How many of you are museum leaders? Are you lonely? If you’re nodding, you’re not the only one. By some estimates, 42-percent of for-profit leaders confess to feeling lonely all or part of the time. Leadership is isolating. You’re happy in your job; it’s challenging, but there are things that can’t be shared. Some days are stressful. You know things you can’t un-know, and the decisions you make often feel like they’re yours alone.
There are ways to make the top spot less isolating. You can allow yourself to be vulnerable with your leadership team. By learning to express feelings–as opposed to parsing problems–you model vulnerability and build trust. You can create a peer group or ‘kitchen cabinet’ that you meet with regularly to share frustrations, ideas, and to problem solve. You may also have close friends, unconnected with your museum, who listen well or a few well-placed mentors. Those outlets are yours and yours alone. And they don’t put you in the position of treating any of your staff or leadership team differently.
There are families, governments, and workplaces where power masquerades as friendship, love or connection. It is, to quote a Latin phrase we’ve all heard too much recently, a quid pro quo. Grandparents pay for college tuition, but only if they select the school. A town official looks the other way when a local non-profit needs a variance, but then asks the non-profit to support something else in exchange. A museum leader wants her staff to like her so she adjusts their schedules to accommodate their personal circumstances. These are all ways to create connection and make an individual feel liked. The only problem is they aren’t sustainable because they’re based not in authenticity and equity, but on transaction.
These days when we say the words workplace equity, what comes to mind is race, gender, access, and the way we treat one another in the museum workplace. But far from values statements and HR policies there’s day-to-day life where equity happens, and the ongoing question of who gets what. Who gets noticed? Who is hourly and who is salaried? Who gets to work on plum assignments? Who gets to travel on the museum’s dime? Who never met a deadline that wasn’t moveable? Who leaves early for soccer practice? Who is chronically late, but excused? Who is plucked from the group to meet with a trustees? Whose work is nominated for a prize? We could go on, but you get the picture.
Part of leadership’s isolation is leaders can’t have favorites. As a leader, you need to understand and tame your own biases, and you can’t use your power to grant favors for those you like. Creating an equitable workplace means….
- Starting with your employee handbook: Looking at the language. Might it affect one demographic differently than another? Can you fix it?
- Does your museum have a values statement? If so, how do you use it to guide daily practice? If not, why not?
- Do your rules about personal leave apply to everyone equitably? For example, are family leave — human leave — available equitably, because life comes at us all fast? And do you permit personal time that recognizes not all of us celebrate the same holidays at the same time? A small thing, but a nod that your organization embraces and supports difference.
- Are rules about promotion and professional development transparent?
- How are new ideas heard? How hard is it for an idea to make its way from the hourly staff to the salaried staff? If it’s challenging does that reinforce the idea that salaried staff are the idea makers? Where is the inequity in that?
Museum workplaces are microcosms of the wider world. As a leader you and your board have the opportunity to create and shape an organizational culture that is human-centered and fair. In many ways the workplace you create has a profound impact on the way your organization appears in the world. (If you need an example of what an organization looks like that neglects values and does not keep its staff safe, seen and supported, look no further than the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fast becoming the poster child for an unethical work environment.)
You can’t control each and every staff person’s behavior, but you can create a place where staff feel respected and nurtured. So build human-centered policies, and don’t let them languish. Apply them and watch your staff flourish.
Image: Museum of Happiness
Photo by Robert J Weisberg
To begin, I want to announce Gender Equity in Museums Movement’s (GEMM) Pledge to End Sexual Harassment in the Museum Workplace. GEMM released the Pledge November 12. It is available on its website and on Change.org. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 338,000 museum employees in the United States. In 2018, 49.5-percent were women. Based on the two surveys conducted in 2018 by Anne Ackerson and me, and a second by nikhil trivedi and Aletheia Wittman, roughly 49-percent of those identifying as women reported experiencing verbal or sexual harassment at work. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a shockingly high percentage.
