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


The Volunteer Conundrum: Necessary, Infuriating or Both? And Why?

Look back at museum history and you will uncover a wealth of volunteer labor. From Mount Vernon to MOMA, local historical societies to heritage sites, many of the organizations we think of today as staid and patriarchal, owe their lifeblood to a group of volunteers whose persistence created an organization. That moment of transition, when a group of like-minded individuals with a museum goal in mind becomes a non-profit organization governed by a board of trustees is a delicate one. Like it or not, it can stamp organizational culture into the future because it hallmarks who volunteers are, and most importantly, who they’re not.

Recently Michelle Moon tweeted that museum volunteer programs are a “third rail,” meaning they’re too volatile to discuss. Moon’s tweet was in response to an Instagram post on ChangetheMuseum praising Veronica Stein at Chicago’s Art Institute for her efforts in disrupting its all-powerful Docent Council. I don’t want to litigate the Art Institute’s case, but even today almost a year after it fired its docents, the topic still lingers. Why? Well, it incapsulates a gazillion touch stones, many dating to pre-Covid museum history and some to today. There’s gender–the vast majority of museum volunteers are women. There’s ageism. Many museum volunteers are older. There’s class–many volunteers, often called docents from the Latin docere, to teach–are wealthy or at least privileged enough not to work 40/hrs a week. There’s race: the vast majority of docents are White. They are frequently powerful. Collectively they form or join docent organizations, and, because they offer a much-needed service–their organization grows powerful. Even at a county historical society, a strong docent organization has the capacity to cripple an education program by simply failing to show up. And, at another level, docent programs’ origins are often built around women without careers who volunteered while their husbands took positions on the board.

Blech. I can hear you eye rolling. Like we need to feel sorry for a bunch of rich, older, White women, who create organizations within organizations and then refuse to take instructions from anyone. Right? But there are so many ways this narrative speaks to the museum field’s failures and problems. First, how did volunteer organizations become a third rail? Well, to quote Deep Throat, follow the money. When you put a group of well-heeled women together, who by the way, are often married to well-heeled men, who museum leaders want to court for one reason or another, they are teflonned. Any hint of distress might mean less giving. Is it possible less-than distinguished volunteer teaching is an acceptable trade off for a more robust annual fund? Second, museum education is the pinkest place, in a pink collar field. I’ve written about this a bit, which you can find here, and here, but if you want a concise break down look at Margaret Middleton’s Twitter thread on the subject. Her point, that if a field (museum education) is devalued from the start, volunteers are often a necessity not a choice. But once again, dismantling a volunteer program, may mean biting the hand that feeds you.

I understand it’s easy to sit at your laptop and act as though fixing the museum world’s problems is a snap. It’s not. Negotiating with humans is frequently challenging, and who has time to unravel organizational culture when there are so many more pressing problems? That said, here are a few thoughts for anyone considering dismantling or changing a volunteer program.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics devotes considerable time to the act of volunteering. In fact, it defines volunteers as workers albeit unpaid ones.
  • If volunteers are staff, just unpaid staff, then their work expectations, as opposed to their time, shouldn’t be less than staff. In other words, both types of worker, paid and unpaid, serve the museum. Anything less seems like it leads to anarchy. For example, what if the volunteer EMTs formed their own organization and refused to be trained by their parent organizations? No one in a museum will die if their teacher is a volunteer as opposed to staff. So…. is the question whether volunteers are old, rich, and White or whether they are serving themselves and not the institution?
  • Interestingly, the BLS notes that volunteers can’t displace paid staff.
  • I once heard Darren Walker talk about diversifying the Ford Foundation’s board. Perhaps because there is such is level of trust between Walker and his board, the board confessed it couldn’t diversify on its own. Board members didn’t know how, and more importantly they didn’t know who. Is it possible that if charged with diversifying their ranks, some docent organizations would need help? Might they also need help getting to the point of asking for help?
  • Like staff, volunteers, even the most magical ones, take a lot of work. (For example, the Met’s volunteers train weekly for six months before being let loose in the galleries.) Too often volunteers train volunteers, creating an elaborate game of telephone, and distancing volunteers from staff. Does your organization have resources to educate and incorporate volunteers into its wider staff?
  • Has your museum leadership talked about how to transparently deal with questions from paid staff about their worth, and what they’ve invested in the field, which is not nothing, versus a volunteer who swans in once a week for a tour?
  • Has your museum talked about the language it uses when defining groups, either within or without the museum? As part of DEI education, many organizations offer help regarding appropriate group descriptors. As a museum leader, have you needed to model similar behavior when it comes to volunteers?
  • At the end of the day, does your museum need volunteers? If so, which is more important: having a diverse body of volunteers or having volunteers who serve the museum? Or both?

