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 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


Can We Talk Together About Museum Work? Soon?

Beercp – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9537466

I took a week off to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, and I’m back to make my annual ask for a museum world work summit. I’ve asked before. In March 2021, I used this blog to write a letter to Laura Lott and John Dichtl, presidents of AAM and AASLH respectively, but to date, nothing. It’s no secret that the world of museum work is a mess, and it’s popular to blame it on COVID, but is that the whole answer?

This week I listened to economist Lane Windham on It’s Been a Minute. Windham teaches at Georgetown and is is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor . She argues that we’re living through a worker rights revival. Economists also call it the “great resignation,” where people left low-wage jobs with no benefits, and then because of COVID, chose not to return, in some cases waiting employers out. But, while COVID may have been the reason to quit low-wage, no-benefit jobs–after all if your crap pay won’t cover after-school care and there’s no school, why stay?– Windham suggests their anger dates back to 2018/19 with a wave of strikes when, for example, 500,000 teachers and other workers took to the picket lines. She also points out that many of today’s strikers are women, reflecting mass entry of women into the workforce in the 1980s and 90s–women of color at Amazon and nurses at Kaiser Permanente for example–as well as women’s interest and leadership in unions.

I acknowledge that I am part of a group of museum folk who use social media to otherwise moan about the world of museum work. I guess crying into the Internet void is soul-soothing in a way, but it doesn’t move the needle, which is something I’m increasingly focused on. (When you work with high school students you want to model ways to create change that go beyond emotions.) And there are a lot of us talking and Tweeting about museum work from many different sectors around the globe. What would happen if–for example– you put Maria Vlachou, Aletheia Whittman, Franklin Vagnone, Monica Montgomery, Porchia Moore, Lonnie Bunch, and Elizabeth Merritt together with Darren Walker (Ford Foundation), Lane Windham (Georgetown) and Amy Costello (NPQ)? What ideas about the future of museum work might come out of a summit like that? What changes might they propose about board training? About leadership training? About the gender wage gap? About DEI training?

The museum work world isn’t simply a corporate giant employing massive numbers of worker bees à la Amazon. It’s complex. And yes, museums are more like other non-profits than big business, but I would argue, museums are still unique. They mix often hyper-educated folk with wealthy trustees, charged with hiring a single individual to run the organization. Then the trustees step back, re-focusing at regularly scheduled intervals to oversee mission and money, and leaving the director/president to hire/fire and lead teams that may range from a paid staff who could all fit in an SUV, to organizations with workforces as large as small towns. And that’s before we incorporate volunteer groups many of whom play an important–although increasingly charged–role in today’s museums. If you consider this picture also includes a group of leaders –at the director level and below–who may have had little training, mentoring or experience in actually leading humans, much less in creating policies for a transparent, equitable, empathetic workplace, you have a recipe for disaster i.e. a simmering pot of worker unrest.

Recently some of social media’s museum thought leaders have suggested museum directors need to solve these problems. While there are many steps an individual can take to make themselves a better leader, starting with a huge dose of self-awareness to check their own hubris and bias, I think it’s probably not an individual director’s role to ride into a board meeting with a flaming sword. How many directors need to have their careers crushed on issue of principle? How many self-sacrificing fights between director and staff have to happen? It’s almost always the director who loses. How many open positions do there have to be before organizations realize museum directors aren’t the board’s handmaidens, and that the board/director relationship must be cooperative and collegial?

One last thought: Sometimes you can’t solve a problem until you pull it out and examine it. I’m currently using Aletheia Wittman’s work on Institutional Genealogy for a project I’m working on. Her work is a clear, critical framework for assessing organizational history, for trying to understand, how your museum or heritage organization got to where it is today. What would happen if you gave that framework to our mythical group above and asked them to look at museum work as a whole, to open all the closets, bring out the skeletons, lift up the rocks, and get out all the dirty laundry so we can understand where we’ve come, where we might have lost our way, and how to find a more equitable path? Just a thought.