Signing the pledge takes a few minutes. It asks signers to, among other things, refrain from sexist language, to be open to dialogue about museum workers’ concerns and needs, and to create and nurture workplaces free of sexual assault and understanding of consent. Maybe you’re not someone who signs things, maybe you believe sexual harassment doesn’t happen in museums or maybe you think it’s simply not your problem. The museum workplace is many things: It’s creative, sometimes inclusive, dynamic, frequently stressful, achingly beautiful, and filled with many big and small moments of discovery and learning. Sexual harassment doesn’t belong there. You are only one person out of 338,000, but by signing, you tell the world, and most importantly your co-workers, you will do your part. Join GEMM in pledging to help end workplace sexual harassment in museums and heritage organization. And don’t save it for later, do it today.
Last week I gave the keynote at the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) meeting in Philadelphia. It was an honor and a privilege, but like any new experience, it made me think. Many of the attendees came from large museums–large enough where the curator or collections manager doesn’t wear a different hat depending on the day. Based on the crowd, many are women, and many are white. That doesn’t make them bad people, but they might be ground zero for the museum world’s old-school hierarchical leadership. Other front-facing departments–education, development, leadership–have diversified more quickly, but this world, on which so much depends–if you can’t find an object, it doesn’t matter how special a curator you are–is in some ways landlocked, caught in a century-old tradition of women caring for and organizing stuff.
That made me think for possibly the umpteenth time about leadership and hierarchy. When you think about diversity, what do you think of first? Be honest. Do you think about race? Gender? Age? You have heard me say–probably too often–how important it is to have everyone at the table, and yet creating a staff who represents your community is a challenge, but say you’re successful. Say your department is like a little utopian United Nations. Say they range from Millennials who tolerate Boomers, Christians who work along side Muslims, men who work respectfully with women, gender fluid folk with resolutely cisgender. But you’re all in the same department. How does an organization’s internal segregation and stratification affect the product, the idea making, the program, the exhibit?
None of this may apply if you work at a small museum. You may see your frontline staff daily, and they may also function as security. But what if you’re part of a larger organization? How often do you talk with staff outside your department about a project that affects them? Do you speak as equals or as one staff explaining its needs to another? All I’m suggesting is diversity and inclusion is more than just outward appearances. It’s more than the Instagram-able group around the table. It’s making sure varied constituencies across the museum or heritage organization have a voice. Maybe it bothers you that there are always folding chairs in your newly-redesigned admission area? Were your frontline staff part of the architects’ focus groups? How about your volunteer coordinator? Did anyone mention what percentage of your visitors are retired? That’s a banal example, but it speaks to how listening to many voices from across an institution makes it a better place. And breaking down hierarchical barriers is another avenue to creating a diverse and healthy workplace.
So….the intentional museum flattens hierarchies and contributes to diverse idea-building by allowing staff at all levels to:
- disagree with one another
- be themselves in the workplace
- contribute to the best of their abilities
Two of my favorite myths at the beginning of Leadership Matters are: “We are the source of our own best ideas,” and “Anyone can lead a museum.” They come from a place that says museums are simple organizations doing simple stuff, and pretty much anybody can do what needs to be done. After all, there’s a gazillion books and YouTube videos. How hard can it be? I’ve never worked in a really big museum, but I know first-hand that among tiny to medium-sized heritage organizations and museums these two myths spawn a lot of problems, and the biggest may be they limit imagination.
You may have seen this type of behavior cast generationally–the proverbial eye-roll from older staff members when a Millennial suggests trying something new. Or it’s attributed to a particular subgroup within the museum, frequently with the pronoun ‘they’ — as in “It’s a great idea, but they would never go for it.” They refers to a nameless group of powerful people who make decisions for everyone else. Despite the fact staff may have no real understanding about the board’s decision-making process, ascribing blame in these situations is useful. Then there is the financial version, which goes something like, “I love that, but we just don’t have the money right now.” And last, but certainly not least is the version that combines one or more of the others: “We tried that before the recession, and it wasn’t that successful.” If your therapist were in the room for all these comments, she’d tell you you’re writing the script before anything’s happened. And she’d be right.
