Museum Leadership: What We Need To Do To Develop Our Skills in the Museum Field

Added to Medium, July 19, 2018

All museum professionals need to develop their skills to succeed in the field, and we need to do more to help museum professionals, especially emerging museum professionals, develop their leadership skills. The current state of our field, however, does not do a lot to encourage its museum professionals to practice their skills that will help them develop their careers. There are numerous resources we provide on what leadership is and what characteristics make a great leader, but how are museum professionals exercising their leadership skills? In our field, gaining experience is a double-edged sword because we attempt to develop the skills we learned and are well versed in by applying for jobs with leadership building opportunities but we are turned down because hiring managers say we lack the experience.

As a museum professional, I continue to seek leadership opportunities and take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. Throughout my career, I have developed my skills in museum education and would often have to take on leadership responsibilities to maintain time as well as knowledge for school programs. I began to see more leadership opportunities when I came to Long Island. As I became more involved in the museum field on Long Island, I took on more responsibilities that I have not taken on before such as administration duties like booking programs and creating docent schedules. A lot of what I am able to do now as a museum professional I have learned from experience. Lately I have been thinking about my previous and present experiences, and tried to recall how much of my leadership skills were learned from lessons and how much of them were learned from experience. I also wondered what we are doing now for museum professionals on developing leadership skills.

Based on the articles such as “Leaving the Museum Field” and numerous articles about museums and self-care, our field is not doing enough to make sure museum professionals have well-rounded experiences with time dedicated to self-care. We still have far to go in having a sustainable and effective museum workforce. There are many resources museum organizations and associations provide about leadership and how leadership skills should be utilized. Our museum associations provide a wide variety of leadership resources in forms of books, articles, blogs, museum association standards, webinars, and conferences.

One of the books that discusses leadership Martha Morris’ Leading Museums Today: Theory and Practice published for the American Association for State and Local History through the Rowman & Littlefield publishing firm. In her book, Morris revealed that this book is about the context, the urgency, and the nuances of service to the mission of the museum organization whether at the level of the governing body or a middle manager. The book also provides a balanced look at external operations of the museum which are factors that influence success such as demographic changes and political trends, and internal operations of the museum such as organizational design, new modes of planning and decision making, implementation of strategic programs, and flexibility in response to the reality of constant change. Museum professionals also find resources from other museums and museum associations especially about leadership.

Blogs, like this one, is one of the ways museum professionals can learn from one another and other museums or museum associations to develop their leadership skills. Also, there are articles and standards museums and museum associations provide about leadership. I took a look at the resources page on the American Alliance of Museums’ website, and I found the following.

The American Alliance of Museums has a page on its website that shared standards the Alliance has for Leadership and Organizational Structure. Its page stated standards regarding governance, standards for museums with joint governance, standards regarding the composition of the governing authority, and standards regarding delegation of authority. In the latter standards, it describes how

Having clear delegation of authority means that the governing authority understands the main areas of its responsibility. Those areas are to collectively determine mission, set policies for operations, ensure that charter and bylaw provisions are followed, plan for the institution, approve budgets, establish financial controls and ensure that adequate resources are available to advance the museum’s mission.

In other words, if authority is clearly laid out in a museum’s organization all of the responsibilities of leaders would be fulfilled for the museums. Each standard I have previously listed discuss the purpose and importance, implementation, and documentation.

AAM also provides blog posts such as “Leadership, and Why You Need a SWOT Analysis (and a Personal Board of Directors)” which is a conversation between Greg Stevens and Anne Ackerson about ways to improve leadership skills such as the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, and “Museum Leadership, Organizational Readiness, and Institutional Transformation” which is a case study that was a part of a series on museum leadership, developed for the career and leader-ship management workshop for participants in the International Program, held at the AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in May, 2016.

The American Association for State and Local History also have a number of resources available on the website. One of the blog posts AASLH previously posted about leadership is “A Special Kind of Leader: Small Museum Leadership Characteristics” that lists characteristics that museum professionals have or should have when working in a small museum. Another example of a blog on leadership is “The Ideal Director?”; the writer of this post gave their impressions of job descriptions looking for directors and what they believed are the characteristics an “ideal” director should be for an organization. I do realize that there are many more resources than what I previously described but the point is leadership is a common discussion that is addressed throughout the field.

Providing all these resources is all well and good but the question remains: How do we utilize all of the resources we learned from on leadership?

There is a difference between having the knowledge and actually practicing this knowledge. If museum professionals are under the impression that there are only certain professionals that can exhibit their leadership skills, then we would be hindering our museum professionals and future professionals’ potential. We need to show museum professionals at all levels how leadership skills benefit all of them within the organization. Our field right now is working towards improving the museum workplace throughout the field but there are still issues we need to work through to untangle this web. A blog post I found addresses leadership and where we are now as a field.

This week Joan Baldwin wrote on the Leadership Matters blog about where we are now with museums and leadership. She discussed how Baldwin and Anne Ackerson are planning to revise the original Leadership Matters book by interviewing more museum professionals in the field. In the meantime, Baldwin provided a preliminary list of places where leadership intersects with the lives of individuals, directors, organizations and boards. For individuals, for instance, she pointed out that

-The job market remains highly competitive and graduate school is still the admission ticket.
-This is still a field where too often one is asked to work for no money in the form of volunteering or internships before actually making too little money.
-This is a field that too often fails to train for leadership, but asks for independent, creative forward-thinking employees.
-This is still a field where race, class and gender are barriers: Race because too often young POC are hired for the wrong reasons and asked to represent a race/culture rather than being treated with equity; class because poor salaries continue to make it easier for wealthy individuals to enter the field; and gender, because for women, particularly women of color and most especially trans women, even the most casual Facebook survey points to a boatload of bias.

Individuals within the field constantly move through figurative cobwebs of expectations that contradict themselves making it challenging for museum professionals to meet their personal goals. This double-edged sword needs to be addressed, make expectations clear and be sure the reality can meet these expectations. Baldwin also pointed out that for leaders in the museum field need to remember:

-The back of the house is as important as the front of the house. Museum workers who have a long tradition of not retaliating when mistreated have started to react individually and collectively.
-Museum workers and museum audiences expect (and want) organizations to be values driven. Sorting out what that means for a given museum or heritage organization is one of the tasks for today’s leader.
-Leading an organization means engagement not just presentation.
-Leaders need to understand how and where personal and organizational leadership intersect and mirror one another. A self-aware leader means a self-aware organization.
-21st-century museum leaders need the courage to tackle the hard stuff.

The relationship between directors and staff is a significant one especially within the museum field. Directors have many responsibilities and challenges when running a museum, and by establishing expectations and applying them both parties will be able to create a strong organization that will make both of their jobs easier to execute in the long run.

Museum professionals at every level should be able to serve as both mentors and mentees. When museum professionals learn from one another, the bonds between them will not only be strengthened they will also be able to preserve and strengthen future museum leadership in the field.

What are your impressions about leadership? Where and how have you learned to be a leader? How have you utilized your leadership skills?
Below are resources I referenced in the blog post and additional resources I found.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s