Be well, be kind and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


How Not to Be That Person

Here’s something I struggle with: When you’ve worked at an organization for a while, if you’re at all alert, you’ve seen a lot. Sometimes it isn’t even meaningful in the moment, and it’s only later you piece together what happened with some sort of a critical eye. So…when you’re in a staff meeting and someone with a shorter tenure than yours, comes up with an idea they are truly excited about, what do you do? How do you NOT be the person that everyone complains about who blathers about a) the way we’ve always done it is probably safest, most efficient, best (pick an adjective) or b) who explains why something won’t work because they tried it.

Maybe some of you have seen Progressive’s commercials on how not to be your parents. They are amusing, at least the first several times you see them. One of the reasons they work is that there is a truth to them. Everyone learns, mimics and imitates the people they know best, and they are often parents. I only bring this up, because when you’re a certain age, have been in your job more than a decade, you find yourself suddenly becoming, not your parents, but the people everyone hates, the Debby downers, the negative Nellies, or perhaps most cutting of all, the Boomers.

So what did I do in our recent staff meeting? I regret to say that in the moment, I did nothing. I decided that silence was safer than challenging ideas in front of my colleagues and my new leader. Was that the right thing to do? Probably not. In retrospect, I wished the folks brimming with ideas had turned to the long-tenured staff and said, “Did you ever do any of these things back in the day?” But that’s probably not their job. So, after some thinking, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say, “You know, we did a project like that, and with hindsight, here’s what I wish we’d done differently.” Perhaps I could have portrayed our past experiences less as something personal we need to guard, and more as something that happened within the particular culture of our organization at a particular time, and what we learned.

Years ago, I worked in the newsroom of a weekly paper. No, it was not The New York Times, not even close, but what it shared with every other paper at the time, was that there weren’t any stars. Everyone’s work was challenged, edited to death, and contributed to a whole. We won when the paper won. You lose your ego in that kind of situation. When your writing, which you always thought was pretty good, comes back line-edited in the extreme, you develop a level of detachment. Maybe it’s that detachment that is missing in content and program discussions in nonprofits and museums. If you enter a discussion with a sense of ownership–this is my idea and I’m going to push it forward or else– collaboration becomes challenging. You may have trouble even listening to colleagues as your first priority is protecting your precious idea.

So even though I’m the first to admit, I have trouble putting this in practice, here are some thoughts to help curb the dreaded WADITW (We’ve always done it that way.)

If you’re the newbie:

  • Be prepared for resistance.
  • Don’t just rant about what you don’t like about the old way. Maybe do a little research and demonstrate what your idea brings to the table that’s new and improved.
  • Give people time to process your idea. Let it gestate.
  • Be willing to collaborate. Few ideas are born perfect. Collaborate with your colleagues and let their ideas make yours even better.

If you’re long-tenured:

  • Listen.
  • Consider not how this idea is different from what happened five or ten years ago, but instead, what you learned from that experience.
  • Look for ways your knowledge of the organization and its culture can make your colleague’s idea fly.
  • Offer yourself as a resource.
  • Recenter yourself to be a collaborator not a dissenter. That earlier project wasn’t yours, it was the museum’s or heritage organization’s. Support your colleagues in creating something new.

Easier said than done, I know, but museum staffs that collaborate are the healthy ones.

I want to close this week with an announcement about workplace bullying. I started writing about bullying in 2016 in part because I was a victim myself, and in part because the more Anne Ackerson and I interviewed women for Women in the Museum, the more endemic this problem seemed. Sadly, it’s still a problem so I want to urge you to attend Gender Equity in Museums Movement’s Circle on Bullying October 21, 2021. The speaker is Tamsin Russell from the UK’s Museum Association. She’s a force and I know this will be a lively discussion so I hope to see you there.

