If 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.
It’s been six years since we published Leadership Matters. When we wrote the original version, Anne Ackerson and I were concerned about the lack of attention paid to leadership in the museum field, particularly in history and cultural heritage organizations. There was a notion that through some office magic or, simply, inertia, individuals became leaders, and if they didn’t, mediocrity was fine; in fact, mediocrity was better than change. Little, if any, investment was made in human capital. You became a director and the rest was up to you. The motto was sink or swim, and not everybody looked graceful in the pool. What we learned, however, was leadership wasn’t some in-born trait, miraculously recognized by search committees. Instead, it was a commitment to self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision, with an ongoing undercurrent of reflection and experimentation.
Now it’s 2019 and we’ve just published a new edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. It’s curious, exciting, and remarkable how much things have changed in such a short time. In 2013, our concerns were internal: a field that was at best negligent about training and developing its leaders, failing to acknowledge that a content-driven education did not necessarily prepare an individual for coping with the foibles of a board and a staff or the public. Today, those concerns remain, but there are huge external pressures as well: rapid-fire communication, communities — from staff to stakeholders — who require a voice, especially those traditionally underserved or ignored, and need to see themselves somewhere inside a museum. Otherwise the work doesn’t matter because without community connection museums are just warehouses of things.
Today’s leaders still possess the four characteristics we identified in 2013: self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision. That hasn’t changed, but the world has, and our nine new interviewees, LaTanya Autry, Cheryl Blackman, Karen Carter, Sean Kelly, Lisa Lee, Azuka MuMin, Franklin Vagnone, Hallie Winter, and Jorge Zamanillo, all approach their jobs from a different space. Gone are the days of sage-on-a-stage leadership. These leaders are collaborators, relationship builders, empathizers.
Both versions of Leadership Matters end with “10 Simple Truths,” common sense practices from all 36 interviewees about leadership:
- Get invested: As interviewee Christy Coleman wrote, “Museums are not neutral space. We may not be activists, but we’re not neutral. If your community is in crisis and you’re an institution that has the resources to add to that conversation to bring it out of crisis, you are failing if you’re not actively involved in the needs of your community.”
- Be a trust builder: Museums succeed on the relationships they build in their communities, on their staffs, on their boards. It’s that simple. Relationships matter. So do words. And deeds.
- Embrace the greater good: Leaders are the moral compass for their institutions. Don’t check your values at the door, bring them to work. Every day.
- Create a candid culture: Honesty underpins trust.
- Up your frequency: Listen, listen, listen, and remember to get out of your office and know who you serve. As interviewee Azuka MuMin puts it: “Leadership has taught me who I am as a person, vulnerable and exposed, and the better I know myself, the better I am able to lead.”
- Learn and grow together: Leadership is a process. It’s learning. Invest in your people whether they are board members, volunteers or staff, leaders or followers.
- Get integrated: Read widely, think across spectrums. Who or what adds to your institutional narrative?
- Tap your entire network: It’s not all about you. Growing a museum is about being open to possibility.
- Commit to leadership: Leadership matters. Invest in your staff, give them the tools to become leaders. Good leaders are problem solvers and collaborators. They’re also good followers.
- Be accountable: Take the heat. Move forward. Don’t play the blame game. You’re a leader for a reason.
For those of you who will be at the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting this week in Philadelphia, we will see you there. And if you’d like a copy of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord, we’d be happy to sign it for you, Thursday, August 29, from 3:00-4:00 pm at the Rowman & Littlefield booth in the Exhibit Hall. In the meantime, lead well, with courage, empathy, and vision. And if you see any of our interviewees in Philadelphia this week, be sure to stop and thank them.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
Along with 999 or so folks, we’re back from Kansas City, MO and AASLH’s Annual Meeting. There we caught up with old friends, celebrated change in the history museum field, and bemoaned the state of the world. Some of us enjoyed some Kansas City barbecue too.