Be well. Stay cool.

See you in September.

Joan Baldwin


Two Leaders? No Leaders? Where’s the New Paradigm?

We don’t need leaders, we need just need a load of people working together to make sure everyone else is alright. Jayde Adams in Serious Black Jumper

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

There is little doubt Covid lifted the rock off a host of museum leadership issues. In the hierarchy of museum problems, some point to our class-driven, patriarchal, colonial, racist organizational culture. Others feel the first priority on the road to organizational health might be to eliminate the person in the top spot. While I understand the cries of “Do away with museum leadership,” (I mean look at the tangled mess at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), to date, no one seems to have suggested a workable alternative more detailed than “We don’t need the leaders we’ve got.”

Many of us know or have worked for a bad leader. My optimistic self would like to think that while not perfect, today’s museum leadership is an improved version of the leadership I encountered when I began my museum journey decades ago. At least I would like to think it is. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics lets us know who’s working in museums, it’s sometimes difficult to parse exactly who occupies the top spot. Nevertheless, groups like Museum Hue and GEMM act as a kind of collective consciousness for us simply by taking note of leadership change as it happens.

That is not to say bad leadership’s been banished. Recently I reached out to a younger colleague to ask if they would be interested in a newly-opened leadership position. It’s not a small job, but the outgoing leader has done little more than use the museum and its contents as wallpaper for a personal agenda. While they were honored I thought of them, they said no immediately because a) They’re still recovering from being beaten up in their last leadership position, and b) They feel organizations who hire bad directors, and then publicly praise them, likely have no idea what good leadership is. Probably true. Boards perpetuate their own bad culture by repeatedly hiring versions of the same leader , and then scratching their heads when the scenario repeats itself for the umpteenth time.

So what would museum leadership look like minus the trope of the highly-paid soul in the biggest office with the most perks? One model might be the idea of co-CEO’s. The most obvious version of that is, of course, the Metropolitan Museum, which until recently had both Daniel Weiss, serving as business and administrative leader, and Max Hollein, looking after programming and curatorial issues. Dual leadership, where one leader’s responsibilities sometimes point inward while the other looks outward, has been used successfully in educational settings, but the Met’s choice was unusual in the museum world. It’s also one more easily accommodated at an organization like the Met with an endowment bigger than a tiny country’s GDP. After all, how many boards, who regularly grumble about salaries, would agree to the equivalent of two top positions? And yet, it’s a model that, while unspoken, exists at some government museums, where the top position is appointed, while the deputy director runs day-to-day operations. In the past, this model was often gendered, with the top post going to a man, while the worker-bee position was filled by a woman.

Maybe you read Niloufar Kinsari’s article in the June NPQ? There Kinsari describes moving her organization, away from top-down leadership. One thing I found compelling was her transparency about both the process and her own feelings. She recalls the factory collectives she visited in Argentina, describing them as places where “self-management, mutuality, respect, and dignity were the norm.” What’s not to like, right? So, after discussion and a vote by her staff, she proposed to her board that she lose her ED title. And the board’s response? Initially, it said no. The title stayed, but the organization continued to change, creating a dual-headed leadership structure not unlike the Met’s. This allowed Kinsari time to wrestled with her own demons about self-worth and hierarchical conditioning. As a woman of color, Kinsari writes, “I had been conditioned all my life to chase the positive feedback loop of visibility and status. Attaching some of my professional self-worth to my title was second nature.”

Kinsari and Pangea Legal Services have continued to flatten their hierarchy, and although she doesn’t explain it, her article concludes by saying the organization now uses a “hub” model where “staff self-organized to co-lead internal administration and development committees, including finances, communications, human resources, governance, and operations hubs.” Are museums doing this? If yes, how did their boards react? And is this kind of change easier to effect in a lean organization like Kinsari’s, where the biggest investment is the staff, as opposed to many museums with challenging collections to contend with, not to mention complex campuses populated with aging infrastructure?

It seems as though museum leaders behave badly daily. Not all of them certainly, but enough so there is a steady drain of emerging and mid-career folk who’ve simply had enough, and they’re leaving. Soon. Or they’ve already left. They’re filled with regret, but they’ve had enough. Would a different leadership model change things? Maybe. Sadly, though, organizations most likely to experiment with new leadership models probably already have a healthy culture of collaboration, mutual support and empathy. Change for them is natural whereas organizations prompting people to leave the field are stagnant, rigid, patriarchal, and far from empathetic. Not to mention that too often their pay stinks especially when compared with non-museum employment.