Be kind. Do good work. Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


Ending a Program? Two Thoughts: Communication and Also Communication

State Government Photographer – The History Trust of South Australian, South Australian GovernmentPhoto [1]Object record [2], CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87186004

See if this sounds familiar: A staff member is tasked with leading a project, program or a team. Once the task is assigned, they are largely left alone. They wait for a check-in, and when it doesn’t come, they assume all is well. Life goes on. They make choices, and enjoy their autonomy. When performance reviews fail to materialize, they assume it’s because their work is satisfactory. Their budget–another indicator of organizational confidence and priorities– remains stable. Their program/project/team has a few triumphs and avoids disaster. In fact, you’d call it a success, until there is an epic event like a pandemic. But it could be a weather-related catastrophe, a stock market crash, something unexpected and external. Suddenly this staff member and their program enter a no-fly zone. After months of no commentary suddenly it seems there were things wrong, but now it doesn’t actually matter because the program/project/team needs to end because suddenly the organization needs to save money. If they are lucky, your colleague will be reassigned.

I have seen this happen more than a few time across organizations. Perhaps you have too. It’s not confined to colleagues low on the organizational food chain. It happens to directors, and it happens to hourly folks, to people who’ve demonstrated the kind of loyalty not seen much these days, and to those hired a short time ago. So what’s going on? There’s a kind of kill-the-messenger similarity about these narratives. How does someone go from being the golden girl to being fired or reassigned with few words exchanged?

Admittedly, if you’re in the middle of a similar scenario, figuring out where you went wrong may not save your job, but it may prevent it happening in the future. One thing many of these stories have in common is the individuals–whether it’s a director, curator, museum educator or hourly employee– are sometimes distanced from their colleagues. Maybe they work remotely. Or maybe it’s subtler than that. Maybe they’re in the top spot or maybe they’re launching a new entrepreneurial program. But one thing’s for sure: over the long haul, they didn’t get feed back, and that is a problem. Why? Because a presumption that no news is good news is just that: a presumption. No feedback, whether from the Board, from your direct report, from your colleagues or volunteers, means you’re not learning, and you’re not getting better. You’re autonomous, but you’re also–deep down– unquestioned and unmotivated. And as annoying as your colleague’s suggestions or your leader’s directives might be, they keep you tethered to the organizational mother ship. You may be doing excellent work, but if it’s not in tune with the way the organization as a whole is trending, you and your great ideas are far easier to sacrifice. You will express surprise at having built such a successful program, but your director, your leader, your board, may say, but we didn’t ask for all that. And now we don’t need it. And it’s costing us money. True of course, but that’s because they weren’t actually talking to you, and you assumed everything was okay.

So what should you do if you’re asked to launch a first-time, path breaking program for your organization?

  • Celebrate. Leaders don’t give stretch assignments to losers.
  • Set up regular check-ins with your direct report and a group of colleagues who benefit or utilize your project.
  • If you do receive feedback, listen, reflect, change, and grow.
  • Submit an agenda before each meeting. Recall for everyone why the organization wanted the project in the beginning. Ask if you’re still on track and driving in the lane?
  • Send a confirming email after the meeting with a list of your take-aways. (Yes, you are covering your own ass, but you are also opening doors for dialogue and questions.)
  • If people put you off by refusing to meet–they’re too busy, there’s a worldwide pandemic–set yourself a deadline, and submit a short bullet-pointed report detailing what you’ve accomplished and the challenges you see on the horizon.
  • If you’re not sure about something, ask questions.

And if you’re a leader who inherits what was once a first-time, path breaking program, and it now no longer makes sense?

  • Know what you don’t know before cutting anything. Why was it started? What was the motivation? Who uses it? Who will be hurt if it’s cut?
  • If there is no information except the proverbial game of non-profit telephone where 10 people have 10 different memories about why something started, vow to change going forward, and document what’s happening. Your successors will thank you.
  • Find the documentation about performance. What’s been accomplished? Was this program stellar in its early years, but less so now? Or the reverse?
  • Get to know the project point person. If you have to turn off the tap, it’s good to know them and their skill set.
  • Remember, if they’ve submitted regular updates and/or performance reports and gotten no feedback, they aren’t the problem so don’t blame them. If they were asked to only color in the lines, but you want an abstract, that’s on you. Explain your concept, and let them try.
  • Bringing a program to a close is hard. Be respectful. Do it with grace, so the person whose position is changed finds some self-respect in the process.

