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
Few museums have enough money. Even big ones. Just look at this week’s headlines. The Metropolitan Tabled Its New Wing while it shaves $31 million from its deficit. Almost 400 miles to the south, the august Colonial Williamsburg laid off 40 more employees, bringing its total layoffs over 24 months to 100. These are two notable examples, but many museums and heritage organizations face similar scenarios. And even if they’re not downsizing dramatically, each hire is freighted with a sense of urgency. New staff need to be a good fit, and wherever they are in the organization they need to help move it forward, which brings us to the question of whether as a museum leader, when you hire, you replace a position or rethink it.
Let me interject here with a little story. I know someone who was hired two months ago to replace a long-time employee. As is the case with many individuals who’ve spent decades in an institution, what the outgoing employee did was a bit of a mystery. Myriad things had attached themselves to her job description like barnacles either because she was good at them or someone asked her to do them and she never stopped. Conversely, there were things she jettisoned because she didn’t like them or wasn’t good at them. None of that web of “all other duties as required,” was included in the job description which was bland and boiler plate. The leadership agreed only that the position needed replacing without actually talking through what it wanted and what would be best for the organization. The new hire, whose resemblance to the outgoing employee is minimal at best, has found her acclamation hampered by the gap between what some of the leadership imagined for her position and what is actually written. And what is written is so useless that she is called to task for “not doing her job.” Yet who knows where the boundaries of her job really are? She consults with HR too often, and remains frustrated that what was offered is not reality. It’s not a good situation. And it’s definitely a waste of talent, time and money.
Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it comes from not pressing pause long enough to really talk about a new hire. These discussions shouldn’t be personal. It’s not about denigrating the outgoing employee; it’s about saying what does the museum need now? This should be the fun part. The in-a-perfect-world part I would hire a person who can do X,Y, Z. Once you identify what you need that’s new, you can go back and unpack the old job description to determine what the organization can’t live without. Some of those tasks may end up parceled out to other employees, while others will be included in the new hire’s job description. The point is only that even if you have buckets of money, it costs money to replace staff. Work slows while you cover for an empty position, and if your orientation program is poor, it may stay slow while the new hire tries to figure out her place.
As in so much of leadership, it’s better if you are intentional. Think a problem through. Talk to staff. Discuss what you need. Then act. Then don’t assume it’s all fixed. For goodness sake check in with your new employee. You may think you speak clearly, but that’s not always how people hear you. Make sure new staff are happy, challenged and understand their role.
Last, but not least, if you’re a wanna-be museum leader, a current leader, or a long time CEO, know that not all staff leave of their own volition. Firing is part of your job description. You may never have to act on it, but it’s a facet of the hiring process that everyone in leadership copes with. So, again, be intentional. Don’t hire a new employee simply because she’s 180 degrees different from the one you let go. Know your organizational needs, measure them against her strengths. Then decide. As a leader, your job is to drive your organization into the future with as much imagination and grit as you can muster. Make sure you have the staff you want on the journey.
It’s January, and it’s the time of year when museum staff and leadership can turn cranky in a heartbeat. Here in the northeast our days start with dark mornings, and are often accompanied by snow and cold. You get the picture. It’s a time for fuzzy slippers and a good book. And if you’re not a book person, I can heartedly recommend the Emerging Museum Professionals Facebook page. Scrolling through their posts, I always find something interesting and/or inspiring to read.
This week Alison Little posted a job description followed by a six-question poll. She asked readers to guess the type of job described –exempt or non-exempt–the salary range or whether it’s not a paid job at all, but rather a volunteer opportunity. Thankfully, she didn’t identify the job’s source since it’s the HR equivalent of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, a Frankenjob of tasks that may need doing, but have no connection to one another. As of January 8 there were 35 comments.
If you are a museum leader or a board member, if you plan to hire sometime in the coming year, you owe it to yourself to read these comments. You need to understand the world of museum HR, and, perhaps most importantly, regardless of your museum role, you need to make a passionate case for investing in staff. Why? Well, the obvious answer is because without staff your museum will grind to a halt. You may have fabulous collections, you may have a great narrative or you may have both, but collections can’t speak on their own. They are mute. They need smart, imaginative folks to knit together all the ideas an individual object, site, experiment, invention or living creature generates, and engage your audience. In short: you need the best staff you can afford, not the most staff for the least amount of money; the best, so you can pay them a living wage so they won’t burn out waiting tables on the side, and so they won’t spend their free time looking for better paying museum jobs.