I’m not saying money isn’t important. It is. And it can buy a lot, and ease even more worries. But an organization can be really rich and also really boring. Surely you’ve been to some of those. They are beautifully presented, but stiff, still, and flat. There is, to quote Gertrude Stein, “No there there.” But there are other organizations where, without warning and often without huge budgets, you’re challenged, confronted by things you hadn’t thought about before or presented with memorable narratives. They are the places you remember. They are the ones that stick with you.
Imagination and ideas are a museums’ biggest tools. Otherwise you’re just a brilliantly-organized storage space. And yet how do you get out of the scarcity mindset? Practice. Truly. And start small.
If you’re a leader:
- Read widely. Listen and learn from a variety of sources. If you’re a scientist, read the book review. If you’re an art curator, read the Harvard Business Review.
- Model respect, and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Use the ideas that work now. Start small. What percentage of your guests are elderly? Will moving some benches afford a view and make walking from place-to-place easier? Try it. If it doesn’t work, move them back.
- Change is a muscle. Build strength slowly. Don’t over do it.
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a board member:
- Model respect and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Know what matters. Understand your organization.
- Invite a different staff member to your board meeting every month. Ask them what they would do if you gave them a million dollars. Listen. (And ban the eye-roll.)
- Devote some time as a group to talking about ideas as opposed to what’s just happened, what’s currently happening or what will happen. How can you raise money for an organization if you’re not excited about what it’s doing?
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a leader or a board member, you’re role isn’t to maintain the status quo. You want more than mediocrity, don’t you? You’re a change agent, and change doesn’t have to come in a multi-million-dollar addition. Sometimes it comes in a volunteer program that models great teaching, a friendly attitude and deep knowledge.
Yours for idea stimulation,
P.S. Two items of note passed over our screens this week: Nikki Columbus, who was briefly hired by MOMA PS1, settled the claim she brought against the museum. Kudos to Ms. Columbus for following through on her claim which accused MOMA PS1 of gender, pregnancy and caregiver discrimination. It takes money, courage and will to take on a monolith, but in the end cases like this one set precedent for others. Second, the Guggenheim Museum joined Britain’s Tate and National Portrait Gallery in no longer accepting gifts from the Sackler family. The Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin, donated $9 million to the Guggenheim between 1995 and 2015. Aligning gifts with core values is a tricky topic so stay tuned.
It’s AAM week–the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums. This year AAM is in Phoenix where it was (no lie) 110 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday. Because Leadership Matters is also a co-founder of GEMM we devoted ourselves to AAM’s diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives.
We started with “Beyond Diversity,” AAM’s DEAI working group. Led by Dr. Nicole Ivy, AAM’s Director of Diversity, four members of the working group talked about their six-month journey creating a shared vocabulary and basic principles to guide museum professionals in incorporating DEAI in their workplaces. Dr. Johnnetta Cole called the dialog around the table energizing, embodying what it meant to be “the other.” She reinforced the experimental nature of the process by recollecting a quote from her own mother and quoting Zora Neale Huston, who said that “if you jump for the sun and don’t make it, at least you get off the ground.”
Several of the panelists pointed out their work was an iterative process that succeeded because their team worked so hard. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of their comments, audience members challenged them, and by extension AAM, asking what AAM’s role would be in making change? One questioner said that she’d been in the field for five years, but wasn’t sure if she would stay because salaries are so low she isn’t sure she can afford it. Panelists deflected her question, responding that their job wasn’t to actualize, it was to frame the questions.