It’s almost July. Be well. Stay cool.

Joan Baldwin

Leadership Matters will be on hiatus until July 12. I hope you get some time off too, and if you’re in the United States have a safe July 4th gathering. I’ll be catching up on reading, seeing family, and walking with my dog Scout.


The Leadership Agenda: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Photokid261, http://www.sunkiddance.de – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37691522

It is more than a decade since Anne Ackerson and I started working on Leadership Matters (2012), and so much is very, very different. We have long since ceased being the only voices calling for leadership reform in museums and heritage organizations. There are innumerable virtual and actual groups, supporting museum workers, and calling for change. The eight organizations operating under the Collective Liberation mantle are awesome examples of new groups doing great work. And that’s wonderful. One thing that remains the same, however, is leadership itself, how it’s taught and how it’s learned personally, organizationally, and through service organizations and in graduate programs.

Years ago I served on AAM’s annual meeting program committee. The year I participated, Anne and I also had a session proposal before the committee. That meant I had to leave the room during its discussion. Our session squeaked through, but not without comments on whether talking about museum work was really what AAM’s annual meeting was about. I am eternally grateful to the voices in the room who pushed our session through. Not because we needed to speak, but because the field needs to examine the way it works, and museum and heritage organization workers need AAM’s support–if only tacitly–in knowing talking about work is important. Change can’t happen until we acknowledge the problem. And talking about workplace issues is an acknowledgement that all is not Nirvana in museumland.

As I’ve mentioned many times here, Anne and I teach a course on museum leadership in Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies program. Hopkins is one of many museum studies master’s programs, but I’ll wager it is among a much smaller group offering leadership courses as part of museum studies. And there is an even tinier group that actually makes leadership a lynch pin of their programs. Why? I do not know. There are decades of examples of both great museum leadership and the truly horrific kind to remind us it isn’t just the collections or the historic buildings that make a great museum. It’s leadership.

Perhaps it’s not true any more, but for decades people were drawn to museum work because of the stuff: the art, the historic buildings, the textiles, the science, sculpture, jewelry, technology and pottery. What other career gives you the privilege of immersing yourself in creativity, invention, and discovery, in other places and times, as teacher, scholar or interpreter? And yet, if you’re successful, you quickly find yourself distanced from the very objects that attracted you in the first place. Instead, you manage people, people with needs, workplace quirks, illness, small children, elderly relations, and strident beliefs. It’s a different ballgame, and it’s leadership warts and all.

Leadership is about human relationships. You may find yourself as a leader at work, but a follower in the organization where you volunteer. Or the reverse may be true. No matter which side of the equation you sit on, leader or follower, it’s a truth you experience. Because of that, fixing what’s wrong belongs to all of us. It’s not the sole job of unions or boards of trustees, AAM, AASLH or AAMD. Each of us has a role, and a contribution to make, and unless and until there is a moment when museum governance as we currently know it ends, to be replaced by something completely different, then no single entity can wave a wand and end decades of genteel racism, gender stereotyping, patriarchal behavior and on and on. That’s why both volumes of Leadership Matters end with a Leadership Agenda, a list of directives for individuals, institutions, professional organizations, graduate programs and funders. Here is a sampling from each category:

  • For Individuals: Seek opportunities to take new leadership responsibility in order to grow and expand skills. Practice new learning whenever you can. Prepare for serendipity.
  • For Institutions: Realize that it is not your job to maintain the status quo. The job of institutions and their leaders is to make a difference.
  • For Professional Associations: Insist on competitive, equitable pay and benefits to attract and retain great staff, institutional support of the emerging leader and the lone professional, and diversification of governing boards.
  • For Graduate Programs: Create programs specifically for leadership development.
  • For Funders: Promote hiring practices that eradicate exclusion, champion equity in hiring, promotion, access to leadership opportunities through collaboration with graduate programs and allied associations.