Leadership Matters went–in part–to lead the annual Leadership Forum. One of a number of pre-conference workshops, the Forum, as distinct from the History Leadership Institute which happens in November, is a four-hour intensive on one or more aspects of leadership. This one moved from the broad-based to the particular, from organizational to personal, covering three big topics: Empathy & Equity in the Workplace; Staff as Assets or Liabilities; and finally, a look at Career Alignment and Choices.
The empathy and equity section asked participants to define the two words, to address how and where they were found at participants’ museums and sites, and whether it’s possible for a workplace to have empathy without the equity. Section two addressed questions of staff: Whether boards, CFOs, and EDs look at staff and see a great, yawning cavern of salaries, benefits and issues or whether they see creative, entrepreneurial folk devoted to the organization and each other. The last section was based on a personal career narrative, and asked participants to think about their own museum practice. Questions like what are your career constants, what makes you happy, what do you want to create circulated around the room. The group also talked about kick-in-the-pants career change, how upending it is, and how sometimes it brings great joy.
Here are some completely unscientific observations:
- Gone are the days where history museum leaders haven’t got a clue about leadership. They get it. They may lead fraught, overwhelmed lives, but they get it.
- History museum professionals don’t press the pause button often enough.
- Some history museum leaders spend too much time alone.
- Talking about why we do what we do is as important–if not more so–than talking about how we do it.
- Pay equity makes some leaders nervous and fires up others.
- Based on listening to this room of 30 individuals, too few think intentionally about their careers with any regularity.
- A lot of people seem to think once they are parents or partnered or both, their careers are stuck.
- The vast majority of the room seemed to feel they have audience empathy knocked. Empathy on the back stage side–for staff, board and volunteers–appears trickier.
- Brene Brown’s short video on the differences between empathy and sympathy was a fan favorite.
- Best line: A participant telling her supervisor she was quitting. “I have one short, precious life, and it’s too short and too precious to work for you.” The original included a strategically placed f-bomb which gave the whole sentence a lot of zing.
As we told the roomful of leaders, it was an honor to participate. Although admittedly this was a self-selected group, people seem to embrace leadership at all levels. By that we mean the doing of leading, not seeing the director’s position as a conclusion. And that’s a blessing. While there is always work to do–especially back stage, especially on workplace race and gender issues–without sounding too Pollyanna-like, it feels as though there’s finally a sea change taking hold on the leadership front.
This week Leadership Matters spoke on Women in the Museum at the Small Museum Association conference in College Park, MD. Actually we did less talking and more listening. While women in the museum workforce are often acutely aware of inequities–whether compensation, promotion, mentoring–they consistently battle boards, HR departments and museum leadership who act as though gender equity isn’t a problem or at least not a problem they need to devote time to.
Because we believe we are all change makers, we asked our audience to break into groups and respond to questions about how their own organizations advance gender equity. What followed was a lively discussion. When groups reported out, three topics predominated: salary inequity, salary negotiation, and the ever-present issues of childcare and the workplace.
In no particular order, here are some things that struck us:
- Museum women still fail to negotiate and they consistently underestimate their abilities. We know that failing to possess all the qualifications for a particular job does not stop men from applying, but it does stop women. Moreover, we know that in the world of work 57-percent of men negotiate for their first salary versus 5-percent of women. Men attribute their success to themselves; women attribute their success to others or a lucky break.
- Even without a transparent salary scale or salary bands, it’s an open secret that many museum salaries border on the unlivable. This is why it’s important to believe in your own worth, to use the Living Wage calculator, and to negotiate from the beginning.
- Women still shoulder the bulk of housework and childcare. This complicates their work life so that it becomes a ridiculous and ongoing internal struggle about how to negotiate parenthood and career. This complicated struggle causes women to delay career advancement in order to get past the early childhood years.
- We aren’t always each other’s biggest supporters, as women or as humans. Most women in our audience recognized the importance of both mentoring and a personal posse or kitchen cabinet. (Those are friends and colleagues who listen to you, but are clear-eyed enough to tell you when you’re wrong or you’re behaving like a jerk.) But few could point to bosses or boards who acknowledge gender issues–not to mention gender complicated by race and gender identity–as a career impediment.
