Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Find Me a Match: What We Mean When We Talk About Mentoring

Frank L Baum – Library of Congress[1]alt source: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/oz/images/uc17.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=854060

Mentors and mentorship seem to be having a moment. From annual meetings where mentors and mentees meet up, to organizations dedicated to mentoring, talk of mentors is in the wind. But here’s a little secret: There are likely as many different ideas about mentorships as there are people, and that’s probably not a bad thing.

About a lifetime ago mentors were the province of business. They were invariably white men and they were there to help give their compatriots a leg up. Sometimes they knew a ton about business craft, sometimes they possessed a wealth of connections. Either way, they helped when paths diverged and choices had to be made. And because like follows like, more white men were mentored than anybody else.

I could be wrong, but 25 years ago, mentoring in the museum/heritage sector was in its infancy if it existed at all. It’s possible the museum field was late to the mentor party because just as it ignored leadership, it also ignored its trappings, preferring to let curators spring fully formed into the director’s office, as if careers dedicated to research and exhibitions prepared anyone for dealing with human nature writ large. It’s also possible the museum world’s mentorship reluctance was slow to evolve because it seemed “businesslike.” Museums didn’t want to be seen as businesses. They were different. And while the for-profit world isn’t perfect, far from it–there is an expectation in the B-Schools that everyone will lead, making the leadership skillset a component of every degree. So while business trained leaders, the museum and nonprofit world laid the groundwork for some epic 21st-century HR and leadership failures. But I digress.

Leadership and mentorship are halves of a coin. As a leader learning never stops, and mentorship allows you to pay it forward while continuing to learn. I am lucky enough to work at an institution that assigns new faculty and staff mentors. That means my new program leader will partner with another human who will guide her during her first year on campus. One of the myths about mentorship is that older, wiser folk counsel younger ones, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s about organizational or job experience. In those cases age doesn’t matter. Your mentor could be 32 and know your heritage organization inside out, and you could be pushing 50, vastly experienced, yet still need to learn your new organization’s DNA.

And that’s another mentorship myth: One person–the mentor–doesn’t do all the work while the other–the mentee waits for the magic to happen. Mentorships are two-way streets. If you’re the mentee, it helps if you spend time thinking deeply about your career plan, if you know where you want to go, but most importantly why. Your mentor can help hone your plan, point out places it may be unreasonable or suggest side roads that help you achieve your goals in a different way. Think Glinda the Good Witch. (“You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”)

And speaking of Glinda, here’s another mentor thought: Women need mentors now more than ever. In a workplace like the museum world, that’s 50.1-percent female, with a population whose jobs were hard hit by COVID, women need the alliances mentorships provide, particularly since a percentage of women may continue to work remotely. While remote work has its advantages–there is no trailing partner if one of you can work remotely, and it often makes child and elder care issues easier–it lacks the social networks of an office environment. It’s harder to make professional contacts over Zoom than it is around the coffee machine. And bottom line? Studies tell us that people in the mentor equation, whether mentor or mentee, feel empowered, have more confidence, and not surprisingly, get promoted more often than the un-mentored.

So…if you want a mentor:

  • Remember, it’s not about age, but it is about compatibility.
  • Mentoring doesn’t have to be about your entire career plan. You can be mentored around a specific skill.
  • Be clear about your goals and your career plan. Sometimes mentorships begin around transition–you hope to move up or out–and want guidance as you take the next step.
  • Asking someone you know to mentor you is clearly different from asking someone you don’t know: Either way be respectful of their time. Begin with a brief meeting and the opportunity to talk. See how things play out. If after meeting more than once, this is a person you still trust and admire, and the feeling seems to be mutual, ask about a mentor/mentee relationship.
  • Self reflection is key. Do the work ahead of your mentor meetings so you know the questions you want to focus on.

If you’re asked to be a mentor:

  • Say thank you. Acknowledge the courage it takes to approach someone a chapter or two ahead of you in the museum world, not to mention it’s an honor to be singled out for your wisdom and decision making.
  • Mentees take time. Be clear in your own mind about the time you have to give. You may want to advise on one question–learning to speak up in meetings, for example– and see how the mentor relationship goes before committing to a full mentorship.
  • Think about the skills you’re willing to help with. Do your potential mentor’s needs and your skills match?
  • A mentorship isn’t a lifetime commitment. Know when to kick your mentee out of the nest.

For both mentors and mentees: Think outside the box. We’re all more comfortable with people we think we know, and sometimes that’s just what we need, but we learn more (and more quickly) from those whose life experiences are different from ours. And don’t forget to be an active listener. Mentorship isn’t about fixing someone’s career so much as holding up a mirror to help your mentee reflect on the right questions. (“Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you’re on earth, the more experience you are sure to get.” The Wizard of Oz.)

Stay well, stay cool, and depending on where you are, stay dry.

Joan Baldwin


People Don’t Change: How to Fix the Team, Not the Person

Coastal Elite from Halifax, Canada – Lucy Van Pelt’s psychiatry booth, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78594878

For many sites and museums Summer 2021 is a re-emergence. Staff dismissed and subsequently rehired or staff who’ve worked from home are back. There is a joy in seeing the band back together again, but there is also the potential for new and not so new workplace conflicts to arise. Although we missed the congeniality of the happy workplace, no one missed dealing with the frustrations of irritating colleagues and staff.

