How Not to Write a Job Description
DanielPenfield - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106990014
This week the Berkshire Museum posted a job announcement for a new Executive Director. The museum, a small-city, art, history & science museum, founded in 1903, and located in Pittsfield, MA, has been without a full-time director since last September when Jeff Rogers abruptly stepped down after two and half years in the top spot. For anyone with memory loss, in 2018 the Berkshire Museum became the poster child for monetizing collections when it summarily sold $57 million worth of art, earning censures from the museum world's governing bodies, and condemnation, gossip, and ire from the museum world at large.
From the outset, the Museum said it wanted a new direction, adamant that it couldn't be who it wanted to be unless it sold a piece of itself. The decision left a gaping hole in its collections, and four years later, an organization that still seems to lack intent and self awareness. It hired M Oppenheim, a San Francisco-based search firm, to find a new ED. This week they released a five-page position description. Oppenheim is not without museum experience--the Philbrook, Peabody Essex and the American Visionary Museum are among its current and past clients--but the kindest thing you might say about the Berkshire's position description is that it's odd.
I used to work for a leader who liked to tell me, "Joan, people don't change." I found those four words truly disheartening because I really wanted people to change. I wanted them to be better, to do their best, to be humane. The unspoken words behind that sentence were "unless they want to." In this case, I have to assume, based on this strange job description that--despite a five-year interval--the Berkshire Museum's culture remains unchanged, a place in search of itself in a city it doesn't much care for.
The job description begins with this sentence: "The Berkshire Museum offers in-person and online visitors a gateway to the natural and cultural history of the Berkshires and the world," a weirdly grandiose sentence (the world?) built around a curiously passive verb. One of the themes that comes through in the five-page job description is board leadership. We learn the Board has installed strong financial controls, and that it's hired a design firm whose work will be well underway before the new director arrives. The job description requires (their word) an experienced fundraiser, and explains the ED will manage curators, who curiously are listed separately from staff and volunteers, as well as collections, operations, exhibits, programs, systems and processes to ensure financial strength...." Community partnerships are barely mentioned. In fact, community seems to take a back seat except for a sentence about Pittsfield's population. And the re-centering of whiteness, decolonizing, and doing the work of dismantling patriarchy that has permeated much of the museum world's narrative over the last three years is absent. Nor does the job description point to towards success. Instead it seems to suggest the new director's time will be spent shoring up unfinished projects. And despite the fact that the museum appears to have multiple curators, the new director will be responsible for a monster amount of collections management.
Absent from this executive vision is a museum value statement, the idea of community partnership and participation, of creating a place where Pittsfield's people are resources. The idea of the citizens of Pittsfield and Berkshire County as independent beings with agency who deserve respect doesn't come across. Perhaps most frighteningly, the Museum is portrayed as a place unmoored from the museum world's ongoing themes of partnership, participation and not being neutral. After reading all five pages, imagining the Berkshire Museum as a place for voter registration, for discussion on Berkshire County's wealth disparity or as a lynch pin in community collaborations around the subject of race feels close to impossible. It reads as though the Museum's biggest accomplishment was raising a ton of money by monetizing the collections' treasures, and the Board, like folks hallmarked by the Depression, remains fearful the money, and thus their hedge against a board's relentless work, will vaporize.
The museum workplace is having a moment, and it's not a good one. Numerous directors have either been pushed aside or have left as part of the Great Resignation. I recognize as well that for some this entire post could be considered a cheap shot, but Oppenheim makes it clear on its web site that they want the job description shared, which is how I ended up seeing it through social media.
The Berkshire Museum is in the unusual position of having a strong endowment, and yet somehow it has ended up with a job description that, rather than emphasizing the Museum, Pittsfield, and Berkshire County as places of possibility and avenues for change, reinforces the same scarcity mindset that prevailed four years ago, and still seems to hang cloud-like over the building. To quote Amy Edmundson's The Fearless Organization, (recommended by Museum Human) "The problem solving that lies ahead is a team sport, and so you want to start by identifying and naming what the creative opportunity might be..." Creative opportunities in this job description are absent. Instead, it's mind the money, mind the store, expand and diversify revenue streams, and maintain best practices.
Words matter. A lot. Few organizations are where they want to be, but many can point to what they're proud of, what they've accomplished, what matters, and why. For many in the museum world, people matter: people who visit and people who are part of the workplace. Is this job description an anomaly? How many other museums and heritage organizations, especially those who can't hire a search firm, don't have enough self-understanding to identify their faults alongside their creative opportunities? I worry the answer is too many. Yet doing that work is the first step toward change, and that's how we grow.
Be well, be kind, and do good work, and I'll see you in March.