If solving the museum world’s leadership problems is something you care about, there are many more, and they are worth taking a look at. You can find the entire Leadership Revolution Agenda above. Which brings me to this: In December I plan to end this blog. I started it to promote our first edition of Leadership Matters in 2013, and it has challenged me, stretched me, helped me think things through, and, I hope, helped some of you as you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the museum workplace. In the next six months, if there are topics you wish I’d write about, let me know. And if there is an blog post in your brain bursting to get out, let me know as well. Leadership Matters has a tradition of hosting guest bloggers so send a writing sample and your ideas.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, be kind.

Joan Baldwin


Performance and Productivity: Is Your Process Outdated?

Lewis G P – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//39/media-39385/large.jpgThis is photograph Q 28232 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24196900

It’s not a secret that I’m pretty Type A. I’m a list maker. My lists sprout sublists like weeds. I like to do things in order. The strikeout feature makes my heart go pitter pat. I’m a planner, and I always have a Plan B, and sometimes a C or D. But, surprise, surprise, that’s not the way everyone works.

These days– in my world at least– it is performance review season, the time of year when leaders try to knit together organizational mission with a job’s essential functions and, most importantly, with the actual human assigned to make them a reality. That is, of course, where the rubber meets the road. Job descriptions are written for unicorns, folks who don’t have bad days, baggage, health issues or workplace conflicts. Yet somehow, as leaders, when doing performance reviews, we need to figure out how all these paths intersect, while also bearing in mind that for the last 12 months or longer many staff have worked at home in their fuzzy slippers, interacting with colleagues infrequently except on a screen. It’s a tall order.

Like many things in the museum workplace, performance reviews are a vestige from another time and another place. They percolated into the museum and nonprofit world from business. There, they were–and in many places still are– boss-driven, and often used to negotiate raises or promotions, making it less about job performance per se then a given staff member’s negotiating skills. Given our post-pandemic world, the idea of museum staff meeting with their director or team leader annually to negotiate a raise as if that were normal is a little laughable . But are leaders still evaluating performance every 12 months? Maybe it’s time to re-think that model?

A number of big companies have moved away from annual one-on-one meetings with “the boss” in favor of team feedback from a selected group of colleagues. A team member identifies their group of feedback providers. They are approved by their leader, and over the course of a year, they offer feedback often as part of project postmortems. Comments are candid, face-to-face, and yet highly structured. Oh, and one more thing: all feedback is equally weighted. Yup, your leader, your co-worker, and your partner from another department all offer equal comments. So that’s life in a gazillion dollar company like Google or Netflix. What about where you work?

The first question: Do you do performance evaluations or not? If not, why not? Not enough time? Or does it seem like you’re in touch with your team so frequently you don’t feel the need? If you do, is it a once-a-year meeting? And what’s the goal? Is there a complicated alchemy that involves braiding museum mission, essential job functions and individual performance together? Or is it–God forbid–a brief session that opens with praise and ends with scolding? And how do you evaluate those with repetitive tasks? Unlike, say, Google–or at least the way I imagine work at Google–there’s a lot about library, archives, and museum work that has a Cinderella-like quality. It’s never done. You gather community advisors, and create a program. You implement, evaluate and then do it again. Ditto for collections where stuff arrives, it’s processed, catalogued, conserved, stored, before the process repeats. The way people do these tasks is entirely individual, and yet the goals are collective.