Once about a billion years ago, I worked for a really great leader. When I legitimately complained about a co-worker’s behavior, a macabre mixture of bullying and misogyny, her response was, “Joan, people don’t change.” She meant that she couldn’t radically change this person’s character. In its simplicity, her response wasn’t that different from what my then-therapist said: that I needed to let person X be person X. On the one hand, it was hugely cynical. There are a gazillion pages like this one every week filled with hope. They counsel change, urge new behavior and the rewards that come with it, and yet here were two people I admired and respected telling me not to expect change, suggesting it was not the norm.

So what’s a leader to do? People come to work every day burdened with baggage: lousy parents, bad relationships, illness, challenging children, financial struggles. We expect and need them to re-focus, to essentially drop the baggage, and put work first–the exhibition they need to do, the policy that needs revision, a grant application submitted or a donor cultivated. And often that involves change at least during the work week. Maybe not a huge amount, but enough to move the needle. So how do leaders grease the wheels of behavioral change, while being realistic enough to know that at the end of the day person X will still likely be person X? Do we ask them to change at work for work? Do we point out that in this case the whole is greater than the parts?

One of the first things to keep in my mind is you aren’t a fixer. You’re not Lucy Van Pelt offering “Psychiatric Help, 5 Cents Please.” As a leader, you need your museum, heritage organization, program or team to function well, but thankfully that’s the extent of your responsibility. Nor is it entirely HRs–presuming you have an HR department. That said, the place where individual behaviors and the workplace intersect is the murky ground of bullying, meanness, and sexual harassment. There are laws about that. Should you discover that what appeared to be a workplace squabble is something more, that is when you bring in your HR leader, read your HR policy, and never/ever take a hands off approach. It takes enormous courage to report any of those incidents and each and every one needs to be investigated carefully and treated respectfully.

But what if you’re dealing with garden variety behaviors? They aren’t illegal, but they are annoying, and they almost always have an impact on your team. What about chronic lateness? Epic messiness? Or staff who take a ridiculous amount of time to focus on a task, distracting others in the process, and then blithely announcing they will stay late to finish, thereby eliminating collaboration?

Talk with them. If you have an HR team, it might be a good idea to brief them first, weaving their ideas into your first conversation with your staff person. Is there an outside reason that’s prompted or accelerated this behavior? Does your organization have resources your staff person could tap to help outside of work? Do they need personal time off? Is that an option?

Do a personal check-in. Where are your own biases in this particular contretemps? Is this a person you’ve struggled with as well as your staff members? Why? Know where you are before you talk.

Be clear and direct. It’s not about them–and you are not blaming them for their divorce, their parents’ illness, childcare issues–it’s about work. You may feel like saying, “What is wrong with you?” but you don’t need me to tell you that’s not appropriate. For example, explain how chatting aimlessly for 50 minutes prior or post meeting affects the team, how subordinate staff don’t always feel they can leave a conversation, and how work is delayed and left unfinished.

Give clear, measurable goals. Being direct with staff doesn’t mean you are short tempered, but if a person is unaware that their epically untidy office means it’s off limits for conversation, then they probably need a simple directive that by the end of the day, the week, whatever, progress is made toward tidying up. Ditto for other problems.

Plan to meet again. These conversations aren’t fun, but they lack utility when they are one-offs. Underscore that this matters to you. Why? Because your staff member and the team and the work you all do matters. Before you close the initial conversation, set a date to meet again.

Write Down What Transpired. Keep detailed notes that can be shared, if need be, with HR. God forbid, things don’t get better, you will need your notes to establish how certain patterns of behavior are detrimental. For yourself, process what happened, and how you can improve.

Make sure you understand what your options are. Does your HR department have a personal improvement plan fr staff who are struggling? If not, can you and they craft one? Are there ways of separating the staff member from other staff without making it feel like a time out? If need be, do you know how to go about firing someone?

Don’t let the situation distract you. Another wise person told me 90-percent of my time as a leader would be devoted to 10-percent of the team. Remember to give yourself a break as well. Get up, leave your office. Take a walk. Do something completely different. Make sure you have an outlet–outside of work–to download what’s going on.

Despite this post being all about work, I’ve been on vacation for 10 days. I hope as this hot and fiery summer continues you find some time to re-create too. I also hope you read Vu’s piece on non-profit leaders and the need to re-charge. BTW, if he’s not on your weekly reading list, he should be.

Be well.

Joan Baldwin


Ending a Program? Two Thoughts: Communication and Also Communication

State Government Photographer – The History Trust of South Australian, South Australian GovernmentPhoto [1]Object record [2], CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87186004

See if this sounds familiar: A staff member is tasked with leading a project, program or a team. Once the task is assigned, they are largely left alone. They wait for a check-in, and when it doesn’t come, they assume all is well. Life goes on. They make choices, and enjoy their autonomy. When performance reviews fail to materialize, they assume it’s because their work is satisfactory. Their budget–another indicator of organizational confidence and priorities– remains stable. Their program/project/team has a few triumphs and avoids disaster. In fact, you’d call it a success, until there is an epic event like a pandemic. But it could be a weather-related catastrophe, a stock market crash, something unexpected and external. Suddenly this staff member and their program enter a no-fly zone. After months of no commentary suddenly it seems there were things wrong, but now it doesn’t actually matter because the program/project/team needs to end because suddenly the organization needs to save money. If they are lucky, your colleague will be reassigned.

