AASLH 2022: After the Words, Action?

Andre Carrotflower, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks ago I went to AASLH’s annual conference in Buffalo, NY. I’ve gone to AASLH meetings for years, but this one was different. Maybe because for many of us it was our first public meeting since the Pandemic, and, after navigating a sea of Zooms, masks, vaccinations, uncertainty, and illness, suddenly we were loose on the world again, able to talk to one another face-to-face. But I think there was something else. Maybe I’m imagining it, but did politics and culture ripple through the conference in a way it never has before, a feeling of I’m not backing down?

My own meeting started with a panel discussion on the “Museum Worker Crisis.” My role was to provide some historical context, unraveling the past to help participants understand how the world of museum work got to where it is. It’s something I’ve done more than a few times on these pages, and I touched on issues of pay, the gender pay gap, overwork and the Red Queen effect, gender and sexual harassment, bullying, and the high cost of entering the field. I also brought up Quiet Quitting, which seems to be the Great Resignation for people who can’t resign.

My introduction laid a foundation for Dina Bailey, Michelle Moon, Sarah Jencks, and Kate Hayley Goldman to use systems thinking to untangle the problem of why museum workers are in such a pit of despair, and most importantly, what to do about it. Each table worked to define the problem, while keeping their Guiding star (a desired future state) in mind. In systems thinking the Guiding Stars are the leverage points where it’s possible to intervene in a system. For example, participants asked whether public consciousness regarding work in history and heritage sites could be changed so it’s seen as a profession with high value? If that happened, would salaries change?

As they worked, networks of Post-It notes grew across their tables. Ultimately, those were lifted and applied to the walls as each group reported out, raising still more questions like how individuals enter the field, whether an apprenticeship is more appropriate than requiring a master’s degree, and how to change a culture that tends to look backward toward a system that’s no longer viable. There were also some whopper questions like this one: Is it unethical to hire in such a poorly paid field.

Two other highlights for me at least were Rick Hill’s keynote address. Former Assistant Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, writer, father, and member of the Beaver Clan of the Tuscarora Nation of the Haudenosaunee tribe, Hill’s gentle tone belied a career that took him far from home and then back again. He struck an opening note while reminding us that place matters: That we are all born into a place, and it’s ours to use, but most of all to care for, and we must “be careful where we plant our feet.” Forty minutes later, he reminded his audience that the best land acknowledgement is to ask local indigenous people to do acknowledge place in their own language. Failing that, acknowledging a place was important to a people might be better than getting into ownership which flies in the face of the Indigenous idea that we are steward’s for the next generation, not owners.

Day one ended with the General Session titled Historical Thinking Under Fire. And holy smokes, if you needed any evidence that we’ve emerged from the Pandemic to a world that’s ever more Orwellian, this was it. In a panel discussion led by Sarah Jencks, here are some quotes I took down: Critical Race Theory is not a theory, it’s history supported by primary sources; Discomfort doesn’t mean students are scared, it means they are processing; Don’t cede the ground of patriotism, patriotism involves a good honest look at the past; and last, “Nobody cared that I lived with the trauma of enslavement as a school child.”

Unlike other conferences the comments at the panel’s close weren’t a graduate school class in one-upmanship, but a rallying cry. Individuals got up to testify about keeping books on shelves, about standing up to local government, about making John Lewis’ “good trouble.” It was awesome. Can we–and by we I mean history and heritage museums and sites–turn those individual actions and feelings into something collective? Can AASLH help us? (Actually, I think AASLH already has. See its statement on what’s happening in Memphis, not to mention its ongoing work on gender harassment with NCPH.)

As we move forward in a world decimated by climate change, beset with right-wing ideologies and wracked with political divisiveness, my hope is that history museums and heritage sites become a force. As individuals we can’t afford to enable racist, rude, misogynistic behavior. We can’t be silent. As organizations, we need to do the same thing, supporting our fellow non-profits when they are on strike or under attack. And as leaders, we must become employers where staff is safe, seen and supported, and where pay is fair and equitable. So collectively we become places where old patriarchal narratives are pushed aside, and history is told as the complex story it is, not for political gain, but because that’s how we learn—and we’re all learning, if not, pack it in NOW. That we move into the future, listening, empathizing, understanding, and working for change. That’s a history field we can be proud of.

Be well, fight the good fight, and I’ll see you in a few weeks.

Joan Baldwin


Yes, and….