If you’re doing performance evaluations now or plan to do them in the future, here are some things to consider:

  • This remains a challenging time. Consider using the performance review process to touch base with the fundamentals like your organizational mission statement, your value statement, your departmental goals. Hopefully your discussion will help staff see themselves as an integral part of a larger whole, not someone about to be “gotcha-ed” after a year of fast pivoting.
  • Talk about individual goals. The last 12 months have tried us all. Work was disrupted. What new muscles has your team developed? Patience? Compassion? Empathy? Collaboration?
  • Talk about DEI. Was your organization part of the wave of museums, archives and galleries who wrote anti-racist statements post George Floyd? How did that play out in real life? Individually and museum-wide? Did it affect your staff or not? Why?
  • Recognize and grapple with your own biases–not just about race, and gender, although those are huge, but also about work style. If you are a list-maker like me, evaluating the performance of a last-minute, by-the-seat-of-the-pants high performer, can you set your own work style aside? It’s not the model with everything else as “other.” It’s simply the easiest way for you to work, but clearly it’s not the preferred style for everyone on your team.
  • Ask what are the top three things your team member would like to change in the coming year?
  • Say thank you.
  • If the entire job performance review process seems hinky and unwieldy, consider a re-evaluation for next year.

One last thought. No one likes the uncomfortable conversations around poor performance, but it is unfair and inequitable to fail to be transparent when work consistently goes wrong. Your staff feel as though they never get things right, which is punishing. People want to come to work, do a good job, and be recognized for doing a good job. It’s hard to do that if the guard rails for “good” performance are mushy or keep changing. However you choose to do performance evaluations–as a team, as an individual–make sure the expectations are clear. Your staff will thank you.

Be well. Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


Looking for a New Leader: Putting Equity into Action

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1765908

As some of you know, I am spending this academic year as an interim library leader. Has it changed my work life? You bet. Instead of being the leader of a collection of inanimate objects, paintings and rare books, and the occasional historian for my colleagues in archives, I’m now the boss of myself while leading a department of seven. One of my charges is to ready our team for the hiring process that will take place in 2021 when we seek a permanent leader.

While there are pieces of this process that are organizational–which search firms to use, adding voices and layers to the interview process, having job description language checked for bias, eliminating implicit bias from the interview process–there are also details that belong to us. Those need to be unpacked before the process begins in earnest. This is not our first rodeo. We began in 2018 believing we could hire a two-year interim, someone who would offer us 24 months of stability while we got our house in order. It worked a decade earlier, but this time, no one wanted the job. We began again in 2019, only to be interrupted by the pandemic, ultimately stopping the search while travel and our organization shut down. Now we’re on the cusp of beginning again.

As a staff and as an organization we are committed to DEI. Last summer we wrote an Anti-Racist statement coupled with a programmatic action list. Yet, when we were asked recently whether we would consider someone without a master’s in library science as a way to make hiring more inclusive, there was a degree of consternation and pushback. Why? Well, probably lots of reasons from the most subjective–I struggled to get this degree, why should a director receive the big salary and perquisites when they didn’t–to concerns that someone without the degree literally wouldn’t understand the workings of an academic library, archives and special collections. And yet, the degree is a barrier. It is expensive, and in most cases, it teaches content not leadership. Too much content knowledge can plunge a leader into a this-is-the-way-it’s-always-done behavior, and cripple creativity. Perhaps in this moment we need a human who believes in what we do, who is empathetic and a good listener, someone who will translate the arcane necessities of our work for the larger organization; someone who makes us shine.

Recently we spent a staff meeting identifying qualities we’d like to see in a director. One of our colleagues mentioned she was more interested in hearing about a candidate’s ideas for the future than their past experience. In short, she’d like to hear where they want to take us. There was something hugely revolutionary in that statement. It pointed toward not finding the person we’re used to, but the person who will take us–maybe kicking and screaming– where we want to go. That might mean hiring someone younger, more agile, someone with more passion than experience or more experience than degrees.

We’ve also reflected on the type of questions we asked in the previous go rounds. Ten years ago we needed a leader to replace a retiree with a 40-year tenure. At the time, few of the team had graduate degrees, and many were part-time. After COVID we are a smaller group, but the vast majority have one or two advanced degrees. Below are the four considerations we might incorporate into our search. What would you add?

  1. Doing everything we can to break down our own biases about age, experience, education, gender and race to make us open to the widest variety of applicants, and galvanize our future.
  2. Hiring for our vision statement–even if we never get there–not for our past, whether personal or collective.
  3. Having the self awareness and understanding who we are now, and what kind of leader we need now.
  4. Accepting that challenge and growth means discomfort, and that mediocrity is boring.