I have seen this happen more than a few time across organizations. Perhaps you have too. It’s not confined to colleagues low on the organizational food chain. It happens to directors, and it happens to hourly folks, to people who’ve demonstrated the kind of loyalty not seen much these days, and to those hired a short time ago. So what’s going on? There’s a kind of kill-the-messenger similarity about these narratives. How does someone go from being the golden girl to being fired or reassigned with few words exchanged?

Admittedly, if you’re in the middle of a similar scenario, figuring out where you went wrong may not save your job, but it may prevent it happening in the future. One thing many of these stories have in common is the individuals–whether it’s a director, curator, museum educator or hourly employee– are sometimes distanced from their colleagues. Maybe they work remotely. Or maybe it’s subtler than that. Maybe they’re in the top spot or maybe they’re launching a new entrepreneurial program. But one thing’s for sure: over the long haul, they didn’t get feed back, and that is a problem. Why? Because a presumption that no news is good news is just that: a presumption. No feedback, whether from the Board, from your direct report, from your colleagues or volunteers, means you’re not learning, and you’re not getting better. You’re autonomous, but you’re also–deep down– unquestioned and unmotivated. And as annoying as your colleague’s suggestions or your leader’s directives might be, they keep you tethered to the organizational mother ship. You may be doing excellent work, but if it’s not in tune with the way the organization as a whole is trending, you and your great ideas are far easier to sacrifice. You will express surprise at having built such a successful program, but your director, your leader, your board, may say, but we didn’t ask for all that. And now we don’t need it. And it’s costing us money. True of course, but that’s because they weren’t actually talking to you, and you assumed everything was okay.

So what should you do if you’re asked to launch a first-time, path breaking program for your organization?

  • Celebrate. Leaders don’t give stretch assignments to losers.
  • Set up regular check-ins with your direct report and a group of colleagues who benefit or utilize your project.
  • If you do receive feedback, listen, reflect, change, and grow.
  • Submit an agenda before each meeting. Recall for everyone why the organization wanted the project in the beginning. Ask if you’re still on track and driving in the lane?
  • Send a confirming email after the meeting with a list of your take-aways. (Yes, you are covering your own ass, but you are also opening doors for dialogue and questions.)
  • If people put you off by refusing to meet–they’re too busy, there’s a worldwide pandemic–set yourself a deadline, and submit a short bullet-pointed report detailing what you’ve accomplished and the challenges you see on the horizon.
  • If you’re not sure about something, ask questions.

And if you’re a leader who inherits what was once a first-time, path breaking program, and it now no longer makes sense?

  • Know what you don’t know before cutting anything. Why was it started? What was the motivation? Who uses it? Who will be hurt if it’s cut?
  • If there is no information except the proverbial game of non-profit telephone where 10 people have 10 different memories about why something started, vow to change going forward, and document what’s happening. Your successors will thank you.
  • Find the documentation about performance. What’s been accomplished? Was this program stellar in its early years, but less so now? Or the reverse?
  • Get to know the project point person. If you have to turn off the tap, it’s good to know them and their skill set.
  • Remember, if they’ve submitted regular updates and/or performance reports and gotten no feedback, they aren’t the problem so don’t blame them. If they were asked to only color in the lines, but you want an abstract, that’s on you. Explain your concept, and let them try.
  • Bringing a program to a close is hard. Be respectful. Do it with grace, so the person whose position is changed finds some self-respect in the process.

It’s almost July. Be well. Stay cool.

Joan Baldwin

Leadership Matters will be on hiatus until July 12. I hope you get some time off too, and if you’re in the United States have a safe July 4th gathering. I’ll be catching up on reading, seeing family, and walking with my dog Scout.


Collective Wisdom: 13 Pieces of Advice I Wish I’d Had

Tommy Wong – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gracewong/295382746/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85227644

Last Friday I spent some time with three awesome museum women. We were tasked with speaking to a group of college-age interns, who might or might not enter the museum field. Our first question was what advice would we give our 21-year old selves, if the clock turned backward? For me, it prompted a lot of self-reflection. In college, I didn’t always listen to my mentors. I was polite, but I didn’t always internalize and reflect on the advice offered.

So here, for anyone who’s listening, a baker’s dozen of things I wish I’d understood at the tender age of 21.