If you are a museum leader or worker is gender equity your problem? You bet it is. Your colleagues, your team, your department and your organization are your problem. You don’t get to wring your hands and moan about the lack of diversity in the museum workforce when you’re not actively working to raise salaries so museum workers don’t need well-off partners or parents to make ends meet. You don’t get to pontificate about how important it is for museums to engage with their communities if you fail to acknowledge the very real and complex issues of 46.7-percent of your workforce. And you don’t get to whine about millennials and their attitudes toward work if you aren’t actively mentoring, guiding and advising the next generation.
Stellar organizations are value driven organizations. They put the most diverse group at the table they can, and treat staff as equitably as possible. Museum workers who are treated equitably are happy, and happy humans are creative humans. What organization doesn’t want that?
Above: Old Salem President Frank Vagnone doing his own bit of hands-on learning
at the museum.
While my position is “Curator,” it’s for a school not a museum so a lot of daily museum life passes me by. Recently, though, I visited Franklin Vagnone, in Winston Salem, NC. Frank is one of my heroes, a museum thought leader who is generous, truthful, and authentic. For those of you who don’t know, Frank is President of Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a position he’s held for just about a year. Frank also runs Twisted Preservation his cultural consulting firm, work that takes him around the world, thinking, talking, and quite literally shaking up traditional stand-behind-the-rope sorts of historic house interpretation. (And if you are a historic site person, and haven’t read his book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums you should probably order it. Today.)
Anyway, part of the fun of visiting museum colleagues on their home turf is you get to be a tourist with the best of all possible guides: the museum leader. The weather was beautiful, and Old Salem is ridiculously picturesque, but better than all of that there were close to 1,000 school children on site, accompanied by parents, teachers and younger siblings. It was awesome. Surrounded by shouts of “It smells good in here!” and “Look at this!,” it reminded me why I got into this business in the beginning. And looking back on being engulfed in nine year olds busy folding laundry and trying to make a rope bed—the barriers in the Old Salem Brother’s House are gone—it made me grateful to be a museum person or at least part of the wider museum community.
We’ve talked about some dark stuff on these pages: sexual harassment; workplace bullying; bad boards; and most recently, the trials of searching for a job in a way too crowded field. But at heart, and I can’t speak for all of you, it’s a field we love. And part of why we love it is that sharing is fun, whether it’s sharing knowledge–how did people without electricity read in bed?–or sharing experience–folding a large linen shirt isn’t as easy as it looks—or sharing an explanation–like why static electricity makes your hair stand up–or looking for answers: Why do an artist’s brush strokes move in one direction and not the other? That joint search for answers, whether it’s with excited elementary students or committed and curious adults, is a journey worth taking. So here are my top five reasons to be grateful for being in this field:
- I get to work, meet, and speak with some truly fabulous humans, who challenge and change the museum world.
- Being in a museum, as opposed to being on the Internet, means being in the presence of something real. That brings its own awesomeness.
- Being in the museum world means we’re often in the presence of beauty, and it’s ours to care for as best we can.
- The objects, art, scientific discoveries, even the plants and animals we care for, all have stories, and it’s an honor to share stories with the public.
- Museums are metaphors for so much else. Each well-worn spinning wheel, each deKooning sketch, each set of medical instruments is a window into another place and moment. We’re the bridge, and that’s a great place to be.
Does this field make you grateful? Why?
We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”
Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”
He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.
When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.
Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.
One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees?
Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite
It’s Memorial Day weekend. It’s Wild Bill Hickok’s birthday. And it’s definitely not a beach day here in the northeast. With some gray days ahead, we thought about this blog. The last several Leadership Matters posts tackled our impressions of AAM, organizational DNA, and diversity vs. salary. This week we return to the workplace, and more specifically the meeting.