This sounds dark, but some days it feels like evening with the orchestra playing, and if we look, we’d see the iceberg coming towards us. We’ve talked ad nauseam about leaders’ individual behavior, but how should the architecture of museum leadership change to prevent the ongoing brain drain? I’d love to hear some thoughts.

In the meantime, be well, be kind, and make change where you can.

See you in August,

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


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


Taking Murawski’s Lead: 22 Ideas for Change

Jean-Jacques MILAN – Created by Jean-Jacques MILAN, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12728

Wednesday I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room scrolling through email when an announcement for George Washington University’s Museums Today popped up. The title was 1,000 Ways to Reshape the Future of Museums with Mike Murawski, author of Museums as Agents of Change. I registered on the spot, which seemed appropriate since one of the things Murawski has encouraged his readers to do is reflect on their own relationship with change. Change is not something I adore, but encouraged by Mike’s writings and others, I am trying to live more in the present and not always anticipate the future as its own special brand of disaster.

Promptly at 6 p.m. Murawski appeared on screens around the globe. He opened by asking us to breathe while reflecting on an ancestor, mentor or guide who’d been important to us in our journey. He followed up by reminding us that for him (and for me too) museums are human-centered. I am old enough to remember when that would have been considered a completely wackadoodle thought. The immediate response would have been about the primacy of collections, their importance, and their meaning. A decade or more ago, museum humans’ only role was to be the air beneath the wings of the collections they served. A noble cause, but ultimately futile because it is humans–as care givers, people who see, people who love, people who bring their own stories, people who transform things–are the ones who make collections do their work.

As the talk continued Murawski reminded us to be disrupters, to celebrate the questioners among us, and to–where we can– break down hierarchies within our own institutions. So in that spirit, here are 22 ideas for creating change in 2022. What would you add? What would you delete? Share them here or with Mike.

  • Consider cross-training both as a way to augment staffs decimated by COVID and by plummeting budgets, and as a way to increase understanding and empathy across your staff.
  • Prioritize your HR policy: Does it reflect your organization’s values? If not, why not? Does it reflect life in 2022?
  • Put your organizational values front and center. Are they something the staff knows about, talks about, lives and breathes? If not, why not?
  • If you’re among the many museum folk preparing to advocate for the field in front of state or federal legislators, consider letting them know how important the American Families Plan will be to your organization in terms of parents, families and caregivers who make up your staff.
  • If you’ve never done a gender equity audit, consider doing one now. Women make up slightly more than half of museum staff nation wide, and the gender pay gap remains a critical and unsolved problem.
  • Model praise for questioners and creative thinkers.
  • Always say thank you.
  • Support your colleagues. Build empathy.
  • Support going outside. It’s 4 degrees where I am, but when it’s appropriate, take your meetings on a walk or out-of-doors.
  • Take a page from Murawski’s book and begin a meeting with a breath. Or more than one.
  • Nurture creativity by looking at time. Are you and your colleagues always rushed? Are you ever encouraged to sit and think? If not, can that change?
  • Make sure planning meetings include your colleagues across the spectrum so doers, not just deciders, are in the room.
  • Work to make discussion equitable.
  • Stand up and advocate when a colleague is bullied or harassed.
  • Consider how your organizational values connect with your larger community? Does your museum help with issues around citizenship, food insecurity, childcare, or the environment? What would that look like?
  • What work have you done recognizing historical and implicit biases ingrained in your catalog, in the narratives dominating your collections, and in the presumption of privilege permeating your organization?
  • How does your museum or heritage site work against neutrality? When was the last time you took a stand?
  • How is your museum or heritage site working to recenter its whiteness? See also La Tanya Autry’s recent article for more questions.
  • How do new ideas germinate at your museum or heritage site? Is it an easy path or a risky one? Does everyone from security and housekeeping to curators understand how to broach an idea?
  • Is your staff is safe, and do they know what to do if they’re not.
  • Are your colleagues are seen?
  • Are they are supported?

Be well. Be kind. Do good work, and do good at work.