  1. That self-advocacy is a practice, and it’s different from making it all about you. Self care brings out your best; selfishness, your worst.
  2. That a woman’s workplace is different from a man’s. That a woman of color’s workplace is different than a white woman’s.
  3. Empathy has a key function in the museum workplace, and empathy doesn’t mean playing Ms. Fix It.
  4. That it’s important to understand your field of practice, whether it’s museums, archives, galleries or libraries. That studying your field as if it were a country you might visit is important. Learn the culture. Teach yourself who is powerful and why, and who is not powerful and why.
  5. That suffering and scarcity are not traditions that should be passed from one generation of museum workers to the next. Ridiculous schedules, pitiful salaries and job descriptions that read like indentured servitude are a form of hazing. Don’t take a job that requires another job to make you whole. See #4.
  6. That engaging with people in your workplace–regardless of age, race, position or gender– is important. It’s not a favor you do, it’s a learning experience. Sharing stories builds trust. See #s 4 and 12.
  7. That not all problems deserve the drama they receive. Stay in the present. Blame can wait. Solve the problem and move forward.
  8. A career needs to feed your soul, but it may not do that every day. Watch for side roads. They are slower, but the experience is entirely different. Be open to taking them.
  9. Stand up for your colleagues. Not standing up for them is selfish. See #1. You may be sure you’re not racist, classist, sexist, fattist, but remember the writer’s maxim: Show don’t tell. It’s not about your beliefs as much as your actions.
  10. Who told you you have to do everything perfectly, by yourself, the first time? Ask if you don’t understand or if you need help. Collaborating doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad colleague. It generates good ideas.
  11. One of the great joys of the museum workplace–indeed of any workplace– is learning. You aren’t an expert. You may know a lot, but there’s always someone who knows something more. #neverstoplearning.
  12. Don’t depend on fate or love or a mentor to orchestrate your career. It’s your career. Strategize for yourself the same way you would for an organization.
  13. Be kind.

Be well and stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


What a Moment of Grace Teaches Us

nevil zaveri – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nevilzaveri/2211600979/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29855988

We’ve all had enough Zoom, but weeks ago I agreed to be part of a panel discussion. I was one of four museum women asked to speak about gender in museums for a group of museum interns. I had a difficult week so when our Friday morning planning session rolled around I logged on without much thought about what might happen except a group of women slicing the intersectional pie regarding gender and race in the museum workplace. I anticipated a kind of cut and dried divvying up–five minutes on the gender pay gap, 10 minutes on sexual harassment, overlaid with time spent on museums as a pink collar profession, and on and on, while also trying not to make a field these interns might someday join sound too horrific. And besides, I thought I could encourage them to join the Gender Equity in Museums Movement, always a good thing.

I was wrong on all fronts. From the get go, our moderator was more interested in our own narratives and what we’d learned from them, then tidbits about navigating the museum workplace. After introductions and some background on the intern group, it suddenly occurred to me we’re wise, and if we suddenly turned the clock back, what would we say to our 22-year old selves? And that’s where we started. One of the panelists recalled how she’d chosen the path most expected. Each time the road forked she selected the way forward that seemed conventional and secure. Would she do that again? No. We talked about letting life, fate or some force beyond our control make choices for us. One of us recalled how when the worst thing happens–and maybe each of us has our own worst thing–it not only fills us with sadness, but it reframes all the small stuff. Even a world-wide pandemic isn’t quite as devastating when you’ve already visited your own pit of grief. We talked about how it felt to be bullied at work and the inexorable damage sexual harassment visits on a career. We referenced the fact that too many of us see a career’s beginning as a long, slow climb toward some pinnacle of success off in the distance, but how for many women there’s not a direct path, but a series of zigs, zags, sharp slopes, and the occasional deep dive. And one of us reminded the group that we’re all victims of other people’s imaginations, that trying endlessly to fit ourselves into someone else’s conception of us is exhausting, and headache-making.

So what made this such a breathtaking hour? I can’t speak for everyone, but not knowing one another might have helped. There was no posturing. There was humor and openness. There was a willingness to read the room in its weird Zoom squares. There was generosity, and thanks. There was, I think, grace.

One of the participants characterized museums as being the kid–probably the white, privileged kid– at the back of the room behaving like a jerk, but who never gets caught. And if he does, he deflects, letting us know it was simply a mistake, not in any way a series of deliberate choices that leave women of color navigating racism, all women navigating harassment and gender bias, and collections too often reflecting curators’ biases rather than communities they represent.

So here’s my take away: If we could come to work and leverage a little grace in our workplace what would that look like? I have filled these pages with how important it is for museum staff–indeed any staff–to be safe, seen, and supported. Grace nurtures empathy and compassion so colleagues feel valued and cared for. Those values breed happiness, which turns on creativity. And who doesn’t want all of that?

Grace is the place where wisdom, humor, empathy and compassion intersect. It is a practice, and museum workplaces could use more of it.

Be well.

Joan Baldwin


Aging and the Museum Workforce: Turning the Lens Inward

This week I received a copy of Museums and Creative Aging: A Healthful Partnership, 70 free, downloadable pages published by AAM. In a post-COVID world, you may have enough on your plate. After all, there’s reopening your site, decolonizing your collection, and the undoing decades of subtle and not so subtle systemic racism, not to mention summer’s frightening temperatures, drought and hurricanes, to remind us of climate change. Should you really have to worry about the over-55’s starting to populate your galleries and heritage sites once again? Well, no, you don’t have to, but you’ll miss out. For one thing Museums and Creative Aging is written by Marjorie Schwarzer. If you haven’t read her Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of the Museum in America, you should. She’s the real deal, a writer who can construct a great sentence, while also telling you what you need to know.