If you are a museum leader or a board member do not ever laugh ruefully about low salaries and say, “Well, we’re a nonprofit,” as if your 501c-3 designation permits you to pay less than the living wage. Being a nonprofit means the government recognizes the public benefit your organization provides society. Your concern is the trust you hold for the public, not for your shareholders like a for-profit organization. To fulfill that trust you need a decently paid staff. It’s time the museum world addressed this problem. So whether you’re an emerging professional or a mid-career staff member, a museum leader or a board member, when you think of your museum, don’t think of a hierarchy of collections first, followed by buildings, and then staff. Put staff at the top. Value them. Pay them a living wage. (As we’ve said many times here, using MIT’s Living Wage Calculator will help you.) Let’s make 2017 the year museums and heritage organizations commit to raising salaries and benefits. Idealism won’t pay the bills.
Dear Friends, colleagues, readers,
2016 was a year of unending politics, the unexpected deaths of cultural icons, enough global warming to open the northwest passage, and way too many police shootings. Yet here, in the calmer waters of Leadership Matters, we continued to grow. We more than doubled our views, moving from 23,529 in 2015 to 55, 723 in 2016. Although most of our readers live in the United States, people around the globe, from Russia, India, Canada, Uzbekistan, Malta, Greenland, Rwanda and many, many more, continue to find us. Wherever you are, thank you. We’re honored to be part of a community of concerned, open and interested museum leaders.
If you are new to Leadership Matters, here are some of our most popular postings for 2016: Museums and the Salary Conundrum; The Salary Agenda; The Top Ten Skills for Museum Leaders; Do Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?, and When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One.
And we didn’t just write blog posts. We finished the manuscript for Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, which we expect will be published by Routledge in May 2017. We spoke at AAM in May and NEMA in November. We worked with a group of like-minded colleagues to found Gender Equity in Museums Movement or GEMM, and to release the GEMM call for action which you’ll find in a pdf on the right side of this page.
Suddenly it’s a new year, and we have to do it all again, only differently, with equal or more imagination and energy. So we thought we’d begin with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind the award-winning musical Hamilton, taken from The Daily Beast, December 27, 2016. Miranda was asked about the soul-crushing (for some) results of the presidential election. Here’s part of his answer.
“But I woke up with a very pronounced case of moral clarity. In addition to the disappointment, it was like, oh, this does not change the things that I believe in. The things that I believe in that this candidate doesn’t means we’re going to have to fight for them. You don’t want to go backwards when it comes to our LGBT brothers and sisters; you don’t want to go backwards when it comes to the disenfranchisement of voters of color. We have to keep fighting for the things we believe in, and it just made that very clear: I know who I am, and I know what I’m going to fight for in the years to come. That felt like the tonic of it.”
We love this answer. It responds to the sadness many of us felt having ended up on the losing side of the Electoral College, but it acknowledges the hope and the energy that museums need to move forward, meaning if you’re an engaged leader of a value-driven organization that’s plugged into your community, you will move forward. You must move forward. You will fight for what you believe in–in museum offices, exhibition spaces, historic sites, and in your programming–and that is a tonic.
How can being engaged with communities or working for equal pay for women of color, as well as queer and transgender colleagues in the museum field be a bad thing? And how about committing to raising museums’ consciousness about bias? Wouldn’t that be an important goal as well? And isn’t it about time all museums were value-driven? Values are not just something left to sites of conscience. Every community has things it cares about, and its museums (and their leaders) should reflect those cares.
So..as we look toward 2017, we’ll leave you with another quote from the poet Mary Oliver in her new book Upstream. “For it is precisely how I feel, who have inherited not measurable wealth, but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground–and inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently. To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample. Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me–to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.”
Take Ms. Oliver’s words to heart. Bring passion to your observations, be patient about your work, and live with care for others especially your colleagues.
Be well and best wishes for good 2017.
Dear friends, colleagues, readers and acquaintances,
Let’s face it, there is just too much information out there. Yes, some of us are seduced and beguiled by fake news or give up news altogether, but there is also a lot of really good writing going on. So if you’re taking time off before the new year and plan to devote yourself to self improvement of one kind or another, we recommend a cozy chair, a hot beverage, some great music, and one or more of the following.
A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder–If you’re a leader or a wanna be leader, pay particular attention to the early chapters where Paul English sets up his first company.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates–A must read, particularly if you’re white, and deep in your lizard brain you think your beliefs and your unconscious biases aren’t aligned.
Articles and Short Reads:
42-Ways to Make Your Life Easier A little trite, but true. And you can download it.
