Leadership and the Power of Things

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Here at Leadership Matters we don’t often wade into interpretive waters. There are plenty of able bloggers out there writing about museum collections. (Linda Norris’s Uncatalogued Museum, Frank Vagnone’s Twisted Preservation or Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 are  good examples.) For the most part, we are concerned with how leadership does or doesn’t function in the museum workplace. We write often about pay equity, workplace bias, gender issues, and the importance of human capital in the museum world.

Recently, though, we were struck by the synchronicity of things. First, came this quote from President Obama’s Farewell Speech in Chicago, IL, January 10. “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.” The quote sits at the end of the speech where Obama reminds us not to take democracy for granted, citing George Washington who reminds us to protect democracy with “jealous anxiety.”

What struck us about this wasn’t the sentiment, which is really important, but the idea that the Constitution is just parchment until people give it power. We believe there’s a connection here to the museum world, particularly the world of history/heritage organizations where there’s a lot of moaning about whether people care about history any more. Is that really true or are we a little lazy? Is it possible that with the visual wealth of the internet visitors aren’t so awestruck by reality any more? And really why should they be? Anybody with a phone or a laptop has access to a gazillion images. Seeing them lined up in a museum with tiny labels that sometimes repeat the obvious might not be so compelling in 2017. So who gives objects power? Who engages communities in giving objects power? In our world, that would be museum staff. And how exactly does that happen in our frenetic, media obsessed world?

One answer might be the creation of context either in time or through time. Think about parsing an object the way you would a poem. Never did that? It’s not hard: Who made it? What does it do? What are its component parts? Is it something we use today? In today’s material culture, what are its descendants? Is it beautiful? Why? Who used it? Do they matter? If not, why not? Of course no one would stand still and do this endlessly, but if three objects in a room of things move from mute to thoughtful speech, and if those three things are linked together ideologically, visitors may leave with a sense of connectedness not only over time, but to today’s ideas and concerns.

But the real lesson here is that the history museum field has to want staff who thinks this way. One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters left the history field, moving to an art museum. Her reason? She was adamant that museum staff charged with interpreting culture should be as invested in the present as the past, and she felt that far too many history museum staff were in retreat from today’s world. But it doesn’t have to be that way, which brings us to the second synchronicity. This weekend Old Salem Village in North Carolina made a connection on its Facebook page between contemporary life and the way the Village’s original Moravian residents welcomed visitors. It was simple and direct. With no falderal it pointed out that over centuries there have been communities and there were “strangers.” It made you think about the way we’ve either welcomed and fed newcomers or stoned them into leaving. The Moravians, by the way, felt welcoming strangers was important.

So invest in your staff. Objects are important, but too many history museums are like badly written essays in need of good editors. Those editors (your staff) are as important as the objects they serve because they make them speak, and in making them speak, they make them matter.

Joan H. Baldwin


Why Creativity AND Leadership Matter

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The collective intelligence of a community comes from idea flow; we learn from the ideas that surround us, and others learn from us. Over time, a community with members who actively engage with each other creates a group with shared, integrated habits and beliefs. Idea flow depends upon social learning, and indeed, this is the basis of social physics: Our behavior can be predicted from our exposure to the example behaviors of other people.

Alex Pentland writing in Wired, February 7, 2014

As Austin Kleon suggests in his wonderful little book, Steal Like an Artist, you’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. He goes on to remind you that means not just in real life, but in your digital life too, suggesting that following the smartest bloggers and writers on the Internet will make you smarter. And it will. A little like when your parents said that reading cheesy magazines would rot your brain. He closes by suggesting that “If you ever find you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” The point of all this is that history organizations–whether the teeniest, tiniest local history organization or the biggest state historical society–need to surround themselves with smart, creative people. And they need to ramp up the idea flow that Wired‘s Alex Pentland mentions above in the opening quote. In our experience, too many leaders get mired in process and skip the idea flow.

While there are many creative leaders among the individuals we interviewed for Leadership Matters, there are a few we identified as “Visionary.” They are the type of leaders who not only see possibilities, but articulate them in such real and compelling terms–called “visual postcards” by the Heath brothers– that their followers see them too. In short, they are comfortable with idea flow. Pentland describes these leaders as explorers, people who search for what’s new rather than what’s best.

We begin Leadership Matters with 10 Simple Myths and end it with 10 Simple Truths. Two of the Truths are pertinent to this discussion. The first is “Get Integrated.” By that we meant integrating ideas, information and standards from diverse places to leap frog your museum forward.  We might add that while you’re leaping cross-culturally, you need to remember to pause long enough to let people–staff, trustees, volunteers–bounce ideas off one another. You can’t do that if you’re convinced a successful meeting is one where discussion is squashed in aid of moving the agenda forward. Focus discussion on a concept and idea and rescue it from minutiae.

The second simple truth is “Tap Your Entire Network,” meaning that leadership isn’t about the guy at the front of the room, but about everyone else, too. Good leadership demands collaboration, and that’s when invention and creativity happen or to quote Kleon again, “Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives.” Leaders who open themselves and their institutions  to new possibilities, discover what they have never seen before.

So going forward, how might 21st-century history museum and historic house museum leaders change? First, commit to leadership development, for everyone, from board members to shop manager to curators. Second, make space in meetings for ideas to grow. For ideas we recommend Creativity in Museum Practice’s: develop risk taking; build learning cohorts; encourage learning from failure; and last advocate for prototyping spaces. Remember, it isn’t about getting it perfect, it’s about getting it right.

How do you keep ideas moving?