Schwarzer focuses on four areas, so if 14 months of lockdown has eroded your attention span, go directly to the Executive Summary where you’ll discover the report breaks down into four sections: Aging and Ageism in American Society; followed by chapters on Positive Aging, Case Studies, and Lessons Learned. It concludes with a call to action for the field. I read the first chapter on “Aging and Ageism” feeling a little aggrieved, convinced that Schwarzer wouldn’t mention the museum workplace or issues of gender. I was wrong. She gently, yet emphatically, makes the point that problems in society also show up in our boards of trustees, volunteer groups and offices. The chapter is peppered with unnerving data like the fact that by 2035 there will be more adults over 65 in the United States than children, not to mention that even though overall life expectancy for today’s children is still below 80, most, according to Brookings, will exceed that, many living into the next century. Schwarzer touches, however, briefly, on the fact that aging and gender are inextricably intwined–women generally live longer than men–that society’s focus on youthfulness pressures women in the workplace in ways men don’t experience, forcing women to conform to youthful stereotypes. And although she doesn’t directly reference it, the ongoing gender pay gap keeps women in the workforce longer than necessary were salaries more equitable.

While I understand and applaud the importance of this report, both in terms of what museums do and who they serve, I would love to see Schwarzer turn her lens toward the museum workplace. Yes, the museum world’s struggles represent many of the same struggles found in the American workplace writ large, but they are confounded by organizations and leadership who fail to put staff first, who fail to offer basic personnel policies, whose board members use their perceived personal power to take advantage of staff, and on and on. And, like other work sectors, many of our workplace problems–and leadership problems–aren’t one thing. They are, in fact, intersectional. For example, Schwarzer makes the point that many of today’s LGBTQ+ elders face additional struggles because they came of age when support systems were flimsy and role models non-existent. So if you’re a person of color, over 60, LGBTQ+, and identify as female, how many different pathways for hatred, fear or simple dismissal can you experience? And how does that affect your ability to come to work each day and be your best most productive self, wherever you work in a museum or heritage organization? And as a leader, how do you make sure a person whose identity is varied and intersectional–an individual many say they want on their teams–is safe, seen and supported?

Maybe it’s just me, but almost daily I experience a schism in the museum world. On the one hand there are angry, hurt, demeaned museum workers, whose stories appear on @changethemuseum and in commentary from Museum Workers Speak, the Equity Coalition, Museum Hue, and GEMM. Those support/special interest groups, and there are more, all formed in the last decade in an effort to address particular issues within the 135,000 museum workforce. (Just an FYI, that figure is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2021. It represents an increase over January 2021, but still lags significantly behind December of 2019 when the number was 177,200.) Yet when many of those same folks come together tomorrow for AAM’s annual meeting, will there be a focus on workplace issues? There are a million problems (not to mention successes) affecting museums and heritage organizations from the outside, all in need of understanding, but wouldn’t it be helpful to turn the lens on staff once in a while? To draw on the expertise of all the people working to support museum workers wherever and whoever they are? Just a thought.

Suddenly it’s summer. Stay well, stay cool, and be kind.

Joan Baldwin


The George Floyd Anniversary: The Need to Re-center and Learn to be the Unintended Audience

Searching for Slavery Class on the Cesar Family’s former property, Sharon, CT. Photo Courtesy of Rhonan Mokriski

Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to pause and reflect, what we see are intersections. That’s what happened to me this week. It’s a year since George Floyd was murdered, 12 months for many of us spent on re-centering, on understanding that seeing ourselves as nice and not racist was never enough, and that in a world where white is “normal” and everything else is “other,” action is necessary for change. And change, however small or local, is still change. So on the eve of the George Floyd anniversary, I had the honor of listening to a group of high school students report from their 20/21 history class. Although, like everything else these days, the presentation took place on Zoom, in reality, it took place at Salisbury School, an independent boys boarding school in northwestern Connecticut, and in local archives, hiking trails and towns in Litchfield County, CT.

If you spend time around high school students, yours or someone else’s, you quickly realize teenage boys and history aren’t always a natural fit. This class was titled “Searching for Slavery in Salisbury,” and taught by Rhonan Mokriski. What I witnessed was the premiere of the student film “Coloring Our Past,” which focuses on local Black history and the Cesar family in particular, but also on the way the boys learned American history in elementary and middle school. After the screening, there was a discussion where the students and viewers like me were joined by members of the Cesar family including their matriarch and family historian, Katherine Overton.

Ms. Overton’s family has the distinction of being able to trace its roots back five generations in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut to Overton’s fifth great grandfather, Timothy, who fought in the Revolutionary War, and Titus, who is buried in Town Hill Cemetery, Lakeville, CT. If you’ve watched any of Henry Louis Gates’ series Finding Your Roots you know how rare it is for a Black family to have a history that doesn’t dead-end in enslavement. The Cesars are that family, landowners, farmers, and business people, who sent Rae Ellen Williams to Howard University in 1936, launching their descendants away from the tiny pocket of Connecticut where they’d lived for generations.

As important as that narrative is, much of it researched by Overton herself, that’s not what made the Thursday evening Zoom so distinctive. First, it was the privilege of listening to Overton’s family. On the Zoom screen were tiny grandchildren, teens who had helped with some of the filming, cousins, sons and daughters. There was a lot of laughter, and a few tears. Even though we were outsiders, we were present for their reaction to a film about their family, a gift to them, but also for us as witnesses. After a year marked by a murder seen around the world, here were 10 minutes of reparation shared when a high school history class attempted to undo the missteps of standard American social studies, not to mention your basic All-American racism and implicit bias.

