Anne and I are away this week speaking at the Intercom: Leadership for a Sustainable Museum conference. We’re presenting with Marsha Semmel, who wrote the foreword to Leadership Matters, and David Young, the ED of Cliveden in Philadelphia and one of the book’s interviewees. We’ll report on the conference when we return.
In the meantime, here is a quirky list of what we’re reading, watching or listening to, in addition to a list of things we haven’t quite gotten to yet, but we will. Enjoy. And share your list please!
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
What We’ve Read or We’re Reading:
Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay (Harper Perennial, 2014)
We Should All Be Feminists, Chiamanda Ngozi Adiche (Anchor Books, 2014)
“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic, July/August, 2012.
“What’s Holding Women Back in the Workplace?” Nikki Waller and Joann S. Lublin, September 30, 2015
What Works for Women at Work, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey (NYU Press, 2014)
“Boys Don’t Cry..But Should CEOs?” Roger Jones, October 24, 2015
The Danger of a Single Story Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ted Talks, July 2009
What’s On the To-Read List:
Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan (Left Coast, 2015)
“Centered Leadership: How Talented Women Thrive,” Joanna Barsh, Susie Cranston, and Rebecca A. Craske, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2008.
“The Bamboo Project,” Michele Martin’s career advice blog that’s chock full of great insights and creative solutions to divining and defining work you love.
Are we not of interest to each other….It’s much deeper than that. Are human beings who are in community, do we call to one another? Do we heed each other? Do we want to know each other? There are a lot of ways that people that are aggrieved can be addressed, we all have our grievances, when grievance is really heard on the intimate level I think that does a great deal of the work of moving people forward….. We speak out of what we know and what we have lived and hopefully out of that comes something we might call the universal.
Elizabeth Alexander, Poet and Professor, speaking on “On Being” with Krista Tippett, July 26, 2015. You can find the full interview here.
It’s mid-month and time to talk about gender and museums again. As you’re aware Anne and I are embroiled in another book project, Women+Museums: Lessons from the Field. This is a book that addresses some of the inequities in our field in addition to what’s wonderful about it. If you are expecting a cringe-worthy rant, you’ll be disappointed, but we do want to raise some questions about gender in the museum workplace and about gender on the interpretive/exhibition side of things.
A few weeks ago we sent some questions about gender in programming and exhibitions to a group of female colleagues. After exchanging emails we decided that questions this weighty deserve answers that don’t have to be typed so we’re waiting for our schedules to calm down to talk. In the meantime, I thought I’d pose the same questions to all of you in the hopes you will have thoughts you’d like to share. And if nothing else, perhaps it will start a dialog in various museum workplaces. Here is the first one: When your institution discusses marginalized groups, are women mentioned? And by marginalized, we mean groups excluded from the mainstream by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion or class. For example, if your museum is doing a thematic exhibit–let’s say art or objects based around memory–when your staff checks the boxes about who’s represented, does anyone mention women? If not, why not?
Here is the second question–and this is particularly for folks who work in history museums: Do you think women’s lives are interpreted in museums and house museums in a fair and empathetic way without presentist judgement? And by that we mean, do we talk about how women lived rather than interpreting their lives through the objects they used in a slightly pitying way because they aren’t evolved enough to have, say, heating systems that can be adjusted from the office or the car?
We didn’t just ask our women friends these questions. We also posed them to Frank Vagnone, Executive Director of New York’s Historic House Trust, and the founder and principal writer for the blog “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic Houses.” (Just FYI, if you’re not a fan, you should be.) Actually, we asked Frank twice because we’re so deep in this project, we seem to be losing our grip. In any case, here is some of what he had to say: “In my opinion, historic house museums tend to not think of the female voice as a primary player (unless it is Hull house etc.). They are just now getting to see that the female can actually expand the narrative in very interesting places. I think historic house museums understand women as marginalized when its women’s history month – after that, they get pushed in the background (not always – but a lot of the time.) The odd thing is that most of the people employed at house museums are women – In my experience, I, as a middle-aged white man (gay), have been the one to push women’s narratives at house museums that I have been involved with – pushing them beyond cook books and pretty dresses…”
And about the second question Frank wrote: “I do not know how we can do anything without some bias of our times shading our actions and interpretations. The best we can do is try to flesh out the broader aspects of the narrative in ways that may not fully ‘fit’ today’s view.”
So, not to put too fine a point on it, but what’s going on here? Why are women silent about women? Are those of you who work in 19th-century historic houses worried that you’re telling a different, more jovial, story than the time period that saw the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or the lives of women like Emily Dickinson and Matilda Joslyn Gage? Is yours a story that glorifies ironing with a flat iron, walking the floor with a sick child in a world without antibiotics, or the menial act of getting dirt out of a carpet without a vacuum? How do you deal with issues of color versus issues of gender? What are the differences in the lives of an urban black woman versus an new female immigrant? Do you tell the story common to both or only the story of ethnicity? Does your audience know that women didn’t receive the vote until 1920 or that the first birth control clinic didn’t open until 1916? If you’re interpreting an historic house, is birth control or its lack part of the narrative or do you simply announce how many children a family had? I realize I am sounding rantish, but it is a teensy shocking that a gay man, aka Frank Vagnone, has to push the women’s narrative at historic house museums.
So please, if you disagree, let us know. We’re waiting to hear from you.
Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
It’s no secret that many of today’s history museums are struggling. The heyday of the Bicentennial is long gone, and with it the idea of packing the kids in the car and spending an afternoon at a historic site. Surveys and focus groups indicate that today’s families can’t see the relevance, not to mention the perennial comments about how historic houses don’t change. In a nutshell, they ask: If I visited in 4th grade do I really need to go back? (For a chorus of voices on this subject, join Frank Vagnone’s Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums discussion group on LinkedIn.)
Many of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters struggle with these questions. They talk about the difficulties history museums have establishing value in their communities. As a group, we found that they see history less as someplace sacred and more as a dot on a continuum that connects to other dots. Witness interviewee Dina Bailey’s Invisible: Slavery Today, an exhibit on human trafficking at the Freedom Center. As David Young, director of Cliveden in Philadelphia said, “We know now that museums are more than just venues for intelligent learning, but places for emotional and even spiritual learning. We need to meet visitors there. People need to see museums as places where community needs are met.”
What does this have to do with leadership? Once again, we discovered that our group of 36 leaders are readers and thinkers. They are self-aware, authentic, courageous and visionary. They ask hard questions. And they read. A lot. Here are some of the writers, books, magazines and websites mentioned in their interviews: Amanda Sinclair’s Leadership for the Disillusioned; Good to Great; Purpose Driven Life; Institutional Trauma; books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; David McCullough; New York Review of Books; books by Dalai Lama and Barack Obama; Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums; Donald T. Phillip’s Lincoln on Leadership; Michael Watkin’s The First 90 Days; and Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum.
And that list is the tip of the iceberg. In committing to leadership personally, this group of 36 individuals know that institutions can’t lose when staff is active and intentional about their work. We know that individuals influence and shape organizations, and vice versa. Leaders who model courageous and visionary behavior lead organizational change. And history and cultural heritage museums with that kind of leadership are transformed. So read. Read widely. Connect the dots. Pull your museum’s collection, kicking and screaming, into the present.
And while you’re at it, let us know what you’re reading.