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


Held Together by Humans: Museums and a Healthier Workplace

A confession: I adore English television mysteries. Not the kind with the dithering, elderly amateur, but the darker more urban variety. One of the tropes of these dramas is the main characters often suppress a ton of personal feelings to get their job done. They go to work–without guns–this is the UK after all, and deal with the sad, the lonely, and the psychologically messed up. Meanwhile, their marriages fall apart, their children are angry, and their lovers are sick of being neglected for the job. I thought about those characters when I listened to CBS’s recent report on mental health post-Covid. Families and individuals are dealing with unresolved grief, leading to deaths from overdose, resulting in four times the rate of anxiety and depression overall. It’s a full-blown mental health crisis. This week the Centers for Disease Control released a report saying that 4 in 10 adolescents feel persistently sad or hopeless. Arthur C. Evans Jr., head of the American Psychological Association says this will be with us for seven to 10 years, in other words a second pandemic. And I’m pretty sure this segment was taped before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the now ongoing devastation and threat of chemical or nuclear warfare.

What does this have to do with museums? Only this: Museums are held together by humans, who are likely suffering, while also serving communities who also suffer. We’ve been over the laundry list of what’s undone us many times: pandemic, racial injustice, gender inequity, epic inflation, wealth disparity, and now war and a mental health crisis. Is the answer that we’re too busy as Robert Weisberg posits in a recent post? Maybe. Honestly, I’m no longer sure about this or much else. I know many of us are overworked. I know staffs have contracted, and many people are doing two times the work of the pre-pandemic era, and because no one found them breathing into a paper bag in the supply closet, everything is supposedly okay. Being asked to do more for the same crap salary is debilitating. Pay isn’t everything, but salaries are still inequitable. In many institutions leadership makes a gazillion times what the front-of-the-house makes, and yet daily the front-of-the-house workers shoulder a good portion of the community’s anger, yet another facet of the country’s mental health crisis.

I respect Weisberg’s argument, and I love his “Time, Money, People, Resources,” but I don’t share his assurance that busyness is the culprit or at least the only culprit. For me there are too many intersecting circles, each part of an overlapping problem. It strikes me that when field-wide salaries are dismal, the museum workplace promotes to reward. That means you move up the food chain, receiving a bigger salary and a title change because you succeeded in your first position. The problem is that being able in one position doesn’t always translate into being an able at leading people. If the organization needs a leader at whatever level, it should hire a leader, not reward staff by throwing them into the deep end. How would the picture change if museums could acknowledge and reward good work, allowing individuals to stay in their lane, while making more money and perhaps receiving a title change. Logically, that should happen, but it rarely does. We have a culture that teaches us success comes with managing others. (Some state HR laws are written such that an employee’s desire to be salaried as opposed to hourly, hinges, in part, on whether they supervise staff.) In the museum world we don’t train for leadership. So when promotions work, we pat ourselves on the back. When they don’t, we scratch our heads. And sadly, it’s staff who suffer in these circumstances.

In all our moaning about what Covid did to us, and it did plenty, it also taught us that flexibility is a key workplace resource. Not everyone can work away from their museum or heritage organization, but many can. In the first month of Covid we learned how much we could get done from our home offices. But Covid taught us something else. It isn’t just a binary choice between remote vs.on-site employees. It’s an acknowledgement that, particularly for women, flexibility matters. Many have life situations which make flexible hours a necessity. We know the failure to flex meant many women who are also caregivers and parents left the workforce over the last two years. But we don’t need to be workplace thought leaders to imagine that when staff are happy and not worrying about child or elder care, their work is better. If you have an employee who needs to begin work later because of family responsibilities, would it kill you to make that happen? And most importantly, can flex time become not just an individual exception, smacking of favoritism, but an organization-wide trend?

I wonder too, whether in a field like museums where jobs are hard won, if we expect too much from them. They represent huge investments and when they don’t speak our love language daily, we’re convinced they’re not for us. I am the first to admit this field has its share of bad leaders and boards, but even the best job isn’t Nirvana every day, nor should it be. I’ve written about this before, but your job, however intellectually stimulating is not your family. It may include some in your friend group, but hopefully it isn’t substituting for your friends as well.

The Canadian writer/researcher Paul Thistle has done a ton of work on the museum workplace and self-care. In addition to the high expectations and ridiculous pace of many museums, something that comes through loud and clear in his writing is our responsibility to ourselves. Yes, I know it’s often impossible to seek mental health care when you have no insurance or when the one counselor who takes your insurance is miles away, but we need to try, and our organizations need to try too.

Decades ago I remember a conference conversation where having heard a living history site was thinking of interpreting an 18th century workhouse, the cynical and jaded in the group opined we could go there when we “retired” because by that time we’d be so burnt out, role playing someone who had had a breakdown wouldn’t be a stretch. Not funny, but also darkly funny, and an indication that the constant search for perfection, coupled with too little time and too few resources has been a theme in museum work life for decades.

