Reaction: No Money, No New Ideas Conundrum

April 4, 2019

I’m back! I am officially married and I am back from my honeymoon. Thank you all for your patience and support while I took time off to make final preparations for the wedding. My husband and I went into New York City to spend our honeymoon, and we did a number of things we have not done before in the City such as going to see The Phantom of the Opera and Hamilton, visited the Fraunces Tavern Museum (stay tuned for a blog post about this museum), and visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Museum. After we came back from the honeymoon, I came across another post on the Leadership Matters website about an important conundrum that is facing museums and non-profit organizations: no money, no new ideas.

Joan Baldwin wrote about how money and new ideas are important for museums. As museum professionals, we should understand that we could not have one or the other. If we focus too much on bringing in money then we would potentially lose out on new ideas that can keep visitors coming back for more of what we offer. If we focus on too many new ideas, we may not have enough money to support all of these ideas. It is a conundrum we are all familiar with, and it is worth discussing especially as we prepare for new museum professionals to emerge in the field.  One of the takeaways that stuck with me when I read the post was how the right balance between money and new ideas can make a difference. She pointed out that money is important and can ease some 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.

One of the reasons I have worked in small museums is how unique the narratives are, and the staff that work with a limited budget are faced with the challenge to keep their exhibits and programs both relevant and interesting for visitors to make numerous trips back to them. I have written about museums I previously visited, and the majority of the ones I write about are those that face the challenge everyday to keep people invested in the narratives. For instance, in a post called Museum Memories: Stanley-Whitman House, I wrote about how the narrative of the house not only shares the history of the families that lived in the house but the history of the town of Farmington; the Stanley-Whitman House is one of the places that continues to find ways to bring attention to its narrative and its significance in the community.

Another point that I took away from the post is the significance of having creativity within the museum. Baldwin revealed in her post that

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.

It is true that the biggest tools that we can use as museum professionals are our imaginations and ideas. This is also why it is important all of us should take self-care seriously when it comes to using our imaginations, ideas, and creativity. If we continue to work while we burnout, we will not be able to come up with fresh ideas we need to help our museums keep running. Also, it is important that we participate in professional development and networking programs to get inspiration for our own ideas. As the saying goes “Practice makes perfect”, and it definitely applies to us as museum professionals attempting to use our imaginations and ideas for our museums.

I also read the advice Baldwin left for leaders and board members, and I try to follow each advice in my own practice as a museum professional. For instance, I try to model respect and treat everyone’s ideas as doable especially when I work with volunteers who are passionate about the work we do and they bring up ideas that may be helpful for the museum. I think this is what all museum professionals should do no matter what title they hold because if we keep shutting down each other’s ideas we may not be able to have the leaders we need for the future of the museum field. Also, I pay attention to and try to read as much reading material I can get my hands on to expand my knowledge in the museum field and beyond to get inspiration.

I read the advice Baldwin gave for board members, and this advice is important for all board members to follow. Baldwin provided a list of advice she had for board members who may be reading the post:

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.

All of these points are wonderful and should be followed to not only help the museum but also develop a better relationship between the staff and board. For instance, I think it is a wonderful idea for board members to invite a different staff member to board meetings each month. Staff and board will be able to learn from one another about each other’s perspectives, and help one another come up with ideas that could be practical to execute for the museum. Another quote I would like to leave here is what I hope everyone will consider:

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.

It does not take much to create change in a museum, and we have a responsibility as museum professionals to figure out ideas we can use to help our museums move forward.


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