial ball.
But back to the other epidemic: the one where museum directors walk out the door. Let’s start at the top. Not for the first time in these pages I’m going to suggest that along with COVID there is an epic level of poor governance at the board level. Don’t believe me? Spend an hour on Instagram reading @changetheboard or on Facebook looking at Your Thriving Nonprofit, and you’ll see what I mean. Differing state regulations governing nonprofits, a general lack of understanding regarding what nonprofits do, combined with an epic level of misunderstanding about a board’s role, as well as poor board onboarding, leaving us with board members who see their roles, not as something for the collective and organizational good, but as an opportunity to behave tyrannically. So instead of partnering with their board in running an organization, museum leaders with wayward boards spend too much time in training and education. Who looses? Museum staff and their communities.
Next up poor training and preparation for leaders. Again, if this is something you don’t believe, take a gander at @changethemuseum or @changeberkshireculture or read Dana Kopel’s excellent Unionizing the New Museum a sick-making tour through the New Museum’s reluctant journey to unionization. This blog is dedicated to the idea that leadership is a thing unto itself, not a reward for dedicated service; nor is it the payoff for doing well in your original museum job. Leadership doesn’t depend on content knowledge and scholarship the way a curator’s role may, but instead flourishes with “soft skills,” that are now the hard skills, meaning museum leaders must be good communicators, people who are empathetic, courageous, and visionary.
Then there’s the money challenge. I work on the outskirts of the museum field, but my organization’s strong endowment means I don’t worry about our big dreams. But I’m not the point. Too many in museum and heritage organization staff work hard just to keep organizations afloat, much less to implement their wishlists. It’s why museum leaders need courage, vision, and the communication skills to persuade community leaders whether they are fancy one-percenters or small city business people that what they do is for everyone, and most importantly why it’s for everyone.
Last, and by no means least, is the museum world’s long history of systemic gender, class, and race issues. We have a lousy pay structure built around issues of race and gender, forcing too many women and women of color to tread water professionally. Beyond the HR issues, our institutions are riddled with systemic racism in ways the overwhelmingly white staffs aren’t doing the work to acknowledge. You can’t become the activist museum Mike Murawski talks about unless staff and community collaborate so the barriers come down. Diversifying staff is not the whole answer. There is parallel work to do on the part of the we’ve–always–done–it–that–way staff and leadership.
So what’s the answer? Some thoughts….
- Making sure leadership training is something all museum leaders have access to either as part of graduate school, later or both.
- Making sure board members understand their roles. As lame as some of the sexual harassment online training is, it does spell out the legal landscape. Maybe board members need a 20-minute online class they must pass before signing on?
- By building museums that are value driven.
- By believing that museums are really for people. And what do people need? Love, caring, kindness, museums that are humane, human-centered, and empathetic.
- Working toward museums and heritage organizations that don’t exploit the dedication many emerging professionals give to the field.
- Recognizing wellness as a thing, and burnout not as a term, but a condition. Non-profit does not mean museum employees should toil in some 21st-century imitation of a 19th-century mill.
- Last, if you want something hopeful to read, take a look at this, first Tweeted by the inimitable Linda Norris. Working for Trevor White sounds like it might be a little bit of alright.
Be well and be kind.