I’ve made a tradition of adding to-do lists at the end of blog posts with ideas for individuals and organizations, but I think this isn’t a one size fits all scenario. So here are some links and resources:

  • If you’re not already reading Dr. Laurie Santos, start. A Yale psychology professor whose classes are consistently oversubscribed, Santos offers practical tips for leading a happier life in her podcast “The Happiness Lab.
  • Read Mike Murawski. Not everyone can let go of the security of full-time employment, but if you need a positive role model for making change, it’s Murawski.
  • If you supervise staff, you may want to read AAM’s 2022 Trendswatch, particularly the chapter on mental health. I am not a fan of putting leadership in the position of acting as a mental health counselor, but I do think it’s important for leaders to model wellness behaviors, and be transparent and open about their own challenges.
  • Remember to lobby for improved healthcare and childcare at the local, state, and national level. It may seem out of your lane, but knowing family is cared for at a price you can afford is a stress reducer.
  • If you’re a reader, try also On Being, NPR’s Lifekit, and The Marginalian, and Henna Inam. And keep in mind, if your stress was a disfiguring rash, you’d undoubtedly see a doctor. If you find yourself beset by stress and mental health issues, try to see a caregiver.
  • If you’re a leader, be careful not to talk about the importance of your front-line/hourly staff unless you are willing to regularly make them part of museum decisions. Their work experience is part of your organization’s DNA. Respect it.

Spring is coming. Take some time to be outside. Sit, walk, run, whatever works for you. Your work will be better for it.

Joan Baldwin


How Not to Write a Job Description

DanielPenfield – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106990014

This week the Berkshire Museum posted a job announcement for a new Executive Director. The museum, a small-city, art, history & science museum, founded in 1903, and located in Pittsfield, MA, has been without a full-time director since last September when Jeff Rogers abruptly stepped down after two and half years in the top spot. For anyone with memory loss, in 2018 the Berkshire Museum became the poster child for monetizing collections when it summarily sold $57 million worth of art, earning censures from the museum world’s governing bodies, and condemnation, gossip, and ire from the museum world at large.

From the outset, the Museum said it wanted a new direction, adamant that it couldn’t be who it wanted to be unless it sold a piece of itself. The decision left a gaping hole in its collections, and four years later, an organization that still seems to lack intent and self awareness. It hired M Oppenheim, a San Francisco-based search firm, to find a new ED. This week they released a five-page position description. Oppenheim is not without museum experience–the Philbrook, Peabody Essex and the American Visionary Museum are among its current and past clients–but the kindest thing you might say about the Berkshire’s position description is that it’s odd.

I used to work for a leader who liked to tell me, “Joan, people don’t change.” I found those four words truly disheartening because I really wanted people to change. I wanted them to be better, to do their best, to be humane. The unspoken words behind that sentence were “unless they want to.” In this case, I have to assume, based on this strange job description that–despite a five-year interval–the Berkshire Museum’s culture remains unchanged, a place in search of itself in a city it doesn’t much care for.

The job description begins with this sentence: “The Berkshire Museum offers in-person and online visitors a gateway to the natural and cultural history of the Berkshires and the world,” a weirdly grandiose sentence (the world?) built around a curiously passive verb. One of the themes that comes through in the five-page job description is board leadership. We learn the Board has installed strong financial controls, and that it’s hired a design firm whose work will be well underway before the new director arrives. The job description requires (their word) an experienced fundraiser, and explains the ED will manage curators, who curiously are listed separately from staff and volunteers, as well as collections, operations, exhibits, programs, systems and processes to ensure financial strength….” Community partnerships are barely mentioned. In fact, community seems to take a back seat except for a sentence about Pittsfield’s population. And the re-centering of whiteness, decolonizing, and doing the work of dismantling patriarchy that has permeated much of the museum world’s narrative over the last three years is absent. Nor does the job description point to towards success. Instead it seems to suggest the new director’s time will be spent shoring up unfinished projects. And despite the fact that the museum appears to have multiple curators, the new director will be responsible for a monster amount of collections management.

Absent from this executive vision is a museum value statement, the idea of community partnership and participation, of creating a place where Pittsfield’s people are resources. The idea of the citizens of Pittsfield and Berkshire County as independent beings with agency who deserve respect doesn’t come across. Perhaps most frighteningly, the Museum is portrayed as a place unmoored from the museum world’s ongoing themes of partnership, participation and not being neutral. After reading all five pages, imagining the Berkshire Museum as a place for voter registration, for discussion on Berkshire County’s wealth disparity or as a lynch pin in community collaborations around the subject of race feels close to impossible. It reads as though the Museum’s biggest accomplishment was raising a ton of money by monetizing the collections’ treasures, and the Board, like folks hallmarked by the Depression, remains fearful the money, and thus their hedge against a board’s relentless work, will vaporize.

The museum workplace is having a moment, and it’s not a good one. Numerous directors have either been pushed aside or have left as part of the Great Resignation. I recognize as well that for some this entire post could be considered a cheap shot, but Oppenheim makes it clear on its web site that they want the job description shared, which is how I ended up seeing it through social media.

The Berkshire Museum is in the unusual position of having a strong endowment, and yet somehow it has ended up with a job description that, rather than emphasizing the Museum, Pittsfield, and Berkshire County as places of possibility and avenues for change, reinforces the same scarcity mindset that prevailed four years ago, and still seems to hang cloud-like over the building. To quote Amy Edmundson’s The Fearless Organization, (recommended by Museum Human) “The problem solving that lies ahead is a team sport, and so you want to start by identifying and naming what the creative opportunity might be…” Creative opportunities in this job description are absent. Instead, it’s mind the money, mind the store, expand and diversify revenue streams, and maintain best practices.

Words matter. A lot. Few organizations are where they want to be, but many can point to what they’re proud of, what they’ve accomplished, what matters, and why. For many in the museum world, people matter: people who visit and people who are part of the workplace. Is this job description an anomaly? How many other museums and heritage organizations, especially those who can’t hire a search firm, don’t have enough self-understanding to identify their faults alongside their creative opportunities? I worry the answer is too many. Yet doing that work is the first step toward change, and that’s how we grow.