Joan Baldwin


Why a Hiring Freeze Isn’t Always the Answer

Barfooz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22120

There is a saying that we’re all dying, just maybe not today. Something similar might be said about the nonprofit/museum workplace, that we’re all looking for a new job, just maybe not today. Unless you see retirement’s taillights gleaming in the distance, I would hazard a guess that everyone else has their periscope up more than they’d like to admit. It’s a way of day dreaming, of trying on new professional identities. Is that museum really as pleasant as it looks in the photos? Is living there a lot more expensive? Could I do the job? Could I move? What about my partner, children, parents? Is it reasonable to think about a new job in the middle of a COVID spike?

But the fact that a lot of us look casually or seriously isn’t the point. It’s what drives the looking: curiosity, better pay, new goals, a change in a partner’s position are likely a few of the positives. People also seek new jobs because they’re miserable. Maybe they are harassed or bullied at work; maybe their work is monumentally boring or maybe they work for a control freak where their only creative choice is choosing lunch. In fact, if we believe Resume Builders recent report, 23-percent of currently employed individuals plan to find a new job in 2022. Another 9-percent already have new jobs, while an additional nine-percent will retire. That’s 41-percent of sturm und drang, which is a lot of workplace churn.

And then there is this: In addition to all the other ways it’s complicated the museum workplace, COVID has tightened budgets to the point where many people do their original job, plus bits and pieces from staff who resigned or retired, leaving current staff with a constant feeling of whiplash. There is a direct connection between the speed with which those additional tasks become permanent and a staff member’s ability to perform them well. Succeed and they are yours forever. Fail, and you’ll get additional tasks as leaders spitball work at the overtasked. Funny thing though, these random tasks are most often assigned to the so-called rising stars, the driven, the scarily competent.

Then why do the leadership–otherwise known as your organization’s deciders–always seem surprised when those same scarily competent people look elsewhere and leave? Do they really think having a job that’s like a daily game of Jenga is the way to entice talented employees to lean in? Have the deciders forgotten that overloading current staff–even if it’s only until COVID is over–means they may loose staff in whom they have an investment? How does it make sense to have a multitude of tasks that need filling, but say you’re in a hiring freeze, and yet it’s the addition of those same tasks that cause current staff to look for work elsewhere, putting the entire HR picture into a kind of death spiral? Where’s the logic in not being able to hire for work that needs to be done, but allowing that to put you in a position where you loose staff with training, institutional history, and talent precisely because you’ve overloaded them? And it’s not like hiring doesn’t cost. At a minimum, it’s a time suck. Even doing 75-percent of a search on Zoom, you still need to bring finalists to your heritage organization or museum, and that costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. And then there is the time current staff invest in searches, in mentoring, in training, and onboarding. Time taken away from their already overloaded to-do lists.

So what do I think the deciders should do? Well, in a perfect world, communicate up so trustees understand the organizational employment picture. Make sure they’re clear about the costs associated not just with hiring, but in keeping talented, engaged, creative, competent staff. Make sure they understand that not hiring brings its own costs, and further, that an individual who is depressed and dissatisfied because their job mutated because of a staff freeze isn’t a bad person. Wanting to do what you were hired to do isn’t a character flaw. I’m not saying one conversation or even a series of conversations is a panacea, but at least when you have those conversations you’ll have something to report when you communicate down or across to your colleagues and leadership team. And that’s key. You’re asking for sacrifice in a situation that’s gone on for two years and shows no sign of let up. Your colleagues need to understand that a) the shared sacrifice applies equitably (even to the leadership), and b)what the organization’s plans are for moving forward.

  • If you have an HR person, consider involving them in discussions regarding future planning. Ditto your CFO. There is more to both of those jobs than the bottom line and benefits.
  • Make sure your board and your CFO understands a hiring freeze can lead to loosing staff, and what a talent drain means in terms of both overall expenses and your brand. If you emerge from the COVID years, a pale imitation of your former self, unable to hire the talent you once had, will the hiring freeze be worth it?
  • Emphasize or re-emphasize your organization’s core values. Does the combination of freezing some positions while overloading others fit your organizational value statement? If not, this might be the moment to talk about it openly and transparently.
  • Is your hiring freeze global or does it apply only to new positions? Whatever decision you make, be transparent about it, and stand by it. If you suggest it only applies to new positions, and then refuse to back-fill an existing position, your ability to maintain trust can be sorely damaged. Why should staff believe you moving forward?
  • Your staff and your colleagues aren’t stupid. Explain the why. If you’re an organization whose endowment grew during COVID, and yet you’re still tightening your belt, explain why. Again, trust your staff to listen and ask questions.
  • Be authentic, truthful and honest. Offer a future check-in. If the bulk of your money comes in between May-September, set a meeting now for early October to update colleagues on staffing.