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

If you’ve read this blog before, you know I am a frequent NPR listener. Because I listen in the car, I often hear pieces I might skip if I were reading. Recently, I heard a long piece on teaching improv, which I associate mainly with comedy and Saturday Night Live. (I was right, but not really.) The interview intersected with something else I heard that week, this time an in-person chat with poet and writer Clint Smith. I was lucky enough to be in the tent when Smith received the StowePrize in Hartford. He spoke with Linda Norris as part of the prize giving.

Improv, as you know doubt know, is live theatre where plot and dialogue are made up in the moment. Why does improv matter? How did my brain connect it to Clint Smith? And how do both link back to museums and their current state of peril?

First improv: For what appears as such a hilarious loosey-goosey enterprise, improv possesses a clearly defined architecture. One of its tenants is “Don’t deny” often expressed as “Yes, and….” affirming the speaker’s statement and connecting it to something else. This sends dialog forward as opposed to shutting it down with a negative.

Now, Smith: One of the questions Norris asked Smith was, while writing his prize-winning How the Word is Passed, what it was like to talk with 21st-century Confederate descendants? One of the places Smith visited was Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. Although its earliest grave dates to 1702, Smith went because 30,000 Confederate soldiers are buried there, and it has long been a place of pilgrimage for people with family history bound up in the Confederacy. His visit with the Sons of Confederate Veterans took place on a Memorial Day weekend when he was likely the only person of color on the 189-acre site. Norris asked what it was like to speak with people whose belief systems were so different from his own? Smith answered that the man he spoke with “was a microcosm of the cognitive dissonance of the American project.” In describing his Blandford conversation, Smith remarked how inconsistent our reckoning with history is, how dependent it is on the randomness of birth, where we grow up, our teachers, and the personal narratives handed down, treasured and burnished by our families. He was respectful of his interviewee, while fundamentally disagreeing with his ideology.

Both in conversation with Norris and in his book, Smith is clear his role was listener. Although he didn’t use these words, what he offered was improv’s “Yes, and…,” adding “there is something to be said for meeting people where they are, and extending grace and generosity……” He said that the best museum guides and teachers he heard while researching How the Word is Passed offered “a balancing act,…… while also not holding back on the truth,” extending an “and” that often included a sentence like “This might be difficult to hear, but I’m going to be on this journey with you.”

Maybe I am late to the party. Maybe you all got there before me, and have absorbed “Yes, and…” into your daily practice. If not, how could it possibly hurt? Not only with the challenging issues of re-centering the country’s history of enslavement, but how sites interpret and present issues of gender, religion, and politics, as well as our inter-staff relations where communication in our divisive age is often challenging. If you want examples of what improv exercises look like, here’s a handy Youtube video. Start at about 6:59 and watch through to around minute 10.

So how might this play out in daily life?

  • When you say Yes, and…you’re living squarely in the present.
  • When you say Yes, and…you’re promising to listen.
  • When you say Yes, and…you’re being present, listening and therefore connecting.
  • When you say Yes, and….you’re letting go of the judgement genie for yourself and for others.
  • When you say Yes, and….you’re offering trust before it’s earned.
  • When you say Yes, and….you’re letting others shine before yourself. (Adapted from David Charles @ Rollins College.)

Clint Smith quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” during his Stowe House chat. That is the poem that famously ends “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” but Smith’s quote came from the first stanza, “I am a part of all that I have met.” How easy it is to forget those 10 words as we move through life, at home and at work, with family, with friends, colleagues and strangers, trying hard to say yes, and… to listen, and then speak our own authentic truth for ourselves or for our museums and heritage sites.

Be well, stay safe, do good work.

Joan Baldwin


The Opposite of Kismet or What Happens When Work and Personal Values Clash?

Recently I read an Emerging Museum Professionals posting. The writer had invested time and money in a graduate degree in Museum Studies. Covid blocked her path. Then her thesis was rejected. In the meantime, she’d found museum work. She asked whether she should finish the thesis or abandon her degree. Her respondents were divided on the answer, but everyone seemed to agree that investing in a degree is a big deal, and a lot of time and money to leave on the table. This post isn’t really about the need for graduate degrees–that’s another discussion.

It is about that golden moment when you find a field where everything seems right. Charmed by what lies ahead, you imagine yourself doing work that seems important and interesting. Then, grad school ends, and you are thrust into the world. If, like the EMP writer, you’re lucky enough to be hired or already have a museum position, soon your narrative is subtly different. You are no longer a solo traveler; instead, you are part of a larger organization whose needs and values are paramount. How do you know if you’re hitching your wagon to an organization whose values are similar to your own? How much do your own values matter? After all, they’re paying you to be a registrar or an educator or a curator, not wax philosophical about ethics, right?