Be well, be kind, and do good work, and I’ll see you in March.

Joan Baldwin


An Announcement Plus Women and Burnout

CIPHR Connect – https://www.flickr.com/photos/193749286@N04/51391533873/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=110070972, https://www.ciphr.com/

First, the announcement: In December this blog will be a decade old. As I’ve said more than a few times, it was started to support and augment the original publication of Leadership Matters. Later, when I worked for an epically bad leader, it helped me unpack workplace problems, and later still when I became an interim leader, it served as another type of sounding board. When I started this blog, I was literally alone. Yes, there were leadership blogs written for the business community, but there were few, if any, about the museum workplace. In fact, a decade or more ago, I would argue the field was actively engaged in NOT talking about working conditions.

Thankfully, that has changed. Today it’s a relief to share space with writers like Mike Murawski (Agents of Change,) Robert Weisberg (Museum Human,)and Paul Thistle from the country that’s friendly, foreign, familiar and near, and many more, including all those who confine their opinions to the Twitterverse, as well as organizations like Museum Hue, National Emerging Museum Professionals, and @changethemuseum. Together, I believe we all help change the culture of silence in the museum workplace. So with this good company, I’ve decided to take a tiny step back. Beginning February 14, Leadership Matters, will appear monthly on the second Monday of each month.

In keeping with my own pursuit of change–accepting, learning, growing–I realize there are other things I’d like to do on a weekend besides worrying my thoughts about museum leadership into a six-hundred word piece. So I’ll be here this week, next week, and then, going forward, monthly.

*******

And now to some thoughts on work. Long ago, in another lifetime, I was a ballet dancer. Like many girls I took daily classes while trying to decide whether I had the courage and talent to move from avid student to something more. Clearly I didn’t, but that’s not the point. Ballet dancers–at least female ones–are used to pushing themselves beyond what’s normal. They are the people choreographers make pieces “on” as opposed to “for.” Their teachers and choreographers push and push, and feet bleeding, muscles aching, they take it.

I thought about that this week when I realized I’d reached the proverbial wall. Shouldn’t I know better? Yes, but since the beginning of January I had said yes repeatedly, often to things outside my workplace lane, and the result? It was too much and my work was suffering. And let’s not even talk about work/life balance.

There is some kind of masochistic pride in overwork, and like many workplace behaviors, I believe it’s gendered. Women are used to “doing it all.” They are the finders, the doers, the schedulers, the nurse, and while I’m sure there are households where work is equitably shared, they are often cook, maid, and primary child, pet, and elder minder as well. Those same skills show up in the workplace, where no matter their job description, women fulfill roles as schedulers, planners, cleaner-uppers, and counselors, all while trying to preserve enough brain space for a few big thoughts.

Let me pause here to acknowledge my own position of privilege. I’m White, reasonably well-paid, my children are launched, and I have a solid benefit package. So my hitting the wall is a hang nail compared to what some women cope with. McKinsey’s January report on Burnout for Women in the Workplace reports that the rate of burnout between women and men has almost doubled since last year. The Report also says that despite their own increasing weariness, women take action more consistently than men to fight it, all while–at the corporate level, at least–delivering results, but at a great personal toll. It would be nice to know how these trends and behaviors play out in the museum world, but even with a workforce that’s 50.1-percent women, the field seems disinterested in spending money on knowing what its workforce thinks.

If you’re a woman and a woman leader, what can you do?

  • Keep talking. Speak with your colleagues–particularly women– your direct reports and those up the workplace food chain– about what you’re experiencing.
  • If you’re a leader, acknowledge women who do extra work, whether it’s workplace housekeeping, mentoring and counseling or logistics and planning.
  • Look at your HR policy. Policies aren’t one and done, they need to grow along with your team and your organization. If it’s been awhile, work on your HR policy.
  • Acknowledge how the current health crisis may propel your organization into a talent crisis, and what the costs might be.
  • Many museums want to diversify their workforces, but be alert to how being the only BIPOC woman can put a new hire in a space of otherness that as White on-boarders you never even thought about. Learn–which is a process, not something you get from reading an article–how to be an ally. Be a mentor, open doors, and explain the Byzantine rituals and culture of your organization.
  • When you lobby this month for your institution and museums in general, remember to mention how important societal supports are for working women, like maternity/paternity leave, childcare, and oh, how about the gender wage gap?

1.8 million women have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic. As far as I know, until the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes out with its 2021 numbers this spring, we won’t know how the museum world has been affected. But you might. You might be a woman or know a woman, who’s feeling like this world she struggled to enter has let her down, and she doesn’t have the best-job-ever any more. What can we do to change that?

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


The Last Post (for 2021) & Three Words for 2022

In 10 days 2021 will be in the history books and we will be living 2022. At the moment though, with Omicron duplicating, it feels like a meaner, angrier version of 2020 where every choice demands serious thought. Should I go? Should I stay? Are they vaccinated AND boostered? How much do those home tests cost? What was my life like the last time prices were this high? And on and on.

Today, I went back and read my final post from 2020. In it, I laid out five ways I hoped to make change in the coming year. They were:

  • Be the point person for a director search that starts by recognizing implicit bias, conducts an equitable search, resulting in a diverse, creative candidate who challenges us in new ways.
  • Continue to diversify our collections, art, photography and rare books, through acquisition and in cataloguing language.
  • Continue to shift our organizational lens so white privilege isn’t always center stage.
  • Grow empathy.
  • Nurture creativity.