This week on Krista Tibbet’s “On Being,”former poet laureate Tracy Smith talks about asking white readers to observe, listen, eavesdrop and reflect. One of the things she says is “As a Black person in America — as anyone who’s not white, in America — you know what it feels like to be the unintended audience of something and to have to bend your ears in a certain way to accept and deal properly with a statement that isn’t intended for you but that implicates you in some way. This is a skill. And this is a skill that it’s time for those in the community of whiteness to embrace, because, like I said, I think the salvation of our culture — and I don’t really think that’s an exaggerated term — depends on that kind of expanded awareness of self, of place, of where we are and what we’re doing here together.” I can’t speak for everyone on the Zoom, but I became a listener to a history I had no active part in, and yet I couldn’t help but think how the threads of my own family narrative and others like mine imprinted families like the Cesars.

The second thing that was so powerful was that this was history in action. A lot of museum folk talk about making history real, but too often that means actor-like guides or labels filled with questions rather than facts. I doubt any of the boys in the class will become historians, but I bet 50 years from now they will still be able to recall their feelings when they hiked to George Cesar’s farm site with their classmates and a metal detector or when they placed a Witness Stone dedicated to writer and abolitionist, James Mars on the Green in nearby Norfolk, CT and were greeted by Connecticut’s first Black Congresswoman Jahana Hayes. They didn’t just learn history, they were historians. They were participants.

There is a line in Allen Bennett’s play The History Boys that goes, “How do I define history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another.” This class, their film, the witness stone, and the other place-based work they did, took them away from learning the long list of stories we call history by making them story tellers, changing them from passive to active. Did they get a five on their AP U.S. history? I don’t know, and honestly I don’t care because they have an experience of doing history which is very different from studying for the AP.

I don’t work in a history museum or historic site any more, and since the collection I manage is largely art-based, I rarely do history exhibits. But if there is a lesson here, it’s what experiential educators the world over know: That we remember what we do, more than what we’re told. There are many museums and heritage organizations that help visitors understand history not as something they read on the walls, but in personal ways, making them part of the narrative. Think of Eastern State Penitentiary’s opening question, Old Salem Museum & Garden’s Hidden Town Project or the way Matilda Joslyn Gage’s house chose not to be another suffocating collection of 19th-century furniture, and instead asks visitors to talk about complicated questions surrounding religion, Indigenous people and women’s rights.

Burbling beneath the surface of American public education is an ongoing argument some have termed “the social studies wars,” pitting those who see teaching history as an opportunity to delve into the country’s complicated past, opposite those who think the “The 1619 Project” is dangerous and divisive. No matter who’s right, there is a generation who are abysmally ignorant about democracy in general and American democracy in particular. So many of our museums and heritage organizations, whether the proverbial wealthy white man’s home, the site of a social experiment or a memorial to carnage and disaster, offer us a window into how people thought and what they thought about. Those are bridges to conversation about how we reached this moment, to a group of high school boys, who learned a version of local history that left everyone out who wasn’t white.

At the end of the Searching for Slavery Zoom someone asked Rhonan Mokriski what he thought. He wiped his eyes, struggling to keep his emotions under control. After thanking everyone, from Katherine Overton and her family to his students and his school, he said he thought he saw change. That maybe, just maybe, this generation would be the doers and the change makers. It was a spark of hope at the end of a long year.

Sometimes it’s better to make change where we can then to rail at the world. As museum and heritage organization people, what can we do to follow these students’ example?

Be well.

Joan Baldwin


Is Lack of Self-Care Another Form of Scarcity Mindset?

Sks811, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22767515

How many of us know a museum where the mantra–even in this post-COVID reawakening–is one of can’t, meaning an absence of resources prevents the organization from changing? It’s a mindset that’s riddled museums and heritage organizations for decades, often those founded in a great rush of concern around preserving a particular building, event or individual collection. What begins as promise, excitement, and hope devolves into a culture of “Well we can’t (you fill in the verb here) because this is the way we’ve always done it.” The result is museums turned inward rather than out, clinging to the familiar rather than walking a path toward change. In this kind of culture, struggle and sacrifice become virtues. Doing without, frenetically working to maintain a mediocrity no one cares about becomes the norm, inverting healthy museum behavior. Instead, work becomes a virtue, and in the worst cases, a loyalty test. It’s brutal, and it’s unhealthy both organizationally and individually.

Don’t get me wrong. Even paranoids have enemies. As the country emerges from the pandemic and the concurrent economic downturn, many museums and heritage organizations, opening their doors for the first time, have more than enough PTSD to go around. And, if we’re to believe AAM’s studies, one in three of them will find themselves working through the myriad state regulations in order to close rather than grow. But one of COVID’s counter-intuitive blessings is that it’s given all of us a hinge moment, a fork in the road, an opportunity to ditch what didn’t work and start again differently.

Do you work in an organization where scarcity is the love language? How has it affected you? And by that I don’t mean are you underpaid or under-benefited? That’s another blog post. What I mean is has that culture started to affect you as a person? Have you developed a kind of “Don’t worry about me, if I fall, I fall” philosophy? How’s that working for you? When you read yet another piece about self care, do you secretly think, “Well, that’s not for us. We simply have too much on our plate?”