I work in a large organization. Embedded in its institutional DNA is the need to meet. We do a lot of meeting. We meet in pairs. We meet in groups, Charged with solving a problem, we meet regularly over long periods of time. Occasionally these meetings are sprightly; many are not. Some of our meetings are scheduled weeks, even months in advance. If your organization schedules far ahead, make sure meetings can be canceled if there’s no need to meet. Going to a meeting just because it’s on the calendar to listen to colleagues banter about nothing is its own special hell.
And for those of you charged with managing meetings, here are six ways to make your meetings better:
- Use the flipped classroom method: If you want to make sure everyone’s on the same page, provide a reading the day before. This is not a graduate level course, so make it pithy and brief. Don’t ask people to read something only to neglect it the next day. Use it as a catalyst for discussion. And while you’re sending things out, send out your agenda. This will help organize your thoughts and objectives.
- And speaking of your agenda, stick to it: This may seem self-evident, but how many of us have been in meetings where the agenda is something to doodle on or worse, talking points for the meeting leader who never, ever shuts up except to ask if anyone has any questions. Few do.
- Tell people where you want to go: This is different from an agenda. Your agenda contains discussion points, your objective is what you want to accomplish. You can’t blame staff for not getting things done if you don’t tell them what they need to do.
- Don’t ask for discussion if your mind is already made up: Being in a meeting where it’s clear the leader has pre-digested all the information and only wants an audience of eager handmaidens wastes everyone’s time. It’s also disrespectful. Don’t be that leader. Instead….
- Encourage debate: We’ve talked about this a lot on these pages. Debate and discussion are healthy. Your staff, team or department (and you, the leader) need to know that discussion doesn’t equal hostility, that all voices have value, and help make a better collective concept. Take a page from Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, who reputedly asks staff to argue two opposing points.
- Leave with an action plan: Meetings that end without an action plan are worthless. Staff should understand what they accomplished, where they need to go next, and what is expected of them.
Last, as a leader, the main thing you can do in a meeting is shut-up. JUST LISTEN. Keep discussion on point and moving forward, but for goodness sakes, don’t pontificate. You will learn a lot. In the meantime, you will demonstrate respect for your colleague’s ideas, foster healthy debate, and hopefully leave with a feeling of accomplishment. You hired smart staff, right? Well, point them in the right direction and let creativity happen.
This past week marked Equal Pay Day (April 4) when museum women, along with working women across the United States, finally made as much as their male colleagues did in 2016. Yes, you read that right: It takes an additional four months and three days for women to make as much money as men do in a year.
But it’s actually worse than that.
According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), April 4 is when white women who are not actively parenting catch up. It is another seven weeks for working mothers. The dates for Black women, Native American women, and Latina women are July 31, September 25, and November 2 respectively.
Women make up half the national workforce. In museums, art galleries and historical sites, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting (2016), 41-percent of museum employees are women. Nationally, full-time female workers make 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. If you possess a newly-minted masters degree in museum studies, that fateful 20-percent difference may not seem like much when weighed against a first job offer, the chance to work in a field you love, not to mention the opportunity to grapple with your student debt. But it’s a big deal. According to the National Women’s Law Center, based on today’s figures, over the course of a woman’s career, she will lose approximately $418,000 in wages significantly affecting her retirement, and her Social Security will be almost $4,000 less annually than a man of the same age.
Across the board—including museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens—women are paid less. Whether your organization has a transparent salary scale or not–and few non-governmental museums do–this isn’t a myth. A quick glance at Association of Art Museum Directors’ salary information for 2015-2017 or AAM’s salary survey will provide the information you need. And by women we don’t mean only white women receiving 20-percent less than their white male colleagues. Black women’s median earnings are 63.3 cents of white men’s, while Hispanic women earn 54.4 percent. Transgender women–if they are hired at all–are at the bottom of the pay-day food chain.