The following day we and GEMM joined other diversity and inclusion initiatives at AAM’s Diversity Forum. Each group made a brief presentation about its goals and work. Then participants moved from table to table, moving in and out of conversations. At the GEMM table women spoke about the pay gap, salary negotiations, and the rigors of combining parenthood with work. Participants allied over common problems, what to do about low salaries, and how to advise the next generation of museum professionals. Hopefully, the women who participated in the GEMM conversation left with renewed confidence and a sense of support.
It’s impossible to talk about the first full day of AAM sessions and not mention the opening session and the keynote. Certainly the moment when Hallie Winter, Curator at the Osage Nation Museum, received the Nancy Hanks award was a high point. The Hanks award goes to a museum professional who’s been in the field less than 10 years, and recognizes a specific achievement that benefits either the honoree’s home institution or the museum field in general. In a short video and in person, Winter’s brief acceptance speech was heart-breakingly wonderful, reminding all of us why we do what we do.
Then came Kevin Jennings’ keynote. Holy smokes. There are speakers and then there are the ones who get you where you live. Jennings, a former teacher, non-profit director, and writer is the new president of The Tenement Museum in New York City. Weaving his personal history with the museum’s story, and placing them both against a back drop of the national narrative stretching from roughly 1900 to the present, Jennings asked his audience to see themselves (and their stories) as facets in a bigger chronicle.
It’s rare to hear such a personal speech that was packed with leadership lessons if you knew where to look. He made himself vulnerable. He was funny. How many of us are ready to show a huge audience our high school prom picture? He talked about loss. He wasn’t afraid to pause so his audience could comprehend a wrenching turn in the story. It is the way good teachers teach, mingling the now with the then so listeners understand the iterative nature of time. And it’s the way we all need to approach our work, with open arms and minds so our audiences hear the echoes of their own stories. If you weren’t in Phoenix yesterday, try to listen to this speech when AAM makes its recordings available. You’ll be glad you did.
Leadership Matters was on the road over President’s Day Weekend, heading south to the Small Museums Association meeting in College Park, Maryland. There, we talked about “Lessons from the Workplace: Women in the Museum.” We’ll be back next week to report on the audience reaction to issues of gender and the museum world, but in the meantime, here are some things that have captured our attention recently.
Books: Women & Power-Manifesto by Mary Beard. A short (128 pages), but blistering account of how women have been silenced throughout history. Don’t want to spend the money on the book? Here’s the backstory from the New Yorker: The Troll Slayer.
Managing People and Projects in Museums: Strategies that Work by Martha Morris. Morris rightly states that “The majority of work in museums today is project based.” So, why not combine the topics of projects, people, management, and leadership in one easily accessible book from a veteran museums studies educator? In addition to a whole chapter on museum leadership, Morris takes a deep dive into creating, managing and sustaining teams, including the team leader’s critical role.
Articles & Blogs: Not enough ethical challenges in your leadership life? Read this: The Family That Built An Empire of Pain.
#MeToo and the nonprofit sector: Vu Le is the fertile mind behind the blog, Nonprofit AF. If you’re not reading, you’ll want to make this one of your weekly must do’s. In the post we highlight here, Vu offers up his thoughts about creating safe environments for staff, volunteers, and community members. “We must examine our implicit and explicit biases,” Vu writes. “We need to confront one another and point out jokes and actions that are sexist. And we need to do our own research and read up on all these issues and not burden our women colleagues with the emotional and other labor to enlighten us.”
In this Harvard Business Review article, the fastest path to the top of an organization usually isn’t a straight shot. The authors rely on extensive research to explore why big, bodacious, and bold may feel counterintuitive sometimes, but are usually the keys to CEO success.
The Women’s Agenda is a regular shot of women’s empowerment reading from across the big pond (Australia, that is). News and research is gathered from around the globe on women in leadership, politics, business, and life.
Are Orchestras Culturally Specific? Jesse Rosen, League of American Orchestras president and CEO, recently led a discussion with four thought leaders about orchestras and cultural equity. From the intro: “While diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are complex topics that require thoughtful consideration and strategic action, the concept of equity can be especially nuanced. It challenges us to fundamentally reconsider what it means for orchestras to play a constructive and responsive role in their communities—a role that acknowledges and responds to past and current inequities in the arts and in society.” Museums and other cultural institutions, take note.
Video: This video features CharityChannel’s Stephen Nill and members of the Governance Affinity Group of the Alliance of Nonprofit Management discussing their research on nonprofit board leadership. The discussion centers around a ground-breaking survey representing the second phase of research on this topic. The first phase, the widely acclaimed Voices of Board Chairs study, investigated the roles and preparation of board chairs, surveying 635 board chairs across the United States. Not only is there very little research that investigates nonprofit board chair leadership, but there is even less about other pivotal leadership roles within boards such as the officers and committee chairs.
You may think there’s not much connection between endurance running and museum leadership, but perhaps there is. Take a look at this video on how to run a 100 miles. Perhaps there are some parallels?
Sound: A big thank you to podcaster Hannah Hethmon who assembled all the museum-related podcasts in a handy link for us all: https://hhethmon.com/2017/12/31/a-complete-list-of-podcasts-for-museum-professionals/
It is a new year. Many of us made lists last week, recommitting ourselves to the “new year, new you” maxim, foregoing some things, while trying to develop healthier habits. If you’re in this mode, think about self-awareness, not just for you, but for your organization.
We’ve written a lot about self-awareness here as a grounding principle for good leadership. Being a self-aware leader means knowing yourself. That doesn’t mean knowing whether you prefer mint chocolate chip to strawberry. It’s more about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Personality tests can help. If that idea makes your skin crawl, think of it as a way to understand your behavior rather than as a definitive description of who you are. One I’ve recently discovered is the Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck test. It’s built for business leaders so some of the questions don’t apply to museum folk, and participating means you need to supply some personal information so if that’s not for you, there are other tests like Meyers Briggs or Predictive Index.
Self-aware leaders also check-in regularly with themselves and others. Some review the day’s activities every evening, analyzing what happened and what they might have done differently. Others review monthly. The idea is to learn–over time–how and why you make decisions. The third in this trinity is being aware of others. Whether it is your team, your department, your entire staff, as a leader, you want to build a team that’s diverse yet complementary. You can’t do that without understanding staff strengths and weaknesses. So…in a nutshell it’s about knowing yourself, improving yourself, and complementing yourself.
But…if you really want to make a difference in 2018, take that mantra and apply it to your organization. Does your museum or heritage organization know itself? Do you and the Board really understand your organization’s DNA? Do you check in regularly and review how and why major decisions are made? When the Board makes a major decision, does anyone record the reasons why? Does your organization discuss past decisions looking for similarities before finalizing new ones? Or do a few individuals decide while others look up from their cell phones and nod? And does your museum know who it is in your town, city and region?
Part of answering all those questions lies in data. If you’re not already a fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog “Know Your Own Bone,” you should be. She is masterful about the how and why of data for cultural organizations. Susie Wilkening continues to conduct deep research about museum visitors and their motivations for engagement. They will teach you that data is just numbers if you don’t ask questions. And you need to ask the right questions. Too many organizations are the equivalent of data hoarders. They have numbers for everything, but can’t make meaning out of any of it.
It’s still early in what promises to be a challenging year for museums. Take the time to make change. Commit yourself to understanding your leadership DNA, as well as that of your organization, commit yourself to questioning your organizational decision-making process, and commit yourself to using data in a meaningful way. Don’t let your organization be guided by anecdote and opinion. Be a self-aware organization and know what you know.
It’s May, so it’s time for the the American Alliance of Museums–AAM for short–annual meeting in St. Louis. Anne and I are lucky enough to not only be going, but we’re also proud to be part of a discussion based on our forthcoming book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge, 2017) Our session, “Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity,” takes place Monday morning, May 8, in Room 127, America’s Center, where we’ll be joined by Kaywin Feldman from MIA, Jessica Phillips from Fraunces Tavern Museum, Ilene Frank from the Connecticut Historical Society, and Wyona Lynch-McWhite, VP at the Arts Consulting Group. All four women were interviewed or contributed to our book, and have plenty to say about gender equity. This isn’t for women only. It’s a session for everyone interested in an equitable workplace. We hope to see you there!
Our session is part of AAM’s Career Management track, so if you’re coming to the meeting and searching for other programs like this, try looking under “Management and Administration” as well. And don’t forget the “Museum Directors” track. You don’t have to be a director to attend those sessions. Altogether there are over 30 sessions related to leadership. There’s even one on failure as in the famous Samuel Becket line “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Anne’s facilitating a leadership discussion in the CEO Roundtable on Monday, 3-5 pm, in Landmark 4 at the Marriott St. Louis Grand. She’ll be sharing the Layers Leadership, a recent outcome of work by museums, libraries and archives as part of the IMLS-funded NexusLab project. If you’re interested in talking about the varying leadership roles one plays and their attendant challenges, skills and outcomes, stop by Anne’s table.
If you prefer a smaller discussion format, we will also be part of the Peer Mentoring Roundtables for Emerging and Career Professionals on Tuesday, May 9, from 11:45 – 1:45 in the Expo Hall. This event offers 23 tables with smart, experienced folks, along with colleagues, friends and mentors, ready to talk about everything from resume tips to mentorship, to aligning career and organizational goals. We’ll be at table 12, ready to talk about Self-awareness, Career Planning, and Mentoring as Part of the Leadership Learning Curve.
We hope you’ll drop by the Open Forum on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion on Tuesday morning, 9-11 am, where we’ll be representing GEMM — Gender Equity in Museums Movement. We’ll have the 5 Things You Need to Know tip sheets on leadership, salary negotiation and networking, along with other GEMM materials!
The annual meeting can be overwhelming so use your travel time to identify where you want to go and what you want to do. (If you arrive by Sunday morning, AAM runs an intro session from 9-11 am in the America’s Center.) Make sure to divide your time between career building–that’s for you, and idea building–which you may discover in sessions you select or in visits to St. Louis’s museums, galleries, zoo and botanical garden–and network building–that’s for you and your organization. It will be another year before you’re in a place with so many museum folk so make the most of it.
In the meantime, channel your inner Judy Garland (Meet Me in St. Louis). We hope to see you there.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
Here at Leadership Matters we don’t often wade into interpretive waters. There are plenty of able bloggers out there writing about museum collections. (Linda Norris’s Uncatalogued Museum, Frank Vagnone’s Twisted Preservation or Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 are good examples.) For the most part, we are concerned with how leadership does or doesn’t function in the museum workplace. We write often about pay equity, workplace bias, gender issues, and the importance of human capital in the museum world.
Recently, though, we were struck by the synchronicity of things. First, came this quote from President Obama’s Farewell Speech in Chicago, IL, January 10. “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.” The quote sits at the end of the speech where Obama reminds us not to take democracy for granted, citing George Washington who reminds us to protect democracy with “jealous anxiety.”
What struck us about this wasn’t the sentiment, which is really important, but the idea that the Constitution is just parchment until people give it power. We believe there’s a connection here to the museum world, particularly the world of history/heritage organizations where there’s a lot of moaning about whether people care about history any more. Is that really true or are we a little lazy? Is it possible that with the visual wealth of the internet visitors aren’t so awestruck by reality any more? And really why should they be? Anybody with a phone or a laptop has access to a gazillion images. Seeing them lined up in a museum with tiny labels that sometimes repeat the obvious might not be so compelling in 2017. So who gives objects power? Who engages communities in giving objects power? In our world, that would be museum staff. And how exactly does that happen in our frenetic, media obsessed world?