Although I don’t feel hugely successful, I did, weirdly, succeed in at least three out of five. We hired a new leader, someone who’s smart, kind, empathetic and supportive. Having worked for someone who was none of those things, I can tell you it makes a huge difference. I continue to work at acknowledging and then shifting my own white privilege so the lens is more inclusive and empathetic. I try daily to nurture my own and other’s creativity while also being empathetic. Creativity needs time, however, and some days it feels as though it is trapped on a container ship off the coast. The area of change that’s proved hardest is diversifying our collections mostly because turning that wheel means money. Our donors are often older, white and male, making them not always enthusiastic about building collections that are non-white and female. Nevertheless, it remains a written goal, and one that’s easy to point to when we’re offered a gift.

Over this year, I’ve written about workplace bullying and crying at work specifically for women because I believe they are sometimes caught in COVID’s crosshairs in ways men are not. I wrote about taking grief to work because this has been, and remains, a deeply sad year for me. I also wrote about creativity and trust, and I wrote about Nina Simon, who remains a she-ro for me mostly because she has the courage to walk away from all this museum stuff and write a novel. At least I think that’s what she’s doing because periodically I answer her probing questions on Twitter about one of her characters who seems to be about my age.

It’s time to say something about the coming year so here is my hope: My hope is that every museum leader, whether they lead a program or an organization, whether they lead 1.5 people or the equivalent of a small town, can, when they’re alone, say honestly and truthfully, “My staff is safe, seen and supported.” If that’s not true, if there are tiny things that need to be changed or great gaping holes, my hope is they make that sentence a truth in 2022. If your staff is safe, they are not harassed and bullied. Should they be, because you can’t control everything, you will have implemented processes to support and help them. If they are seen, they know you believe in them, in the person they really are, not some artificial version of themselves. And if they are supported, they are mentored, encouraged, and given space to be creative, no matter their assigned tasks.

If you–because you are important too–and your staff are safe, seen and supported, the constant gnawing need for self care will also lessen. It won’t be perfect. Life rarely is, but it will be a long way toward better. So think about what you need to do to move the needle toward those three simple words: safe, seen, supported.

I’ll close this end-of-year post with a poem. Given the space we’re currently in, we probably should read more poetry, and the title is fitting. In the meantime, be well, take care of those you love, and I’ll be back here in 2022.

Joan Baldwin

Instructions on Not Giving Up

Ada Limón – 1976-

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.


How Much Lipstick Can the Museum Pig Wear?

Ixocactus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36094925

If you saw any social media last week, you’re aware that recently more than a few museum directors left their positions. It’s a disturbing trend, and while tempting to blame on COVID, as if life minus the pandemic was ducky, we know that’s not true. COVID threw open a Pandora’s box of problems, but the seeds were sown a decade or more ago. With that in mind, how long can the field move forward, without acknowledging what’s going on backstage in museum offices? How much lipstick can the museum pig wear?

Change threatens the weakest points, and sadly, museum leadership and governance has been wobbly for a while. Why? There are a number of reasons, but before going there, let’s acknowledge how COVID makes each of us vulnerable individually and personally, leading to a nationwide level of workplace stress. Nothing is as we knew it. Many jobs were lost. Many were sick, and more than 600,000 lost their lives, meaning at least twice that number come to work grief-stricken. Childcare was affected, and now with the Delta Variant, parents need to calibrate risk on a daily basis, balancing children’s need for school, over the risk of exposure. My point is only as the museum workplace reaches a boiling point, we would do well to remember that for the last 20 months nobody’s had their eye on the proverbial ball.

But back to the other epidemic: the one where museum directors walk out the door. Let’s start at the top. Not for the first time in these pages I’m going to suggest that along with COVID there is an epic level of poor governance at the board level. Don’t believe me? Spend an hour on Instagram reading @changetheboard or on Facebook looking at Your Thriving Nonprofit, and you’ll see what I mean. Differing state regulations governing nonprofits, a general lack of understanding regarding what nonprofits do, combined with an epic level of misunderstanding about a board’s role, as well as poor board onboarding, leaving us with board members who see their roles, not as something for the collective and organizational good, but as an opportunity to behave tyrannically. So instead of partnering with their board in running an organization, museum leaders with wayward boards spend too much time in training and education. Who looses? Museum staff and their communities.

Next up poor training and preparation for leaders. Again, if this is something you don’t believe, take a gander at @changethemuseum or @changeberkshireculture or read Dana Kopel’s excellent Unionizing the New Museum a sick-making tour through the New Museum’s reluctant journey to unionization. This blog is dedicated to the idea that leadership is a thing unto itself, not a reward for dedicated service; nor is it the payoff for doing well in your original museum job. Leadership doesn’t depend on content knowledge and scholarship the way a curator’s role may, but instead flourishes with “soft skills,” that are now the hard skills, meaning museum leaders must be good communicators, people who are empathetic, courageous, and visionary.

Then there’s the money challenge. I work on the outskirts of the museum field, but my organization’s strong endowment means I don’t worry about our big dreams. But I’m not the point. Too many in museum and heritage organization staff work hard just to keep organizations afloat, much less to implement their wishlists. It’s why museum leaders need courage, vision, and the communication skills to persuade community leaders whether they are fancy one-percenters or small city business people that what they do is for everyone, and most importantly why it’s for everyone.