These problems are compounded in the museum world because salaries are traditionally low, and expectations are high. You are expected to hold a master’s degree; you are expected to have had some experience, and museums and heritage organizations are frequently located in the high-rent district, meaning if you want to live close to work, your living expenses may be higher than normal. Last, and by no means least, the museum world has been rife with complaints (and rightfully so) over the last five years about how white its workforce is. But rarely, if ever, is the field’s lack of diversity attributed to its poor salaries. With a wealth of career choices, why should college-educated woman of color join the museum field only to make less than their white female colleagues who are already making less than men?
So, what are you, as a museum leader supposed to do about what is clearly a nation-wide problem? Here are some suggestions:
- Even if you didn’t do the hiring, know what your staff makes.
- Graph your salaries by gender and race. Discuss the results with your HR director and the personnel committee of your board. If need be, see if you can get a commitment to level the playing field.
- Depending on the size of your organization, consider being more transparent about wages. If your board’s personnel committee and HR can’t stomach an open salary scale, how about salary bands?
- Post wages, or at a minimum, a salary band when jobs open.
- Work to eliminate bias from the hiring process. That includes not only assumptions about race and gender, but also the big elephant in every interview that a woman of child-bearing age will not be as productive as a man of the same age.
- Work to provide paid family leave.
- If you are able to make and live by some of the changes above, be open about it. Let the world know. Most women know they make less than men. Working for an organization that acknowledges that fact and is making change is a good thing.
Great museums, regardless of size or budget, are staffed by smart, imaginative folks who make smart, imaginative decisions not just for the public but for their staffs. Those are the folks you want working for you. Be a leader in pay equity. Be the place they want to work.
A colleague of mine is not happy. Her distress has nothing to do with her home life except perhaps that a dismal work situation affects life at home. Were she asked, she would describe work as a place absent respect, transparency, challenge, and perhaps honesty. But she isn’t asked. It’s no wonder she isn’t happy. Sadly, she’s not alone.
Recently Gallup released its State of the American Workplace Survey. Gallup looked at four levels of employee needs: basic needs, individual needs, teamwork and personal growth needs. Basic needs provide the training and context to allow employees to perform their best. This creates trust which in turn spurs teamwork, resulting in personal growth. Gallup posits that knowing what you’re supposed to do is a basic workplace need. That seems like a no-brainer, but in small museums or heritage organizations, particularly when millennials replace longtime employees, there is an assumption that the new hire will do whatever the old hire did. The elephant in the room is that sometimes no one really understands what the outgoing employee did, everyone just knows it got done. My colleague has never seen her job description. Left to figure out things on her own, she’s found herself frequently in possession of half the information making her work very frustrating.
You would think that if American workers were angry or dissatisfied, bored or disengaged, it might be because we work too hard. Or because we don’t make enough money. You’d be wrong on both counts. According to Gallup, if you’re among the 51-percent of disengaged American workers, it’s likely because you have a bad boss. Is it really possible that just over half of the country’s employees works for a less than able leader? Apparently. And guess what else bad bosses do? They create unhappy employees. How does this happen? Gallup reports that too often companies promote based on tenure–meaning you’ve been around a long time (Do I hear Millennials sighing out there?) or were successful in previous jobs. Neither of those things mean you were (ever) a good leader.
What does any of this have to do with museums? A lot. Our world is not so sacrosanct that we don’t have a few bad bosses of our own. Museums also sometimes promote based on accomplishments rather than demonstrated leadership skills; the Metropolitan Museum may be the most notable current example, but there are certainly others. Fortunately, the museum world has Joyful Museums. It’s the brainchild of Marieke Van Damme. She’s a museum leader by day, but she’s worked on Joyful Museums since 2013. And every year Joyful Museums takes the field’s temperature in the form of a workplace happiness survey. The 2017 survey is open now. If you haven’t already, please participate. The premise of Joyful Museums is positive, i.e. that identifying the museum field’s problems is the first step in creating better workplaces. Van Damme suggests that intense job competition, low wages, a do-more- with-less attitude, poor support for professional development coupled with a lack of understanding of HR issues leaves many employees in Gallop’s 51-percent of disgruntled disengaged workers.