One answer might be the creation of context either in time or through time. Think about parsing an object the way you would a poem. Never did that? It’s not hard: Who made it? What does it do? What are its component parts? Is it something we use today? In today’s material culture, what are its descendants? Is it beautiful? Why? Who used it? Do they matter? If not, why not? Of course no one would stand still and do this endlessly, but if three objects in a room of things move from mute to thoughtful speech, and if those three things are linked together ideologically, visitors may leave with a sense of connectedness not only over time, but to today’s ideas and concerns.
But the real lesson here is that the history museum field has to want staff who thinks this way. One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters left the history field, moving to an art museum. Her reason? She was adamant that museum staff charged with interpreting culture should be as invested in the present as the past, and she felt that far too many history museum staff were in retreat from today’s world. But it doesn’t have to be that way, which brings us to the second synchronicity. This weekend Old Salem Village in North Carolina made a connection on its Facebook page between contemporary life and the way the Village’s original Moravian residents welcomed visitors. It was simple and direct. With no falderal it pointed out that over centuries there have been communities and there were “strangers.” It made you think about the way we’ve either welcomed and fed newcomers or stoned them into leaving. The Moravians, by the way, felt welcoming strangers was important.
So invest in your staff. Objects are important, but too many history museums are like badly written essays in need of good editors. Those editors (your staff) are as important as the objects they serve because they make them speak, and in making them speak, they make them matter.
Joan H. Baldwin
Last week our post on bullying brought comments about how bullies and staff in general are hired. Several of the commenters offered potential interview techniques to weed out the mean, the lazy, and the pompous. If you also read Christy Coleman’s blog post “Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid?” you can’t help but wonder if, as Coleman says, “too many [museums] are stuck in pedagogical or operating models that simply don’t work well anymore.” And, if you didn’t read it, you should.
Coleman chastises the field for wringing its collective hands as visitation declines; for meeting locally, regionally and nationally to hear about whatever the next big thing is when there is no one-size-fits-all cure; and for believing data is the magic elixir that will send visitation soaring. She concludes by offering an example of visitor engagement from The American Civil War Museum where she is the CEO. No surprise, its visitation has grown slowly and steadily over the last five years as Coleman and her staff engage their community in its own story. (We profile Coleman in our book, Leadership Matters, BTW.)
One of the smartest things Coleman says is “Museums want to be taken seriously, but often the biggest mistake is framing exhibits and programs for other colleagues.” In other words, don’t preach to the choir. What she doesn’t mention–at least overtly–is museums may be stuck on stupid (or mediocre) because their staff (and boards) need a shake up. We know there’s no shortage of eager, optimistic museum graduate students trying desperately to break into the field. Why then, especially in the world of history museums and heritage organizations, are so many museums trapped doing what they’ve always done: the roped off room; the docent-led tour; the exhibit of like objects with brief, yet grave, labels? What would happen if these same museums broke with tradition and hired an English major, an art major, or a psychology minor? Would our careful world implode if we looked at things differently? What if the English major’s charge was to figure out a house museum’s narrative and the places where it intersects with today’s world. Today the word revolutionary can have a slightly nasty tinge, but what about when it’s applied to 18th-century Boston? How are those revolutionaries different?
To ask these kind of questions you have to have a staff who is creative, non-judgmental, and whose primary concern is making their narrative resonate in their community. And to be clear, their community is the place where their historic house, heritage organization or museum is located. It’s not where the board lives or where the staff lives. If this is the staff you want, then your interview techniques not only have to suss out whether job applicants are vain and lazy, but whether they think in original ways, what books are on their bedside table, what was the last movie they saw, and when was the last time they took a risk, and whether it paid off. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that rule- or tradition-bound cultures drive creative people away. Here’s Lolly Daskel on why they leave: 10 Dumb Rules That Make Your Best People Want to Quit.
To break out you have to want to break out. I’m fond of quoting David Young, Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia (and another Leadership Matters interviewee), who said organizations have to “allow leadership.” I would alter that and say organizations have to want change, and that begins with who you hire.
How is your museum breaking out of the loop?
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.