Last, and by no means least, is the museum world’s long history of systemic gender, class, and race issues. We have a lousy pay structure built around issues of race and gender, forcing too many women and women of color to tread water professionally. Beyond the HR issues, our institutions are riddled with systemic racism in ways the overwhelmingly white staffs aren’t doing the work to acknowledge. You can’t become the activist museum Mike Murawski talks about unless staff and community collaborate so the barriers come down. Diversifying staff is not the whole answer. There is parallel work to do on the part of the we’ve–always–done–it–that–way staff and leadership.

So what’s the answer? Some thoughts….

  • Making sure leadership training is something all museum leaders have access to either as part of graduate school, later or both.
  • Making sure board members understand their roles. As lame as some of the sexual harassment online training is, it does spell out the legal landscape. Maybe board members need a 20-minute online class they must pass before signing on?
  • By building museums that are value driven.
  • By believing that museums are really for people. And what do people need? Love, caring, kindness, museums that are humane, human-centered, and empathetic.
  • Working toward museums and heritage organizations that don’t exploit the dedication many emerging professionals give to the field.
  • Recognizing wellness as a thing, and burnout not as a term, but a condition. Non-profit does not mean museum employees should toil in some 21st-century imitation of a 19th-century mill.
  • Last, if you want something hopeful to read, take a look at this, first Tweeted by the inimitable Linda Norris. Working for Trevor White sounds like it might be a little bit of alright.

Be well and be kind.

Joan Baldwin


On Labor Day: Taking the Museum World’s Work Temperature

.Franz van Duns – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90830646

In the United States, this weekend is three days long. For those not coping with displacement and disaster due to fire or flood, it’s Labor Day, and an extra day off from the weekly grind. So it seems like an appropriate moment to check in and take the temperature of work in Museumland, what’s good, not-so-good, and what’s truly awful.

You’ve heard me say this before, but when I began this blog in 2012 there weren’t a lot of people talking about working conditions in museums and heritage organizations. Every organization was its own entity, and its basic humanity and worker care came down to who ran the museum. There was, and still is, a sort of every person for themselves mentality. Sometimes staff ended up with a humane leader, sometimes not, and when the worst happened they were counseled to stay quiet because “It’s a small field,” and basically no one wants to be labeled as “difficult.”

There were few public conversations about leadership, and when they happened, the assumption was that yes, abysmal leadership happened in small, pitiful historical societies somewhere, but not in the large, well-funded urban museums with elegantly dressed directors. Well, we know that’s not true. In fact, over the last decade, and particularly over the last five years, the scales seem to have fallen from our collective eyes. Museumland isn’t the Nirvana we wanted it to be. There are examples of bad leadership everywhere from large urban art museums to small heritage organizations.

That said, it’s not all dreadful, and in some areas the needle’s actually moved in a good way. Some examples:

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2020, there are more women in the field (63.6%) than ever before, and presumably many of those women are in leadership positions across the museum ecosystem. That’s definitely a change from a decade ago, and a good thing.
  • The BLS also predicts museums are a growth field. (I know, hilarious, right?) But the BLS isn’t a bunch of comedians and their data predicts we’re a growing industry–much faster than average–is the way they put it, and we should expect 11-percent growth over the next decade. Could that be the sound of retirement parties as Baby Boomers finally exit stage left?
  • Even though I mentioned it above, I think the fact that museum folk, led last week by AAM, are speaking about the issues of leadership, and by implication, HR, hiring, and bias, that’s a good thing, and something that couldn’t or didn’t happen five years ago.
  • Millennials seem savvier to me. Maybe it’s because I’m older (still), but they seem less willing to settle for a job in the museum sector simply because an organization wants to hire them.
  • And even mired in COVID, all the major service organizations have managed to address leadership, workplace gender harassment, and HR as part of their annual meeting schedules, a far cry from the days when we were told, “We don’t talk about those things,” even though staff were literally being belittled and harassed as service organizations put conference schedules together.
  • More staff at large museums are joining unions. Unions are not a panacea, but they give members a powerful voice and a way to negotiate with organizations who don’t want to negotiate. And a new Economic Policy Institute report on unions points out that unionized workers make on average 11.2-percent more than their non-unionized peers. In addition, Black and Hispanic workers get even more of a boost receiving 13.7-percent and 20.1-percent respectively as union memberships pushes past the racial stereotyping and class bias in non-union situations.

And how about the not so good?

  • The pay is still not good. According to the BLS the median pay for archivists, curators and museum workers is $52,140, which is up from two years ago, but still doesn’t match the median pay of librarians ($60,820) or teachers ($62,870). Not that either of those numbers is a benchmark especially when you consider Dan Price just raised his company’s minimum annual pay to $70K.
  • Too many museums and heritage organizations still don’t have HR policies, and utilize a seat-of-the-pants method where the director or the board makes decisions which inevitably result in inequities.
  • In a world that’s 63.6-percent women, questions around family care, parental leave, personal time off need to be decided for the organization not on a case-by-case basis.
  • If we believe the BLS, as of 2020, the museum world was 94.6-percent White, .6-percent Black, 7.6-percent Hispanic, and 4.4-percent Asian. (And yes, even I, a math cripple, can tell that all those added together is more than 100-percent.) So no matter how much change appears to be happening on social media, when the government crunches the numbers, it’s a field that’s NOT diverse.