COVID continues to damage the workplace as it damages families and individuals. If there is any lesson to come out of this period, it’s that we need to be truthful with ourselves, those close to us, and our workplace colleagues about our capabilities both individual and organizational.

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Trying to Plan in the Unsettling of COVID 2.0

John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA – Chaotic Wave 2009, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64289851

I want to begin this post with a brief comment about this blog. It’s called Leadership Matters after my book with Anne Ackerson of the same name. If you’re a regular reader you know this blog isn’t only for people in leadership positions, nor is it written only for folks who believe in leader-modeled leadership. Instead, it is for humans who understand change begins with you, no matter where you are in the museum food chain or as Halla Tómasdóttir, former Icelandic presidential candidate put it, “”There’s a leader inside every single one of us, and our most important work in life is to release that leader.”

*******

Those of you who know me or who read this blog weekly, know I suffer from a bit of an organization streak. I love lists. The strikeout feature gives me chills. My love language is planning. I am happiest when it feels like the future is laid out, and might actually move according to plan.

In the workplace, these attributes sometimes win you kudos because you appear organized and forward thinking. In some cases that may be true. You finish the project on time. You come in under budget. You don’t drive your colleagues mad by changing your mind every few seconds and never having a plan. You are orderly. You may be this person or you may know this person. If so, you should have no trouble imagining what COVID has done to them, myself included, because COVID is the great unsettler.

I have two exhibits waiting in the wings. One which focuses on generosity and justice, with a nod to Darren Walker, and another explores the color blue as mood, hue or symbol through the work of 24 contemporary artists. Needless to say, COVID lurks in the background of both like a fault in the earth’s plates. From paint, to plexiglass, to gas prices, to the very presence of other humans–And what artist doesn’t want or expect an audience for their work?–to staffing, there’s literally nothing COVID hasn’t messed with. If you’re a planner, COVID redefines the word disruptive. You find yourself planning not just for one future, but for many. If this happens, I will do this, but if something else transpires, I need to do that.

The Generosity and Justice exhibit was supposed to follow our school community’s Martin Luther King Day activities. The day, traditionally one of no classes, dedicated to exploring the man, his mission, and Black culture as a whole, was derailed by a post-winter-break quarantine. Changing a date in the age of COVID means working around completely unreliable schedules because thanks to the Omicron variant, at any moment one or more staff could test positive while not feeling actually sick. So what do you do? You plan for all the possibilities you can imagine, and the future becomes not a path ahead, but a hydra headed beast.

I think we’re way past the age of the hero leader, the lone individual who works everything out in the sanctity of her office before sharing decisions with her staff. Successful museum leaders in the age of COVID are the ones who say “I help lead the blah de blah Museum,” not “I run the Blah de Blah.” In a world that’s continually changing no single human can master everything they need to know. They depend on a team to navigate the volatile nature of the pandemic world. So what does that mean for people like me who adore planning for the future, and really love having those plans work out? I think it means:

  • Living firmly in the present because no matter how much you want the future to comply with your wishes it likely won’t. I mean did we ever think there would be a time when our loved ones could be hospitalized and die without our being there?
  • Working to protect our teams so they feel safe.
  • Working with our teams, creating a variety of answers to every problem so we can pivot, maybe not happily, but easily, knowing there isn’t one path, but several.
  • Acknowledge our mistakes speedily and publicly to earn trust and thus increase colleague’s feelings of safety.

And for those, like me, who live for checking the box, living a little more in the present, with all its possibilities, might not be the worst thing.

Be well, get boostered, keep your colleagues safe, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Raising the Wellness Flag in 2022

By Jan Jacobsen – http://www.worldpeace.no/THE-WHITE-FLAG.htm, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3601988

We’re only a few days into the New Year and already it’s deja vu all over again. In fact, if I were cleverer this is the moment to cue the music and hear “COVID is Here to Stay,” to the tune written by George Gershwin and made famous by Tony Bennett and Diana Krall. I mean doesn’t it feel like….???

In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay
But COVID is here to stay.

It’s hard to believe this winter could be more difficult than the spring of 2020, but it may be. This week I read an NPR article quoting Gaurav Suri, a computational neuroscientist at San Francisco State University who studies how humans make decisions. Suri says humans are tuned to make decisions around stability, not surrounded by rapid-fire change. No kidding. And you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know uncertainty makes us anxious. That, coupled with the real-life possibility of giving or getting the COVID virus, makes life super stressful.