Cleaning the Museum A voice from 1973 to remind us how important all our staffs are not just the ones with cool jobs.
Raising a Trail-Blazing Daughter Even if you’re not a parent, good advice from the notorious RBG.
Five Myths that Perpetuate Burn Out Across Nonprofits One of our favorites. We’ve written about this from the museum point of view, but this is better.
When It’s Dark Enough, You Can See the Stars is about the tenacity of nonprofit leaders. It’s about why we’re in this game even in the toughest of times.
How Far Should We Go In Building Leadership Qualities? To thine own self be true, baby.
Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative – 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations True to form, Nina Simon doesn’t hold back about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of her museum leadership journey. This time it’s about facing and embracing organizational change.
The 5 Elements of a Strong Leadership Pipeline Thanks to the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network for the lead to this post which stresses organizational culture, learning through exposure, and knowledge sharing as key ingredients in movign
And to Listen to:
Just a Little Nicer If you’re not already a fan of NPR’s TED Radio Hour you should be. This is a good one to listen to as we look toward resolutions for 2017.
SNL’s Cold Open Hallelujah If your life is so busy the 8 million times this flashed on your screen you missed it, you need to adjust your life. Then you need to listen.
It’s been a while since anyone at Leadership Matters was a graduate student or applying for first time jobs. (Back then it was a painfully slow business conducted via the U.S. mail.) But we suspect that in the museum bubble there are some career tropes that persist: You’ll become a museum anthropologist and spend half your time in the field; you’ll be profiled in the New Yorker for your work at a major art museum; your work in interpreting slavery or immigrants will become a model for the field. While we hope your dreams come true, it’s a fact that many newly-minted graduate students’ first job will be as “lone rangers”, serving as historic site managers for small, independent heritage organizations or managing sites for larger county or state agencies.
We were prompted to think all this when we read Robert Wolfe’s Experience Beyond the Classroom. Posted on AASLH’s blog, Wolfe’s tightly-written piece points out that being the only staff person may mean that a grasp of basic plumbing or the ability to operate heavy machinery can turn out to be as useful as the research for a master’s thesis. But we think what he’s really saying is two things: First, be open to possibility. If your pipe dream is to manage a major historic property, then realize what that means. You want to manage an old or very old property containing a lot of old or very old stuff. When you start applying for jobs a huge percentage of the competition will come to the table having completed an exhibit at a historic house or catalogued a malingering collection or done the fall school tours. But who apprentices themselves to the buildings and grounds supervisor or the director? Who watched and listened while leaders decided whether to trench the building’s exterior before or after the new roof was put on? Who sat in the back of the room while the historical society leadership went before the planning board to negotiate new signage? Wolfe mentions learning to drive a standard vehicle and operate heavy machinery. Assuming you’re not in graduate school virtually, you likely have an entire graduate school to learn from. Don’t confine yourself to the museum studies or art history program. Visit the plant manager. Shadow someone. A building is the biggest object–in fact, the container–for the rest of a heritage organization’s collection. So if you’ve been an apartment dweller or tenant all your life, recognize what you don’t know, and how to gain some experience.
You don’t need to master all the trades, but basic knowledge is helpful, which brings us to point two: be strategic. We can’t say this enough. You can want and wish and hope your way right through your graduate program, but when the rubber hits the road and you have to choose, you may end up a solo site manager. Here are some suggestions that may make the path easier once you find yourself the sole leader:
- Reach out to the heritage leaders in your area. Arrange a once-a-month gathering for drinks or coffee and an exchange of information. Learn from each other.
- Expand your posse of peeps to include a Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. Maybe it’s your father or your grandfather, maybe your best friend, but find someone who’s owned a home or two, who’ll take your call after you successfully turned off the spewing plumbing but before you meet with the plumbers.
- Know what you don’t know. You wouldn’t conserve a painting by yourself, you’d raise the money and send it to a conservator so don’t trust the care of the building to just anyone.
- Understand that there are likely people in your community who are more interested in your building and how it works than in anything inside or in the generations of folks who lived there.
- Don’t make decisions alone. Does your organization have a building committee? There are a lot of complaints about boards that don’t manage and boards that micro-manage, but when heritage buildings need help, that generally spells money. Not only should you not make those decisions by yourself, hopefully the strategy for making decisions already exists. When the roof is failing and snow is forecast is not the moment to test how your historic house functions in crisis.
- Know yourself: Do you work well independently? Will you seek community when you need it? Working as a loan ranger isn’t for the faint of heart.
Be well. Do good work, and send us your tips for life as a solo heritage organization leader.