And the truly awful:

  • Given the field’s entrance ticket is still a very expensive graduate degree, salaries are low. Unlike boards of education, museums don’t hire newly-minted undergraduates and then support them while they earn their graduate degree, forcing new museum staff to invest first, before they even know the field, and pay later.
  • There is a lot of hand-wringing when it comes to pay in the museum field, a lot of you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone talk, but until boards realize staff are an investment every bit as important as a new HVAC system or a new storage facility, nothing will change. Someday, maybe, AAM or AASLH will take a stand about salaries and publish a page like this one from the American Library Association.
  • DEI is not something that is spun. It’s not something you fabricate so your organization looks good in public and on social media; it’s a process, and it takes a lot of work to re-center institutional DNA, but ultimately creating diverse teams makes us all better collaborators.
  • There is STILL a gender pay gap, and as the field is increasingly populated by women, the issue of the pay gap becomes more acute. Sometimes I feel as though the pay gap takes short shrift in comparison to DEI issues, but the gender pay gap is the definition of the absence of DEI. It affects all women from transgender women to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women. The cascading hourly pay they receive is testament to one of the last big labor problems yet to be tackled. Among other things, the gender pay gap is metaphor for how those in authority view those without power. And anyone in museum leadership who says they are a feminist or supports women’s rights, but hasn’t done a gender pay audit isn’t being truthful.

Be well. Be kind. Do your best.

Joan Baldwin


A Twofer: AAM’s COVID Data and Job Descriptions As Road Maps

Archives New Zealand – https://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE25775092, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93276703

Two weeks ago I gave a shout out to AAM for its data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, but I encourage everyone to download the whole report. It’s free, and your staff, your board, your team, and your volunteers should see it. In a crisis–at least on the back side of a crisis–it’s important to understand what happened, and how your experience, organizationally and personally, fits into the larger picture. So maybe arrange some COVID chats to discuss the similarities and differences in your own situation to the larger picture. From students, to museum employees of color, to women, to consultants, there is little the report leaves out.

One nugget? Forty-eight percent of the respondents reported they had increased workload, while nine-percent saw their salaries decrease. And, no surprise, women are far more burned out and disillusioned than their male colleagues. Is it any wonder the museum field is in a bad place right now? One bright spot: it’s comforting to know that among the 2,666 respondents, their greatest concern was for their colleagues, this from a group with increased anxiety and depression. So, once again, kudos to AAM. Illness, fear, and the economics of COVID were and are isolating. In helping the museum community understand what COVID has done, a report like this brings the museum community closer by anchoring individual experiences in lived data.

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Each time Anne Ackerson and I teach Museum Leadership in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program we’ve had students wonder why we’re seemingly obsessed with good, clear writing. They’ve told us other faculty don’t criticize their writing, suggesting that as soon-to-be museum folk they don’t plan on writing for a living. True to a point, but they want, after all, to be museum staff, and potentially museum leaders. Our response is that words matter. Not only in the way that phrase is currently used, meaning words can be weapons, but as tools to provide clarity and context. Think how many times museum leaders grow and nurture ideas, and how many words–both spoken and written–see ideas from conception to implementation?

One place it strikes me where words matter a whole heck of a lot, especially in the COVID-age of shifting and increased responsibilities, is job descriptions. Done well job descriptions can be wonderfully crafted road maps, the architecture where museum work rests. Done badly they are truly a waste of time, leading to confusion, meandering nowhere, mired in road blocks of self-doubt and gas lighting. Too frequently there’s more energy put into a job announcement than the subsequent job description. Often anemic in comparison to their sister job announcements, job descriptions are burdened by to-do lists ending with “and all other duties as required,” meaning the morning you shoveled snow, cleaned a sticky craft table or spent time at the reception desk. But in their lack of clarity, they aren’t helpful.

We’ve all heard how strategic plans are “living documents.” Well, so are job descriptions. A good one isn’t one and done, it’s something for leaders and staff members to return to particularly as they prepare for performance reviews, understand an increase–or a decrease–in responsibilities. It’s hard to imagine a museum workplace without job descriptions except to imagine a kind of anarchy. On any given day the educator could put her shoes on the desk and announce she needed to spend some time with advancement, while the communications person could say they were bored with Instagram and wanted to design an exhibit. Hyperbole, yes, but perhaps you’ve been in museum workplaces where job descriptions were mushy around the edges? Over time staff staff choose tasks they like rather than doing the job assigned. When that happens, things fall unacknowledged by the wayside, and ultimately, an organizational belief develops around a given job that may not have been true at conception.

So how do you get this right? First, don’t do it quickly, and don’t do it alone. Job descriptions, like strategic plans, are best written collaboratively. If you are revising an existing job description–perhaps because of COVID–speak with person who currently does the job, their direct report(s), and potentially their colleagues. If this is an existing job that has mutated because of COVID, you’ll want to find out what the position looked like before it absorbed tasks from other positions. If it’s now two positions now co-joined, it’s a good idea to be transparent if for no other reason than in stressful times employees performing two roles as one, need to know which takes precedent over the course of a week, and which role trumps the other in terms of responsibility. For example, pre-COVID you had both a collections manager and a curator. Now you have only a curator, someone whose heart doesn’t race at the thought of a perfectly catalogued collection, but rather at the creation of imaginative and thoughtful exhibits. An honest and transparent discussion will help your colleague identify how their job description and thus their performance goals fit into the organizational scope and sequence.

Once you’ve done your analysis, and potentially amended the title, come up with a pithy job summary. Here is where you want to summon your inner Hemingway, and write a clear, concise, yet intriguing description of what this person will do, not in the worst of times, but in the best of times. Next, draft their responsibilities. They should be broad enough so they’re not a to-do list, but specific enough to prevent anarchy. Last, add the job’s requirements. You don’t want someone applying for a job that requires daily lifting of 25 pounds and up, if there are health reasons that prevent them from lifting. If you have an HR department, they will work from your draft, making sure that the appropriate legal language is included–particularly as it involves HDA compliance — and that you have neither overstepped nor undersold what you expect this person to do.

If you do have an HR department at your museum or heritage organization, they may not look fondly on your revising job descriptions annually. In theory, when that happens HR scopes out how the position has changed state or region-wide in terms of salary and benefits. But jobs within a organization are like an extended game of telephone. They mutate and change to fit the individuals performing them. As leaders, whether it’s a team, a program, department or organization, our job is to watch out for performance drift. Like mission drift, it’s when an individual, perhaps because they are over-burdened, disaffected or simply selfish, begins to work outside the scope of their job description. It’s much easier to do this in organizations where once you’re hired no one ever refers to your job description again. If you don’t already, you may want to consider meeting with your direct reports quarterly to look at how their jobs have changed, and aligning them with your organization’s goals and objectives. Job descriptions connect to people, so it helps to really know your staff. Some may welcome more structure while others more autonomy. Hopefully, you will create the best job description not only for the organization, but also the individual.

Be well. Stay safe. Write clearly.

Joan Baldwin


Covid, Crying and Thoughts on Hiring

fiedler, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58670503

This first part is mainly for women who read this blog. This week I spoke with a colleague who, despite the fact that we work on the same campus, I see infrequently. So when we check in it’s with a degree of seriousness. “How are you?” isn’t just a pleasantry, but a real question. She reported crying in the doctor’s office. I responded I had too, both of us in answer to that simple question, “How are you doing?” Her doctor told her she needed a vacation. She laughed. There are eight more weeks of school so vacation seems as unlikely as being hit by a meteor. Mine asked what I was doing for relaxation. My only answer was joining a wine club which didn’t seem to be what he had in mind.

Let me be clear: We are the lucky ones. We are healthy. No one in our families was stolen by COVID. We are employed. We have colleagues, friends and families. We have partners who love us. But this is still hard, and it’s hard in a particularly gendered way.

I know there have been about 8 million articles, essays, and news pieces on women and COVID, one or two have appeared right here. The illness, the changes in economics and home life, and the spillover at work–for those who are working–has unnecessarily burdened women. And left some of us in tears. Perhaps you’re hoping I’ll offer the one recipe for healing you haven’t heard about yet–two shots of Brené Brown, followed by a morsel of Mary Oliver or Maya Angelou and a brisk walk on a sunny day–but I haven’t found the recipe yet. I do know my colleague and I ended up laughing, a little irrationally, but honestly what else can you do? The universe demands a lot some days, and some times the best response is to laugh with a friend, even if what you’re laughing at is really the pain of the pandemic.

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As some of you know, I’ve spent the last 10 months as interim director of a library, archives and special collections. Beyond keeping the ship on course, my primary job was to serve as point person for the search for a permanent director. I’m happy to say, it’s over, and in a few days when the last of the paper work is complete, we will be able to announce our new director. In the meantime, I’ve thought a lot about the search process, so here are some random ideas and considerations.

  • Hiring over Zoom is unnatural. Does it privilege the extroverts and actors? Maybe. The things you’ve read about how to dress, how you present, are true. You should look like you’re sitting down for a semi-serious conversation. You don’t need a fancy living room with strategically placed books just over your shoulders, but you do need to appear as though your entrance to the Zoom room is something you actually thought about and consider important. (Hint: Not everyone does.) And while we all have bad IT days, a device that’s steady, and doesn’t make your interviewer feel as though they’re on a tilt-a-whirl is a must.
  • Your references matter, and maybe not in the way you thought. Presumably your references believe you’re brilliant or they wouldn’t have agreed to speak for you, but many employers, my own included, don’t want a letter extolling your virtues. They want to talk one-on-one with your references. So it’s important that the people you ask are not only willing to say nice things, but are good talkers–articulate, smart, and generous over telephone or Zoom. Reporting you have soft skills, and then repeating a list of soft skills from Muse.com isn’t helpful. As someone about to hire you, your new organization wants to know you, specifically how your soft skills exemplify themselves in the workplace.
  • NBC News reported this morning that there are now more jobs open than before the pandemic began. It attributes the spike not just to a rebounding economy, but to the fact that many job seekers are too fearful, hesitant, and discouraged to go through the process. My advice? Don’t apply if you don’t mean it. Yes, all job searches are an elaborate dance between job seeker and employer, with each one making choices based on what they discover. While the lucky and the talented may find themselves fought over by more than one employer, that’s not what I’m talking about. Don’t start the process without first engaging in the necessary soul searching. It’s been a rough 18 months. Are you ready to move? Is your partner? Your family? You’ve created a pandemic routine that works for you. Are you willing to disrupt it? Not really wanting to move does not make you a bad person, but job searches are costly, not just money wise, but they are time sink holes. It feels wrong to go through three quarters of a complex process to have a job seeker tell you they really can’t imagine moving during a pandemic.
  • Be clear in your own head why this job matters to you. New isn’t enough. Neither is admitting you have a crush on the organization since your crush may be based on half-truths and beautiful Internet photos. It helps if you can explain why this job matters to you now, at this very moment, and how it builds on what you’ve done so far, and challenges you in places you need to grow. And for the love of God, a mid-life crisis is not a reason for a new job. (Yes, that really happened.)
  • If you’re stepping out of your lane, for example, you have little leadership experience, but you’re applying to lead a team of seven, be clear about what you know, what you done, what your skills are, and why they matter. Think like an interviewer so when they ask you, “And why should we let you run our team of museum educators, when you have next to no leadership experience?” you have an answer that lets them see you actually understand the act of leadership even if you haven’t had the title.