How are museum and heritage organization leaders supposed to lead when everyone is constantly on edge? How can we keep work from becoming a relentless marathon of worry and anxiety as we spend days trying to do our jobs, often in new ways, while trying not to get or spread the virus? There are likely a million different answers to that question, but one might be to make 2022 a year for workplace wellness.

Not everyone can follow the Cincinnati Art Museum’s lead and press pause, but it is a great example of how an organization prioritizes staff health and wellness. It’s especially farsighted since it now appears many organizations will need to either reduce visitation or close entirely this month. CMA is closed from January 3-12 and staff is fully compensated. According to the article, the museum suggests employees “choose to reconnect with family or work in a food bank, this pause allows us to grow individually while we all grow collectively.” Awesome, right? Not only because it acknowledges what staff gave their community over the past 18 months, but because it says CMA prioritizes staff well being, not just as productive museum educators, exhibit designers or shop sales assistants, but as good-hearted humans.

Maybe you can’t institute an organizational wellness pause. Maybe no one would listen even if you suggested it. So…. what can you do instead? First, start with yourself. As a leader, do you model wellness and self care? Think about how hard it might be for staff to ask a leader (you) for time off when you arrive early, stay late, send after-work emails, and seem permanently stressed. So start by modeling personal self care coupled with some sharing and transparency.

Sharing doesn’t mean an exhaustive account your toddler’s gruesome stomach virus, you and your partner’s lack of sleep, or how food makes you vaguely nauseous, yet you still soldier on. Instead, it might mean saying “I have a sick child, an exhausted partner, and for the next two days I’ll be leaving early. Please let me know if you find yourself in a similar position.” And remind everyone that the rules from when they were in day care or kindergarten still apply: Even if you don’t have COVID, stay home for 24 hours after a fever or vomiting.

Think about taking meetings out of doors, while walking, if possible. Many of us work in beautiful places. Encourage your team to take 15 minutes a day to walk–inside or out–to change perspective or feel the sun on their face. Even walking to a favorite gallery or room in a heritage site and doing some slow looking can help break the relentless cycle of stress, more stress, crabbiness, repeat. If it helps, encourage staff to listen to music. Some organizations have a room for quiet study, where staff can retreat when they need uninterrupted me-time to re-focus and regenerate. And encourage staff to share anxiety-coping ideas with one another. For example, begin a meeting by asking everyone to share an app, a tool, a practice for stress relief that works for them. Supporting one another is increasingly important as the workplace fluctuates between home and office, causing the personal and professional to overlap in ways it didn’t prior to the pandemic.

I say this often, but if you lead an organization, as opposed to a team, when was the last time you looked at your HR policy? Sometimes small changes mean a lot. Does your policy offer personal time off (PTO) as opposed or in addition to sick time? Offering sick time as the only way NOT to come to work is different from providing personal time-off. PTO gives employees the agency to make their own decisions, something every adult needs. Granted paid sick time off is better than no time off, but why should an HR plan encourage employees to be less than truthful? And if it’s a choice between coming to work feeling stressed over leaving a sick family member or losing pay, what do you think employees do? They come to work stressed and quasi-sick. They aren’t their best selves, and they open the door to making others sick, not just with COVID, but with everyday viruses as well.

Whether you’re dealing with staff who are clinically ill, caring for others, or weary and stressed, you need some self-understanding. To return to neuroscience, remember what Brené Brown says about connection: “Shame is the fear of disconnection,” and we feel shame when we think we have to explain we’re not up to the task. Brown says we all feel that we’re not enough. We’re not thin enough, fit enough, smart enough, cool enough, and on and on. Yet people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worth it. Some how they learned vulnerability makes them beautiful and necessary. Brown reminds us we can’t treat others with compassion if we don’t treat ourselves compassionately. If you haven’t heard her Ted talk on vulnerability, start your New Year with that. Start with not being certain, start with being compassionate, start with being whole-hearted. It won’t end COVID, but it will help take your team through what promises to be another challenging year.

So…begin 2022 by making sure your HR policy provides a structure for empowerment on the part of your employees. If you’re into New year’s resolutions, make one about finding the courage to access the vulnerable part of you, and give it a little daylight. And then take that courage and compassion and pay it forward. Your colleagues, your team, your staff will thank you, and they will pay it forward too.

Be well. Stay safe. Get your booster. Wear your mask. Do good work, and despite the mess the world is in, or maybe because of the mess the world is in, I hope 2022 is a year full of creativity, kindness, and compassion for all of you.

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.