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin

A Coda for the Baltimore Museum of Art: Last week I wrote a piece about the BMA’s proposed deaccession. Since then the Museum pulled its pieces from Sotheby’s before the auction. The seas were too rough and clearly Director Christopher Bedford believed pulling back could salvage some of the pending damage. Nonetheless, for the BMA and many other museums, the problems of collection diversity and salary equity remain. And they are huge. Money isn’t going to fall from the sky in the post-pandemic world. It’s difficult to hear voices on social media castigating the BMA while also protesting gender and race pay gaps. And suggesting these issues aren’t somehow as important as the artwork belies all the post-George Floyd discussions. We’ve allowed these problems to metastasize, and they aren’t going away. Two years ago in these pages I suggested it was time bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the museum field to tackle the problem of museum salaries and the gender wage gap? AAM, AASLH, and AAMD, where are you?


Transparency and Honesty: Where are the Leadership Boundaries?

By Danielarapava – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45320273

This week I had a staff member resign. Although they had been offered feedback, support, and encouragement, ultimately they decided to leave. Which is fine. Staff need to choose what is best for them. But organizationally, two narratives circulate. One, outlined by the staff person, and given to close friends and colleagues, and another by the leadership that is a version of the classic “this staff member chooses to seek new challenges.” Neither is very satisfying, and neither is honest.

Personnel issues are poor examples of leadership’s failures to be honest or transparent because ethically and legally most of the time organizations need to keep their mouths shut. But they also point out one of the issues with transparency. We have the facts: A staff person resigned, but the facts don’t tell us why, and it’s the why humans want.

Here is where transparency and honesty collide. Transparent is defined as “easy to perceive or detect” and also “having thoughts, feelings, or motives that are easily perceived,” and yet time and again it’s directed at leadership implying they were not being honest, which means “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere.” But how much can you tell? How honest are you willing to be? And if you focus more on “the what” than “the why,” will you create a kind of “gotcha culture” within your museum or heritage organization?

When someone we know receives a big promotion, my husband often quips they are the same person today they were yesterday, adding that the promotion, the increased salary, and the perquisites don’t make anyone any smarter. We might hope that in the wake of the trust a museum places in a director that leadership comes with a huge dose of humility, but too often it doesn’t. So we have my-way-or-the-highway leaders certain they know it all, and they don’t. And their nervousness at not knowing everything makes them protective of what they do know. Meanwhile, staff, particularly those who’ve worked through an almost seven-month pandemic, don’t want surprises. They don’t want to guess when the next wave of terribleness will hit them. They are weary. They want honesty and a degree of control over a world that seems frighteningly turbulent. They want leaders who will share what they know, and more importantly share a plan of action based on what they know.

So maybe it’s not just transparency we’re after? Maybe we want more than the facts. Maybe we want honesty delivered with a side of humility. Because when staff ask for honesty they also ask for trust. And when leaders trust staff with information, whether in person, via Zoom or in emails, they signal their belief in staff. But that information–whatever it’s about–must come coupled with honesty. Leaders need to say here is what I know about this particular issue, but here is what we need to think about. Honesty banishes the proverbial elephants from the room, and nurtures relationships.

As we weather this crisis, here are some things to consider about honesty and transparency for individuals practicing leadership throughout museums and heritage organizations:

  • When you need to deliver information, sort out the facts from the “whys” and make sure you deliver both. When you don’t know, say so.
  • Transparency and honesty are aspects of communication. Leaders take blame for being poor communicators, but sometimes staff can’t communicate either. They are fearful of disagreeing with one another because they have to work together. Practice being a good communicator no matter where you are in your organization. And if you find good communication happening in a particular program or department, ask why. Then listen and learn.
  • Share what you know when you know it. And listen to what staff say in response.
  • Make yourself available. Be there for your staff virtually or actually.
  • When you make a mistake, be honest. Apologize. Move forward. If you don’t, no one else will either.