And yet who among us doesn’t benefit from a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition, close friends, great music, laughter, you name it, all the things that refresh, recharge and sustain us. And sustaining us–leaders and their museum, archive and heritage teams–is key to building organizations better able to respond, rebuild, and change now we’ve arrived at the post-COVID fork in the road. So if you’re a leader of a museum or leading a museum team or program, consider the following:

  • Do away with running on empty and acknowledge the importance of time spent on self: Spend five minutes in a staff meeting and ask everyone to report one thing they’ve done that counts as self-care.
  • Are you and your team drinking enough? No, not the after work kind, the hydration kind. Sounds dumb, but adults often don’t drink enough. Hydration affects mood, memory and attention. Many sites have closed water fountains because of COVID. Sitting down for a meeting? Provide water.
  • Vacation: Make it happen. No need to reiterate that it’s been a difficult and challenging year. For many Summer 2020 was either spent worrying in Zoom meetings or trying (and failing) to open or reopen. Americans are among the most overworked people in the world. If your organization offers paid vacation, make sure you (and your team)take what’s coming to them.
  • Don’t forget to mentor or just engage with colleagues. Research shows that helping others, being empathetic, engaging in active listening as opposed to quick fixes, helps you as well.
  • Take a moment: It’s almost summer. Go outside. As masks come off, plenty of folks are still experiencing COVID anxiety. Having a walking meeting or meeting outside may do your team a world of good.
  • Don’t forget about you. It’s easy for leaders to model behavior they don’t actually follow themselves–to ask after their team’s well being, to empathize, to advocate for personal time, to make sure they leave in time for the final soccer game, kindergarten graduation, whatever, but harder to advocate for themselves. Try not to leave yourself out. There’s no virtue in a leader who’s chronically tired and emotionally drained.

Staying at work for 12-hour days is not a guarantee of productivity. Sometimes we just need to press pause. We all contribute–to our relationships, workplaces, and families–and to be good contributors we need to care for ourselves. That means making time to stop. A colleague, who’s a busy parent to three small humans, told me one of her new practices is rather than saying “Oh crap, I need to clean the bathroom,” she now sets her timer for 15 minutes, and does as much cleaning as she can before the timer goes off. That can work for self care too. Take 15 minutes and do what you need to do even if it’s nothing. You’ll be better for it, and maybe you’ll start to break the facade of self-sacrifice at your organization.

Be well, stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


The Leadership Agenda: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Photokid261, http://www.sunkiddance.de – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37691522

It is more than a decade since Anne Ackerson and I started working on Leadership Matters (2012), and so much is very, very different. We have long since ceased being the only voices calling for leadership reform in museums and heritage organizations. There are innumerable virtual and actual groups, supporting museum workers, and calling for change. The eight organizations operating under the Collective Liberation mantle are awesome examples of new groups doing great work. And that’s wonderful. One thing that remains the same, however, is leadership itself, how it’s taught and how it’s learned personally, organizationally, and through service organizations and in graduate programs.

Years ago I served on AAM’s annual meeting program committee. The year I participated, Anne and I also had a session proposal before the committee. That meant I had to leave the room during its discussion. Our session squeaked through, but not without comments on whether talking about museum work was really what AAM’s annual meeting was about. I am eternally grateful to the voices in the room who pushed our session through. Not because we needed to speak, but because the field needs to examine the way it works, and museum and heritage organization workers need AAM’s support–if only tacitly–in knowing talking about work is important. Change can’t happen until we acknowledge the problem. And talking about workplace issues is an acknowledgement that all is not Nirvana in museumland.

As I’ve mentioned many times here, Anne and I teach a course on museum leadership in Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies program. Hopkins is one of many museum studies master’s programs, but I’ll wager it is among a much smaller group offering leadership courses as part of museum studies. And there is an even tinier group that actually makes leadership a lynch pin of their programs. Why? I do not know. There are decades of examples of both great museum leadership and the truly horrific kind to remind us it isn’t just the collections or the historic buildings that make a great museum. It’s leadership.

Perhaps it’s not true any more, but for decades people were drawn to museum work because of the stuff: the art, the historic buildings, the textiles, the science, sculpture, jewelry, technology and pottery. What other career gives you the privilege of immersing yourself in creativity, invention, and discovery, in other places and times, as teacher, scholar or interpreter? And yet, if you’re successful, you quickly find yourself distanced from the very objects that attracted you in the first place. Instead, you manage people, people with needs, workplace quirks, illness, small children, elderly relations, and strident beliefs. It’s a different ballgame, and it’s leadership warts and all.

Leadership is about human relationships. You may find yourself as a leader at work, but a follower in the organization where you volunteer. Or the reverse may be true. No matter which side of the equation you sit on, leader or follower, it’s a truth you experience. Because of that, fixing what’s wrong belongs to all of us. It’s not the sole job of unions or boards of trustees, AAM, AASLH or AAMD. Each of us has a role, and a contribution to make, and unless and until there is a moment when museum governance as we currently know it ends, to be replaced by something completely different, then no single entity can wave a wand and end decades of genteel racism, gender stereotyping, patriarchal behavior and on and on. That’s why both volumes of Leadership Matters end with a Leadership Agenda, a list of directives for individuals, institutions, professional organizations, graduate programs and funders. Here is a sampling from each category:

  • For Individuals: Seek opportunities to take new leadership responsibility in order to grow and expand skills. Practice new learning whenever you can. Prepare for serendipity.
  • For Institutions: Realize that it is not your job to maintain the status quo. The job of institutions and their leaders is to make a difference.
  • For Professional Associations: Insist on competitive, equitable pay and benefits to attract and retain great staff, institutional support of the emerging leader and the lone professional, and diversification of governing boards.
  • For Graduate Programs: Create programs specifically for leadership development.
  • For Funders: Promote hiring practices that eradicate exclusion, champion equity in hiring, promotion, access to leadership opportunities through collaboration with graduate programs and allied associations.

