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.