Is there hope for change and happier staffs? Yes, and if you’re a museum leader or board member, there is still work to do. Remember, you’re not a social worker. Your job isn’t to fix staff members’ life issues. Your job is to provide a safe, equitable workplace that challenges its employees, encourages deep thought and imagination, while moving the organization forward. With that in mind, here are five things to do before summer.
- Find your institution’s HR policy. If it doesn’t exist, gather staff and trustees together and make one. If it does exist, does it need revision? Does everyone have access to it?
- Make sure all your employees have current job descriptions and receive annual employment reviews. Support their professional goals.
- Make sure all your employees know what is expected of them and can meet the goals you set together.
- Be a fierce advocate for benefits: paid time off; health insurance; family leave; maternity/paternity leave. If the day-to-day in your staff’s lives is taken care of, there will be far less stress at work.
- Don’t fall into the trap of we’re a non-profit so it’s okay if our hourly wage is less than a big box store. It’s not okay. The big box store doesn’t require a master’s degree. Make staff salaries a priority. People, not buildings, make change.
And tell us if your staff is happy.
Here at Leadership Matters we don’t often wade into interpretive waters. There are plenty of able bloggers out there writing about museum collections. (Linda Norris’s Uncatalogued Museum, Frank Vagnone’s Twisted Preservation or Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 are good examples.) For the most part, we are concerned with how leadership does or doesn’t function in the museum workplace. We write often about pay equity, workplace bias, gender issues, and the importance of human capital in the museum world.
Recently, though, we were struck by the synchronicity of things. First, came this quote from President Obama’s Farewell Speech in Chicago, IL, January 10. “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.” The quote sits at the end of the speech where Obama reminds us not to take democracy for granted, citing George Washington who reminds us to protect democracy with “jealous anxiety.”
What struck us about this wasn’t the sentiment, which is really important, but the idea that the Constitution is just parchment until people give it power. We believe there’s a connection here to the museum world, particularly the world of history/heritage organizations where there’s a lot of moaning about whether people care about history any more. Is that really true or are we a little lazy? Is it possible that with the visual wealth of the internet visitors aren’t so awestruck by reality any more? And really why should they be? Anybody with a phone or a laptop has access to a gazillion images. Seeing them lined up in a museum with tiny labels that sometimes repeat the obvious might not be so compelling in 2017. So who gives objects power? Who engages communities in giving objects power? In our world, that would be museum staff. And how exactly does that happen in our frenetic, media obsessed world?
One answer might be the creation of context either in time or through time. Think about parsing an object the way you would a poem. Never did that? It’s not hard: Who made it? What does it do? What are its component parts? Is it something we use today? In today’s material culture, what are its descendants? Is it beautiful? Why? Who used it? Do they matter? If not, why not? Of course no one would stand still and do this endlessly, but if three objects in a room of things move from mute to thoughtful speech, and if those three things are linked together ideologically, visitors may leave with a sense of connectedness not only over time, but to today’s ideas and concerns.
But the real lesson here is that the history museum field has to want staff who thinks this way. One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters left the history field, moving to an art museum. Her reason? She was adamant that museum staff charged with interpreting culture should be as invested in the present as the past, and she felt that far too many history museum staff were in retreat from today’s world. But it doesn’t have to be that way, which brings us to the second synchronicity. This weekend Old Salem Village in North Carolina made a connection on its Facebook page between contemporary life and the way the Village’s original Moravian residents welcomed visitors. It was simple and direct. With no falderal it pointed out that over centuries there have been communities and there were “strangers.” It made you think about the way we’ve either welcomed and fed newcomers or stoned them into leaving. The Moravians, by the way, felt welcoming strangers was important.
So invest in your staff. Objects are important, but too many history museums are like badly written essays in need of good editors. Those editors (your staff) are as important as the objects they serve because they make them speak, and in making them speak, they make them matter.
Joan H. Baldwin