If solving the museum world’s leadership problems is something you care about, there are many more, and they are worth taking a look at. You can find the entire Leadership Revolution Agenda above. Which brings me to this: In December I plan to end this blog. I started it to promote our first edition of Leadership Matters in 2013, and it has challenged me, stretched me, helped me think things through, and, I hope, helped some of you as you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the museum workplace. In the next six months, if there are topics you wish I’d write about, let me know. And if there is an blog post in your brain bursting to get out, let me know as well. Leadership Matters has a tradition of hosting guest bloggers so send a writing sample and your ideas.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, be kind.

Joan Baldwin


Performance and Productivity: Is Your Process Outdated?

Lewis G P – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//39/media-39385/large.jpgThis is photograph Q 28232 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24196900

It’s not a secret that I’m pretty Type A. I’m a list maker. My lists sprout sublists like weeds. I like to do things in order. The strikeout feature makes my heart go pitter pat. I’m a planner, and I always have a Plan B, and sometimes a C or D. But, surprise, surprise, that’s not the way everyone works.

These days– in my world at least– it is performance review season, the time of year when leaders try to knit together organizational mission with a job’s essential functions and, most importantly, with the actual human assigned to make them a reality. That is, of course, where the rubber meets the road. Job descriptions are written for unicorns, folks who don’t have bad days, baggage, health issues or workplace conflicts. Yet somehow, as leaders, when doing performance reviews, we need to figure out how all these paths intersect, while also bearing in mind that for the last 12 months or longer many staff have worked at home in their fuzzy slippers, interacting with colleagues infrequently except on a screen. It’s a tall order.

Like many things in the museum workplace, performance reviews are a vestige from another time and another place. They percolated into the museum and nonprofit world from business. There, they were–and in many places still are– boss-driven, and often used to negotiate raises or promotions, making it less about job performance per se then a given staff member’s negotiating skills. Given our post-pandemic world, the idea of museum staff meeting with their director or team leader annually to negotiate a raise as if that were normal is a little laughable . But are leaders still evaluating performance every 12 months? Maybe it’s time to re-think that model?

A number of big companies have moved away from annual one-on-one meetings with “the boss” in favor of team feedback from a selected group of colleagues. A team member identifies their group of feedback providers. They are approved by their leader, and over the course of a year, they offer feedback often as part of project postmortems. Comments are candid, face-to-face, and yet highly structured. Oh, and one more thing: all feedback is equally weighted. Yup, your leader, your co-worker, and your partner from another department all offer equal comments. So that’s life in a gazillion dollar company like Google or Netflix. What about where you work?

The first question: Do you do performance evaluations or not? If not, why not? Not enough time? Or does it seem like you’re in touch with your team so frequently you don’t feel the need? If you do, is it a once-a-year meeting? And what’s the goal? Is there a complicated alchemy that involves braiding museum mission, essential job functions and individual performance together? Or is it–God forbid–a brief session that opens with praise and ends with scolding? And how do you evaluate those with repetitive tasks? Unlike, say, Google–or at least the way I imagine work at Google–there’s a lot about library, archives, and museum work that has a Cinderella-like quality. It’s never done. You gather community advisors, and create a program. You implement, evaluate and then do it again. Ditto for collections where stuff arrives, it’s processed, catalogued, conserved, stored, before the process repeats. The way people do these tasks is entirely individual, and yet the goals are collective.

If you’re doing performance evaluations now or plan to do them in the future, here are some things to consider:

  • This remains a challenging time. Consider using the performance review process to touch base with the fundamentals like your organizational mission statement, your value statement, your departmental goals. Hopefully your discussion will help staff see themselves as an integral part of a larger whole, not someone about to be “gotcha-ed” after a year of fast pivoting.
  • Talk about individual goals. The last 12 months have tried us all. Work was disrupted. What new muscles has your team developed? Patience? Compassion? Empathy? Collaboration?
  • Talk about DEI. Was your organization part of the wave of museums, archives and galleries who wrote anti-racist statements post George Floyd? How did that play out in real life? Individually and museum-wide? Did it affect your staff or not? Why?
  • Recognize and grapple with your own biases–not just about race, and gender, although those are huge, but also about work style. If you are a list-maker like me, evaluating the performance of a last-minute, by-the-seat-of-the-pants high performer, can you set your own work style aside? It’s not the model with everything else as “other.” It’s simply the easiest way for you to work, but clearly it’s not the preferred style for everyone on your team.
  • Ask what are the top three things your team member would like to change in the coming year?
  • Say thank you.
  • If the entire job performance review process seems hinky and unwieldy, consider a re-evaluation for next year.

One last thought. No one likes the uncomfortable conversations around poor performance, but it is unfair and inequitable to fail to be transparent when work consistently goes wrong. Your staff feel as though they never get things right, which is punishing. People want to come to work, do a good job, and be recognized for doing a good job. It’s hard to do that if the guard rails for “good” performance are mushy or keep changing. However you choose to do performance evaluations–as a team, as an individual–make sure the expectations are clear. Your staff will thank you.

Be well. Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin