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
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.