But what happens when that same organization, the one that chose you out of all those applicants, does something that feels wrong, implicitly or tacitly, sweeping you up in behavior you can’t condone? In that honeymoon moment when you’re courted for the position you’ve always wanted and everyone is on their best behavior, it’s often hard to read a museum’s values. We live in a fractious, divided society where everything from race to faith to medicine to climate change pushes friends and colleagues apart in a heartbeat. Did you ask the right questions? Were there red flags you missed?

If you’re involved in the museum world at any level, you’re likely aware of the Montpelier Controversy. In brief, Montpelier, President James Madison’s 2,600-acre Virginia estate, once home to an enslaved population of 300, spent most of its years with an all-white board. In 2021, Montpelier announced its board would share governance with representatives from Montpelier’s Descendants Committee. All seemed well until earlier this year when the overwhelmingly White board amended its bylaws, seemingly refusing to recognize or collaborate with the Descendants Committee. Subsequently the CEO and the Board fired five full-time staff who supported the merger. When I started this piece, 11,000 people had signed a petition asking Montpelier to seat new Descendants Committee board members immediately. More recently, after being openly chastised by the National Trust, the Board, Montpelier’s Board voted to approve a slate of candidates put forward by the Descendants Committee.

Montpelier is a dramatic example of a heritage organization off the ethical rails, and the Montpelier Five are undoubtedly the poster children for a values/museum workplace clash. After all, getting fired for your beliefs certainly takes the uncertainty of whether to stay at a job that seems to compromise your north star. But what if your experience is less dramatic, but challenging nonetheless? In a field where jobs are hard won, few are privileged enough to pack it in over a values clash. And yet….where do you draw the line between your personal values and the organization’s?

  • Start by acknowledging that all of us have different values.
  • If you haven’t already, consider your organization’s history. How did it get to be the place it is? Where are its values most evident? To do this, you may want to look at Aletheia Whitman’s Institutional Genealogy pdf.
  • Is what you’re struggling with a value conflict or a personal conflict? Admittedly the two can overlap, but fixing them means untangling one from the other. Don’t go to leadership with a value conflict only to rant about how you’re being bullied. Being bullied is wrong, and creates a horrific work climate, but it’s not a value conflict.
  • Take baby steps: Try and suss out how the the behavior that is bothering you came to be. Was this an on-the-fly decision or the product of weeks of discussion?
  • Are you alone or one of many? There is a value in numbers if you plan to approach leadership about a values issue.
  • Is it one issue or is it the organizational culture?
  • Pause and consider what you believe and how far you’re willing to go. Ultimatums lead to ultimatums.
  • Think deeply about where the line in the sand is for you. Are you willing to walk away?
  • You can’t know ’til you know: Discuss your concerns with museum leadership.
  • If leadership won’t or can’t hear you, does your workplace have employee support for whistle blower complaints or concerns?

Many museums and heritage organizations have emerged from the last three years better organizations. They’ve become partners rather than pontificators, empathetic rather than my-way-or-the highway, collaborators in understanding who we are in the today’s world. Change isn’t easy though even at the most woke organizations. Part of your due diligence during the hiring process is to try to suss out your organization’s ability to grow and change. Does it match your own? If you move at a different pace, are you willing to be an outlier, a Joan of Arc? Not all of us are willing or able to try and lead an organization out of a values morass. What are you willing to sacrifice?

Be well. See you in June.

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


Museum Leadership: Your Observation is Your Obligation

AASLH 2019 Women WorkshopIf 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.

Joan Baldwin


Leadership Lessons from Our New Book

9781538118320

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

 


Our Deep Dive into History Museum Leadership at the AASLH Leadership Forum

 

AASLH Leadership ForumAlong 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.

Joan Baldwin


Talking About Gender @ the Small Museum Association Meeting

SMA Table Discussion

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?

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


5 Reasons We’re Grateful to be in the Museum Field

Frank Vagnone

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:

  1. I get to work, meet, and speak with some truly fabulous humans, who challenge and change the museum world.
  2. Being in a museum, as opposed to being on the Internet, means being in the presence of something real. That brings its own awesomeness.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

Joan Baldwin


Hearing Darren Walker and Other Thoughts About Texas

Dina - Darren Photo

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? 

Joan Baldwin

Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite