What Does PMA’s Victory Means for the Rest of Us?

Joe Piette – https://www.flickr.com/photos/1097

Unless you buried your phone, you’re likely aware that for 19 days this fall staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were on strike. Two years ago PMA workers unionized. What followed wasn’t workplace Nirvana, but rather protracted negotiations between their union and PMA leadership. Around the beginning of October when negotiations stalled, museum workers walked out.

From the sidewalks the striking workers watched, wondered and worried as PMA hung its Matisse show, while waiting for Sasha Suda, PMA’s new director, to acknowledge what was going on. Other museums and museum staff used social media to advocate for a sector-wide shunning of the Museum until the strike was settled, which it eventually was. Here are some of the Union’s contractual victories: cheaper healthcare; a month of paid parental leave (Previously, it was nothing); additional bereavement leave; a pay equity committee; limits on the Museum’s use of temporary staff and subcontractors.

It’s a David and Goliath story, and even without knowing much about museumland politics, it’s hard not to root for the underdog. But what about everyone else? What does PMA’s Union victory mean for the other 34,999 museums and heritage sites in the country, not to mention their 160,700 employees? In the long run, does a union victory in Philadelphia matter to the rest of us? Well, it should. The optimistic part of me hopes that slowly, very slowly, museum organizations, museum boards and leadership are waking up to the resource their staffs represent. While cynical board members may not care their organization’s staff are smart and dedicated, they surely understand that constant staff churn represents a ginormous investment as remaining staff cover positions while the organization advertises, interviews, hires and onboards, again.

And while this might be too Pollyanna of me, does the PMA settlement demonstrate museum staff have a voice, that their absence from work is meaningful, and negotiation is possible? Hopefully, yes. Here are seven other reasons why PMA’s union victory might be meaningful for museums and their leaders everywhere.

  • If you didn’t know already, staff matter. I say that here often because it’s true. Our sites, whether they are about creative expression, heritage and culture or exploration and discovery are NOTHING without their staffs. Staff care, and museum leadership needs to care back. Whether it’s helping visitors find their way around a complex site, collaborating with communities to deepen understanding, hanging pieces correctly or making sure visitors and objects are safe, museum staff make it happen. Imagine Wilkening Consulting’s “Museum-Goers When Asked to Imagine No Museums” if instead it read, “Museum Boards When Asked to Imagine No Museum Staff….”
  • Museums are workplaces not just community containers of beauty, history or science. Over the last quarter century, museums have neglected their workplaces, acting as though talking about staff, leadership and money was somehow in bad taste. From a failure to value leadership, failures to talk about leadership and the workplace, museums and museum organizations have acted as if their loftier goals meant museum magic had to happen regardless of poor pay, a gender pay gap, racial and class bias, workplace bullying, the ongoing imprint of patrimony, and on and on. Why do museum board members accept bad behavior on the part of leadership that they wouldn’t tolerate in the for-profit world?
  • Scarcity: Striking is a huge risk. People don’t do it for fun. “We can’t” and “we don’t” are not phrases that move conversation between workers and museum leadership forward. They aren’t “Yes, and.“Whether your endowment is in the millions or barely anything at all, staff need leadership to be transparent. What would have happened if PMA’s leadership had acknowledged its HR issues from the get-go, beginning conversations with “There’s a problem, let’s fix it, acknowledging the need for dependable healthcare, the loss of loved ones, or the addition of a new human being in a family are moments PMA should provide for and support? Compromise is best begun from a positive place. If you, your board and leadership believe staff matters you will find a way to shake off scarcity’s shackles. Everyone wants a happy, engaged staff, but if the barista across the street from the museum makes more per hour than your front-line staff, can you blame them if they don’t want to stay?
  • Staff–all staff–need to feel safe, seen and supported which is why your HR Policy matters: Do you differentiate between your staff–the full time, degreed folks–and the “workers”–the part-time, hourly folks? When was the last time you looked at your HR policy? When was it written? Is it time for an update? Is it easily accessible? Does everyone, from your housekeepers to leadership, know how to find it?
  • Equity matters: What if the salary genie descended tomorrow and enabled you to raise everyone’s pay? Would you do it? Would you have equitable salaries? Maybe, but maybe not. You might be perpetuating a system that for generations paid women and people of color less. Don’t take blame, take action: do an equity audit so you know for sure.
  • Grow up: There’s a lot about adulting that’s ridiculously annoying: taxes, bills, being responsible, but like individuals, organizations need to grow up as well. PMA staff couldn’t grieve, and apparently, unless they had outside income, weren’t supposed to have children. Hiding behind the but-we’re-a-non-profit myth or that’s-the-way-it’s-always-been, doesn’t help anyone, least of all staff. Surviving in the museum world shouldn’t be a form of hazing–I suffered, therefore the next generation should suffer. Adult organizations recognize they’re hiring people, people with lives, loved ones and families. Their boards need to do the work so that staff can be their best selves.
  • Directors aren’t just leadership’s boss: Museum directors or presidents are responsible for the entire staff, not just the leadership team. Your leadership team may be the folks you see frequently, but if harassment happens, if 40-percent of your front-line staff has to get second jobs to make ends meet, you should know. And hopefully work to make change. What would have happened if Sasha Suda had started her first week by greeting the strikers? What would that have looked like?

I’ve been writing this blog for a decade, and railing, whining, and preaching for Museumland to take staff as seriously as it takes its audience. And yet, here we are 10 years later, and the needle hasn’t moved much. Workplace Bullying is still one of my most popular posts. What does that tell you besides the field is littered with leaders who equate power with being mean? And yet, our field is full of talented, smart people. How hard is it to treasure them? What is the living wage in your region, town, city? Does your board know what percentage of your organization’s positions fall below the living wage? In September I participated in an AASLH panel titled Approaching the Museum Worker Crisis through Systems Thinking. We used the hashtag #workingonmuseumwork. Forget the hash tag. Twitter may be on the respirator by then, but what if we–and by we I mean museum service organizations, museum leaders and museum staff–dedicate 2023 to museum workers? What could the museum world look like then?

Be well. Be kind. See you in December.

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


Yes, and….

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how might this play out in daily life?

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

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

Be well, stay safe, do good work.

Joan Baldwin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well. See you in June.

Joan Baldwin


What a Moment of Grace Teaches Us

nevil zaveri – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nevilzaveri/2211600979/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29855988

We’ve all had enough Zoom, but weeks ago I agreed to be part of a panel discussion. I was one of four museum women asked to speak about gender in museums for a group of museum interns. I had a difficult week so when our Friday morning planning session rolled around I logged on without much thought about what might happen except a group of women slicing the intersectional pie regarding gender and race in the museum workplace. I anticipated a kind of cut and dried divvying up–five minutes on the gender pay gap, 10 minutes on sexual harassment, overlaid with time spent on museums as a pink collar profession, and on and on, while also trying not to make a field these interns might someday join sound too horrific. And besides, I thought I could encourage them to join the Gender Equity in Museums Movement, always a good thing.

I was wrong on all fronts. From the get go, our moderator was more interested in our own narratives and what we’d learned from them, then tidbits about navigating the museum workplace. After introductions and some background on the intern group, it suddenly occurred to me we’re wise, and if we suddenly turned the clock back, what would we say to our 22-year old selves? And that’s where we started. One of the panelists recalled how she’d chosen the path most expected. Each time the road forked she selected the way forward that seemed conventional and secure. Would she do that again? No. We talked about letting life, fate or some force beyond our control make choices for us. One of us recalled how when the worst thing happens–and maybe each of us has our own worst thing–it not only fills us with sadness, but it reframes all the small stuff. Even a world-wide pandemic isn’t quite as devastating when you’ve already visited your own pit of grief. We talked about how it felt to be bullied at work and the inexorable damage sexual harassment visits on a career. We referenced the fact that too many of us see a career’s beginning as a long, slow climb toward some pinnacle of success off in the distance, but how for many women there’s not a direct path, but a series of zigs, zags, sharp slopes, and the occasional deep dive. And one of us reminded the group that we’re all victims of other people’s imaginations, that trying endlessly to fit ourselves into someone else’s conception of us is exhausting, and headache-making.

So what made this such a breathtaking hour? I can’t speak for everyone, but not knowing one another might have helped. There was no posturing. There was humor and openness. There was a willingness to read the room in its weird Zoom squares. There was generosity, and thanks. There was, I think, grace.

One of the participants characterized museums as being the kid–probably the white, privileged kid– at the back of the room behaving like a jerk, but who never gets caught. And if he does, he deflects, letting us know it was simply a mistake, not in any way a series of deliberate choices that leave women of color navigating racism, all women navigating harassment and gender bias, and collections too often reflecting curators’ biases rather than communities they represent.

So here’s my take away: If we could come to work and leverage a little grace in our workplace what would that look like? I have filled these pages with how important it is for museum staff–indeed any staff–to be safe, seen, and supported. Grace nurtures empathy and compassion so colleagues feel valued and cared for. Those values breed happiness, which turns on creativity. And who doesn’t want all of that?

Grace is the place where wisdom, humor, empathy and compassion intersect. It is a practice, and museum workplaces could use more of it.

Be well.

Joan Baldwin


Year’s End: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

DeFacto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45298142

Every week when I sit down to write this blog I suffer a twinge of imposter syndrome. Yes, I’ve co-authored some books. I teach in the Johns Hopkins Museums Studies Program and I’ve given some lectures. I lead a staff; I care for a collection, trying to encourage a dialog between it and my school community. But, that doesn’t stop me from feeling as though I’ve said it all before or I really don’t know what I’m talking about, or if I do, I’m not saying it well enough.

In the northern hemisphere, this weekend is the Winter Solstice, the moment when the days are the shortest. Particularly this year, it’s the time when the calendar, seasons, and current events conspire, making us all ready for a little light and some hope. This is the last Leadership Matters post of 2020. I will be on hiatus from December 21 to January 3. Like me, you’re probably glad to see 2020 come to an end. Disruptive, downright dystopian, and disappointing it pushed us all in ways we never imagined.

With over over 52,000 views in 2020, Leadership Matters turned eight years old December 13. What started as a way to promote and enhance the first edition of Leadership Matters morphed into 416 posts, most by me, some by guest writers. The favorites this year were Looking for a New Leader: Putting Equity into Action, which garnered so many views I am still convinced WordPress made a mistake. It was followed by Leadership and Workplace Bullying and The Silent Treatment (and What to Do About It). That saddens me. Those posts were written in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and yet they are among the most read on this blog. What does it say about the museum workplace that discussions of bullying and non-speaking marathons draw so many readers?

And speaking of readers, you come from 159 countries around the globe. While most of you live here in the United States, there are many of you from Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and India. And you are joined by individual readers from the Isle of Man, Aruba, Haiti and St. Lucia, and many more. This year your numbers grew to 994, with more who find Leadership Matters on Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter. Wherever you are, thank you. Thank you for reading and thank you for being part of the museum/non-profit world that cares about its workplace, and recognizes how leadership as a practice, as a way of being, changes individuals and ultimately the organization in which they work.

And speaking of work, many museum folk aren’t working. The pandemic stole their jobs, furloughing them or eliminating their positions altogether. For those of us who are working, whether from home, museums or heritage sites or some hybrid of the two, we are the lucky ones. However damaged the field is, and there is a lot of work to do, those of us still lucky enough to be employed, do work we love, which brings me to this: If you are working, and can afford a gift, make one. Here in the United States you can always give to the Museum Workers Relief Fund, supporting those who’ve lost their jobs. You can also give to your favorite museum or heritage organization or to a national, state or regional museum service agency.

Much as we all want to demonstrate our love by just showing up, and wandering unmasked through our favorite site, that’s not possible right now, so we need to figure out how to support organizations that mean a lot to us, by being present in different ways. You can shop from the comfort of your home at museum shops, take an online class, listen to a lecture or go on a virtual tour. So, if you have the means, give. If money is short right now, give in other ways. Support your colleagues and your friends. Put five museum pals together at 5 o’clock one evening on Zoom and gab. Support one another. Create a Get-A-Job team, and work together on polishing resumes and Linkedin pages. Or sign the Gender Equity in Museums Pledge and make a personal commitment to ending sexual harassment in the museum workplace.

Whatever you do, make sure it constitutes actual change, however small or personal, not the sort of global ranting social media invites. Here is my list for change in 2021:

  • 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.

What’s on your list?

Make 2021, not the year for change, but the year you change.

Be well. Stay safe. See you in January.

Joan Baldwin


Place Holder or Leader: What’s the Interim’s Role?

Copyright V2Soft.IT Solutions

You don’t need me to tell you this, but in 10 months the workplace has changed fundamentally. Human interaction is reduced. At my organization, spontaneous hallway conversations are rare, and many people are only seen via a screen. And, if you’re lucky to have a face-to-face conversation, the most interactive portions of your colleague’s faces are covered. Hurried writing via email or Google chat complicates communication, creating endless email chains where once a single face-to-face conversation sufficed. Add to that, some people don’t read because they’re busy or stressed, some comprehend poorly or put off reading ’til late in the day, and by then whatever mini-crisis has passed without their input.

Imagine that into all of this steps an interim leader. I became one in July, but as staffs shrink across the museum world, there are many taking on new positions in addition to their old ones. So what’s an interim’s role? Is it simply as place holder, making sure the program, department, museum or library doesn’t burn down before the real director arrives? As an interim are you expected to lead or simply to supervise? Should you have a point of view?

I’ll be honest, organizational vision was not at the top of my list this summer when I stepped into a leadership role. COVID pushed pretty much everything off the table as we worked to figure out how to open a library, archives and special collections while also keeping our community and ourselves safe. But we figured it out, and while COVID continues to escalate, we are blessedly free of illness. Most importantly we have an operational template that seems to work; however, our search for a new director is stalled again so is it time for some vision?

As I’ve probably shared, we are working through a series of workshops led by an experiential education leader to help us communicate better with one another. The team has worked without me until now, outlining communication issues and strategies it wants to address. Currently they’re utilizing Henry Cloud’s The Power of the Other. Cloud describes four “corners of connection,” places we go, and modes of behavior we adopt that range from isolationist to a permanent feeling of imposter syndrome, to folks who need to be bathed in adoration more or less permanently. Corner four is the place we all want to be, with people who connect from an authentic but vulnerable place.

So is there room for interim organizational vision in a workplace operating in the midst of a global pandemic and beset with some typical workplace communication issues? Sometimes an organization hires an interim precisely so it can institute change without having it affect the permanent leader. And sometimes it hires an interim to hold the fort until a permanent replacement is found. If the choice is binary, we fall more into the latter category than the former. So…the vision thing? Should someone who’s holding the fort have a vision? I’m going to say yes, particularly since our organizational sense of self wasn’t rock solid to begin with. And what’s my vision? To begin with, that we should take joy in the good work we do together, and through the work to create a culture built on kindness, empathy and learning agility. Second, to stop seeing ourselves as victims. We don’t need a new director to fix some imaginary set of faults, but instead to challenge us and help us become better at what we do. To prepare for that, we need a leader who puts connection first; who models it, who looks for it, who delights in it. We also need a leader who thinks in two time frames, strategies for the moment, and frameworks for the future. I hope for the short term I can be that person. And as a team we need to think that way because we’re not treading water. Everything we do lays foundations for future building.

So if you find yourself suddenly a temporary leader, even if it’s only to cover a maternity/paternity leave, here’s my two cents:

  • Diagnose what’s happening now, and look for ways to improve.
  • Be prepared to ask tough questions, challenge assumptions, and have uncomfortable conversations.
  • Know your program, department or museum’s DNA. Understand how “now” connects to the future.
  • Take care of your team. Help them self-reflect so they grow.

Sounds kind of like real leadership doesn’t it? It is. Interim leadership isn’t and shouldn’t be the poor stepchild of leadership. Unlike, permanent leadership, it has a beginning, middle and an end, but whether it’s two months or two years, it’s leadership. And once again, especially now, especially in museums everywhere, leadership matters.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. I want to give a shout out to my colleague Anne Ackerson’s new project. In collaboration with her partners, the wise and talented Dina Bailey and Gail Anderson, she has created The Resilience Playbook, an opportunity to work with all three to figure out where your organization should go next. Built around goals, plays, and self-assessment, it seems like the perfect tool to create change and leave the COVID swamp behind. Sadly, it’s available only for organizations. Maybe the version for individuals will show up in 2021?


Finding Hope in a Post-Pandemic World

Iceberg with a hole in the strait between Langø and Sanderson Hope south of Upernavik, Greenland. Kim Hansen – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2847421

After Thanksgiving, I’ve often found inspiration for these pages in the best aspects of the holiday: kindness, collaboration, trust. This year, finding goodness in the waning months of 2020 seems a Herculean task. Many museum workers are no longer employed. One in three museums nationwide may never reopen. Those that have opened, did so under strange and constricting conditions, only to find themselves closed again as the pandemic sky rockets. And the museum field continues to make headlines, not for its great exhibitions or good works, but for poor leadership, lack of concern for its workers, and monetizing collections, aka deaccessioning.

Sunday morning I woke to discover Tony Hsieh, entreprenuer and Zappos founder had died. One of my leadership heroes, the 46-year old Hsieh made headlines in the late 1990’s when he bought a shoe company called ShoeSite.com that ultimately became the Internet giant Zappos. Hsieh believed trust and friendliness were what create return customers online or in person. His decision-making-at-the-point-of-transaction philosophy, where call center staff were encouraged and trusted to make the best decisions they could in the moment, transformed Zappos. Later he embraced Holacracy, a method of decentralized management and organizational governance, changing and challenging Zappos still further.

What does any of this have to do with museums? Maybe nothing, but Hsieh’s ideas of empowering staff and creating an organization where a call center employee has an equal voice in creating change echo a lot of what many museum thought leaders have written and spoken about since the start of the pandemic. And yet, when the National Gallery of Art (NGA), along with museums of art in Boston, Houston and London’s Tate cancelled their joint Philip Guston exhibit, social media was swamped with opinions and feelings about how wrong they were.1 Midst all the noise, NGA director Kaywin Feldman suggested that, among other reasons for pressing pause on the show, were the security guards. She described them as “experts in the general public, and they know much more about our public, about public reactions and understanding, than I do sitting in my office up here.” When was the last time you heard an art museum director reference their security guards’ opinions in a public interview and how Hsieh-like was that? Feldman also makes the point that her thoughts are about NGA only, and that the other partner museums have their own approach, community, staff, and reasons for wanting to press pause.

If the Guston exhibit is a microcosm of the kind complex problem museums will continue to confront post-pandemic, shouldn’t we as bystanders be equally nuanced in our response to their choices? The debate has aligned itself in two buckets: whether museums are about people (staff and community take precedence) or about things (collections are preeminently important). When collections take precedence, the museum’s role is to protect, preserve and exhibit. On the human side of the argument, staff are seen as key to making collections speak, hopefully telling an object’s full story truthfully and without bias, overlaying the knowledgable expert with diverse and authentic narratives.

When we think about how the museum world might move forward, it’s worth remembering there are some 35,000 museums in the U.S. Yet art museums comprise only 4.5-percent of the total, even though they’ve garnered 100-percent of the of the news recently. So it’s helpful to remember that art museum problems are not always a reflection of the museum world as a whole. In addition, there is social media, an ever- hungry animal, encouraging us to respond quickly, to “like” something or to comment. As a result we find ourselves commenting not always on facts but sometimes on opinions perpetuating a narrative that isn’t fact-based, but amplifying a museum chronicle where staff is mistreated, DEI issues are rife, boards are groups of uncaring, entitled, privileged white folks. Some or all of that may be true for some institutions, but let’s be clear that not all 35,000 museums suffer these symptoms in concert.

So where do I find hope? This month, I saw it in our Johns Hopkins graduate students, in NEMA conference participants, in Gender Equity in Museums Facebook members, and in my friends and colleagues throughout the field. They are committed, smart and intentional. They don’t expect some faceless power to make change for them, but, instead, are eager to make change for themselves, their colleagues and the field as a whole.

Some days it’s hard to know what matters and what doesn’t. If nothing matters, there’s no point. If everything matters, there’s no purpose. It’s up to this next generation of museum workers to find the bridge between the two.

As you look toward a post-pandemic museum world, where do you see hope?

Joan Baldwin

  1. Smee, Sebastian. “In Postponing Guston Exhibition, the National Gallery and Three Other Museums have made a Terrible Mistake: The Cancellation of “Philip Guston Now” is Patronizing and Outrageous.” WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post.

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


Retirements Don’t Negate Racism or Two Things Can Be True @ the Same Time

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=297185

I don’t usually comment negatively on other writing, but Lee Rosenbaum’s column about the Metropolitan Museum’s 96 retirees was, in my opinion, a little too glib. Mostly, it blithely overlooks the idea that two things can be true at the same time. Collectively, the employees she names have been at the Met a total of almost 300 years. Leaving aside their considerable contributions, they are unusual for their long stays at the museum, an average of 36.5 years each.

But none of that makes Rosenbaum’s comment that “they [the retirees] go down as a soothing palate cleanser after the vitriol from current and former staffers who (perhaps with some hyperbole) have accused the Met and other NYC cultural institutions of “consistent exploitation and unfair treatment of Black/Brown people” and “blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees.” The fact that both these ideas–that the retirees can praise the Metropolitan while current or recently furloughed staff accuse the Met of racism– are true, pretty much sums up the museum world’s current state of mind. In brief, not everyone’s experience is the same, there is no “right” career path in the museum world, and it’s wrong and disrespectful to assume otherwise. The Metropolitan offered this group of privileged white men and women a career home. They worked long and hard and made massive contributions in the world of art history, but their experience isn’t everyone’s, and it is disingenuous to the succeeding generations of employees to suggest it is. To be BIPOC in any storied, patriarchal, gilt-edged culture is a challenge. It’s exhausting, frequently frustrating, and requires a level of daily vigilance, probably unknown to Rosenbaum’s group of retirees.

There are so many things that go into being happy at work. The top four might include: Loving what you do; having a talent for it; being mentored and challenged; and receiving a fair and equitable salary and professional development opportunities. But then there are the hidden qualities: Is your workplace a value-driven culture? Is it a place where equity is a hallmark of work life whether you clean restrooms, arrange flowers or write scholarly catalogues about the world’s most famous paintings? Is it a place that’s kind and supportive regardless of who you are? And last, there are the personal issues. Some of us are optimistic and more resilient than others. And life today–even leaving aside the monster of COVID–is perhaps a teensy more complex than in the early 1980’s when many of the Metropolitan’s retirees started working there. Overlay all of that with an age so uncertain and fractured, and is it any wonder young, BIPOC employees are weary? How can they be sure why they were hired? Was it talent, ambition and creativity or some chemistry of guilt, DEI necessity, and brand development on the part of museums who believe they’re doing the right thing, but truly haven’t a clue, leaving new BIPOC staff to navigate their way through a world of — we want you — but now you’re here, figure it out on your own? Perhaps that’s more complicated than any of us older white folks know?

One last parenthetical note: The Metropolitan won’t be the the first or the last to have waves of Boomers retire as part of COVID retrenchment. Leave aside what they know about content, those retirees carry with them huge institutional history. So if you are a Generation Xer or a Millennial, who’s waited for this moment for what seems a lifetime, remember two things: Some day, in the not too far-off future you will be the ones a younger generation is waiting to move off stage. So help it happen with some grace. Listen for the knowledge and context they’ve accumulated, and work to understand the mistakes they made. It will make your organization a better place. And second, if the older generation wasn’t as kind, equitable or supportive as you needed, it’s your turn now. Be the leaders you wanted.

Joan Baldwin