For all of you looking for work, I wish you the best of luck. Yes, the museum world is competitive, but positions are opening up. My last two bromides: Don’t write the script before anything happens. By that I mean don’t create a novel’s worth of reasons why you couldn’t take the position when you haven’t even applied. If you want a job and believe you’re capable, apply. Second, do the work you need to do before applying. What do you want? Of course you want a job, but if you knew you could earn just as much at Amazon, with better benefits, as you can at a given heritage site or regional museum, why there? Why does joining their team make sense for you?

And last, and this is for the folks at AASLH and AAM, recently I heard an NPR journalist speaking about his own field. He was making the point that print journalism has changed profoundly since last March, adding that his field lost 39,000 journalists in less than a year. Does the museum world know who it has lost?

Be well. Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


A Speech We Wish We’d Given, A Speech for All Women

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Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the House floor on Thursday. The New York Times, Inc. House Television, via Associated Press

This week Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a speech in Congress many of us wish we’d made rather than fretting alone in our cars or the women’s room. She said what so many of us want to say, only better. Ocasio-Cortez is member of Congress so we expect her to be collected, measured and smart and she was, but she included all of us, speaking for any woman who’s ever been diminished, trash talked, or on the receiving end of harassing words from a man, because to quote her, “all of us have had to deal with this in some form, some way, some shape at some point in our lives.” Ocasio-Cortez was responding to remarks, and then a subsequent public apology, by Congressman Ted Yoho.  He called her a f***ing b**** on the Capitol steps where Yoho’s remark was overheard by a reporter.

So if you’re still working in the museum world and not among the formerly employed, and you identify as a woman, what do you do when this kind of gendered anger comes your way? As we’ve said, the museum world is still hierarchical, patriarchal, and traditional. In cultures like that women are expected to be kind, collegial, even motherly, but definitely not strong and especially not angry.

Yoho called Octavio-Cortez crazy and out of her mind. Research tells us when men get angry it’s associated with power; it’s even seen as courageous. In an article on women’s emotions and the workplace, the Gender Action Portal says that male job applicants expressing anger were more likely to be hired than those expressing sadness. With women, on the other hand, emotions, and particularly anger are inexorably tied to hormones, to centuries of tropes and metaphors where emotion comes from some dark, crazy, peculiarly gendered place.

So what should you do if someone at work name calls you in this gendered way? It’s unlikely there’ll be a reporter nearby to make the interchange viral, and equally unlikely that the name caller will stand up in front of all your colleagues, and frame an apology while invoking his own wife and daughters. So here are some things to keep in mind: 

  1. First, keep your composure. Channel your inner Michelle Obama, and go high, rather than low, and your inner AOC by stepping away and collecting yourself.
  2. Know your rights. If a colleague or your direct report calls you a f***ing idiot, that’s different than if you identify as female and that same person calls you a f***ing b****. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) classifies the latter as abuse because it’s tied to your race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin or genetic information. Be sure to document every incident, preferably in pen on paper with date and time, the old fashioned way.
  3. Assuming your organization has an employee handbook, know what it says. Very few organizations tolerate abusive language in the workplace. Whether they enforce their own rules is another matter. Do remember that HR’s primary purpose is to protect the organization so if you approach them, make sure you are calm, unemotional, and frame what happened not only to you, but its spill over effect on your team, program or department.
  4. Don’t let anyone–your boss or HR–describe what’s happened as a clash of personalities. It’s not. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, which is a fount of information, the he said/she said scenario is an easy go-to for HR because they can shrug their collective shoulders and act as though it’s impossible to legislate.
  5. Know when you’ve reached your limit. In hard times like a global pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, it might seem like madness to walk away from a job. But bullies are masters of serial behavior. If you’ve been name called once, it’s likely it will happen again. Dodging someone’s targeted anger can affect your health and well being.
  6. Consider whether you have the will to press forward with legal action. If so, follow the steps outlined by the Bullying Institute.
  7. Last, if you’re not the target, but instead the witness to this kind of behavior, for the love of God, stand up and help your colleague. Don’t avert your eyes while giving a silent thanks that it’s not you. Comfort them. Validate what’s happened to them. Write down what you observed and share it with them. Ask others to do the same. In theory, HR is far more likely to pay attention to a group than an individual.

The museum world isn’t a very happy place at the moment. Too many are out of work, and recent articles report that the fiscal downturn and pandemic closures may take out one in three museums. Yet rather than caring for their staffs, museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Akron Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Erie Museum of Art spent last spring as poster children for organizations who failed to acknowledge workplace bullying, gender harassment, and racist behavior until it was too late. What AOC demonstrated in her measured and inclusive response is to make clear that for her Representative Yoho’s remarks weren’t personal, but instead another instance of the type of targeted language used by men against women. She’s a busy person. She could have turned away and forgotten about it, but she didn’t. You don’t have to either. #MuseumMeToo.

Joan Baldwin