Be well and stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


The Museum Crisis: Does Reflection Help?

 

Reflection_Salar_de_Uyuni

By Marquex bol – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91434866

Week after week the crisis in the museum field continues. First it was COVID. The stress began with physical spaces and collections, and quickly accelerated to furloughs, lost jobs, and epically bad communication, before moving to an unmasking of the racism littering the museum workplace, from collections, where BIPOC visitors feel as though they never see themselves, to the workplace itself. Now it’s the dog days of August and the emperor definitely has no clothes. With nothing left to surprise us, the only question is have we reached bottom yet? If the answer is yes, it’s time to rebuild.

Clearly the last six months were filled with unprecedented change. For those of us planning to open or who already have opened, the indefinite nature of the COVID universe makes change constant. As museum leaders or museum folk who practice leadership regardless of our titles, change requires a big dose of creativity followed by a massive level of adaptability, and what helps with that? Self-reflection.

My own program has a great reputation for service to our community, but our team reputation is tarnished. We’re not a group known for rowing the boat easily together. So recently we spent some time talking about the importance of personal reflection. We charged each other with reflecting daily or weekly. We didn’t specify whether the reflections needed to be written or a meditative pause in the work day or week, but rather a time to think about what went well and what didn’t. Sound too woo-woo? Perhaps you’re thinking who has time to pause? We’re in a pandemic, a recession, not to mention a time of social and cultural upheaval? But maybe that is precisely why each of us needs to reflect on the way we make our way in the museum world, however tiny our role.

Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity? A reflective practice allows us to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. It asks us to acknowledge where we went off course, imagine a second chance and aspire to a better outcome. Okay, so why does any of that matter when, if there is a resurgence of COVID, your museum may close? Organizationally, it may not matter. But if you’re lucky enough to serve a museum or heritage organization that is open and weathering the COVID/post-George Floyd storm, then reflection, both personal and organizational, will help you emerge from the same old place, doing the same old thing, just well enough.

Reflection requires you to pause. It asks you to take personal responsibility for whatever happened. It asks you to be vulnerable, and it is often discomforting. Research shows us that employees approach their leaders regarding emotional issues at work more often than their peers, and see their bosses’ role as part leader/part parent. That can be hugely exhausting for museum leaders, and without allowing yourself time to reflect you can quickly become emotionally depleted.

One of the lessons Anne Ackerson and I uncovered in Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord is that the way individual leaders behave is echoed in their organizations’ behavior. Leaders for whom self reflection is a habit generally lead museums or heritage organizations that reflect collectively. If you read Dr. Porchia Moore on Incluseum this week, you know trying to overcome a workplace with a dominant white narrative will demand a level of vulnerability. Reflection–yours and your museum’s– is the place to work on that.

So in a world crowded with social distancing and air quality measurements, PPE equipment, reduced staffing, reduced income, and understanding how your workplace and your collections became so invulnerably white, stop, and pause:

  1. Don’t take on too much. An hour of meditation each week might be a bridge too far. Pick a length of time that works for you in your world.
  2. Pick a method that meets your needs: On your morning walk, in a journal at day’s end; online in a long document; alone in a quiet place or together with a trusted colleague.
  3. Don’t expect answers unless you’re willing to ask questions. Think about your work over the course of a week or a day.
  4. Ask yourself mindful questions:  Consider how you helped or how you hindered; consider where your own biases impeded your work or the work of others or how your team meeting might have gone better. Where did connection break down? Where did you find empathy? When did you feel vulnerable?

We know the museum world must change if it’s to survive. But it’s not a monolith. It’s made up of 300,000-plus individuals all serving a huge variety of museums and heritage organizations. Change won’t come in a lightning bolt from on high. Change comes when each of us makes a commitment to change. Reflection helps with that. And you can’t be with people–in the workplace, in exhibits, in historic settings—unless you understand the bridge from vulnerability to empathy. So just try. Start this week. Break down some walls.

Joan Baldwin