What is the Right Fit? A Deeper Analysis of Museum Boards

Added to Medium, January 18, 2018

In previous blog posts, I talked about museum boards and how important the relationship between boards and staff are to keep the museum functioning. I decided to go into more detail about museum boards since I got the latest American Alliance of Museum’s (AAM’s) in the mail. AAM’s recent release of Museum magazine talks about strategies for creating the ideal board.

Each museum is different, and in order to have an ideal board you need to find out what your museum expects from its board.

In Laura Lott’s letter to the reader titled “What are you waiting for?”, she stated that there are five things museums can do now to better engage our trustees. The first thing is to advocate for advocacy by asking them this question during board meetings: If we could advance our mission more effectively by changing one law, public policy, or public attitude, what would that be?

The second thing is to show the board our power in the economy especially by showing a report, Museums as Economic Engines: A National Study, which provides evidence of museums’ influence in the economy. The third thing is to keep up on trends for the future of museums. Then the fourth and fifth things are to benchmark the board by analyzing the variety of policies, practices, and performance, and read this edition of Museum magazine.

These things are especially important to keep in mind when talking with your board. The five things were also in the back of my mind as I continued to read this edition. By discussing the examples of articles I read, I hope all of us will be able to have a better understanding of what we want from our boards as well as what the boards can offer.

One of the articles in the Museum magazine is “Units of Measure: Key findings from Museum Board Leadership 2017: A National Report” which provides a summary of the report’s key findings and highlights board and chief executive demographics, with a focus on diversity and inclusion.

The article revealed a summary of the findings discovered in the report. Some of the key findings in the report are:

Museum directors and board chairs believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions, but have failed to prioritize action steps to achieve it.

The vast majority of museum boards do not assess their performance.

Two-thirds of museum directors say their boards have a moderately to extremely positive impact on their job satisfaction.

Eighty percent of museums give themselves a grade of C or lower on monitoring legislative and regulatory issues.

Museum boards meet frequently, but attendance is mediocre.


It is unfortunately not surprising that these are the results from the report. Some museum professionals have talked about how hard it is to make progress in museums moving forward when some museum board members have doing the “same old, same old” mentality that gets museum staff and board stuck in a rut. These findings tell me that we need to work harder to have effective leadership among the museum boards.

One of the things I mentioned in my previous blog posts is the importance of communication between the museum staff and board. I said in my How to Work with Museum Boards blog post. The more effective and accurate the communication among them are the more likely what changes unfold can be accommodated smoothly.

I also said that each board and staff member needs to have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. Hugh H. Genoways and Lynne M. Ireland’s Museum Administration 2.0 stated that some of the board responsibilities are but not limited to:

Act as an advocate in the community for public involvement in the museum.

Review and approve policies consistent with the museum’s mission and mandate, and to monitor staff implementation of these policies.

Ensure the continuity of the museum’s mission, mandate, and purposes.

Plan for the future of the museum, including review and approval of a strategic plan that identifies the museum’s goals and ways to attain them, and monitoring implementation of the plan.

The key findings tell me museums that responded to the survey are not doing an sufficient job at communicating what the museum needs to keep functioning in the future, nor are they completely fulfilling their responsibilities. We really need to come together to learn museums social and economic impact on a national level, and see the impact museums potentially have on a local level.

Based on the previous literature on the museum board topic, this is a fact that is not new to the museum field. Hugh H. Genoways and Lynne M. Ireland wrote in their book that their responsibilities do have to be clear to make sure the board members understand how their tasks have an impact on the overall museum’s function and see the museum’s impact on the community.

Museum staff and board should discuss what the needs are for the museum and what the board can do. Karen S. Coltrane’s “Meeting of the Minds: To get the most from your board, figure out what you need-and what trustees can provide” discusses the roles and responsibilities of board members as well as the values any board member can bring to the museum.

Genoways, Ireland, and Coltrane shared similar understanding of what roles and responsibilities are for museum boards. Coltrane stated other responsibilities including monitoring and strengthening programs and services; ensuring adequate financial resources; and ensuring legal and ethical integrity. She argued that we should take these responsibilities, and consider the skills and experiences each board member offers; therefore, we need to think of these responsibilities through the frame of a staff job description.

Coltrane brought up the thought of how many of the current board members have the skills and experiences listed in her article. While there are individuals who are sincere in helping moving the museum’s mission forward, we need to figure out how many of the board members have the capabilities to effectively run the museum and fulfil the mission.

I have stated in my previous blog post about museum boards that The best way to have a better understanding of how museum boards function is…to get to know your museum board members. To have a better understanding of our board members we need to find out the values they bring to our museums.

We could look at board members capabilities by understanding what ways board members can bring value. Coltrane stated that there are three ways any board member can bring value, and they are:

Have a willingness to learn

Extend civic reach

Help the CEO think

If our board members have the ability to learn new methods and techniques in addition to reaching out in the community, we would be able to have board members effectively help the museum make the progress it needs.

To build a successful board, and the relationship between board and staff, we need to ensure that trust is there from the beginning. I recommend finding some resources about museum boards, especially this edition of Museum magazine, and communicating with your board members. Each board and staff member is essential to keeping the museum functioning, and when everyone is doing their part museums have the potential to succeed in guaranteeing its future.

How does your museum assess board members and their progress? Does your museum have additional methods that helped staff and board members in their roles and responsibilities?

Museum magazine, January/February 2018, The Right Fit: Strategies for creating your ideal board
How to Work With Museum Boards: A Relationship Between the Staff and the Board
Genoways, Hugh H., Lynne M. Ireland, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Museum Administration 2.0, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

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