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Is Museum Citizenship a Thing?

Vicki Nunn - Own work, Public Domain,

If you are a regular reader you know my feelings about Twitter. It's never been my favorite mode of discourse. That said, I had an exchange a week ago with my fellow blogger Robert Weisberg from Museum Human. If you're not signed up for Museum Human, do so. He happily posts twice a week, once with a collection of themed links, and once with an essay of sorts, allowing for short bites and a long read.

But back to my Twitter exchange. Robert posted a comment from a McKinsey piece on apprenticeships, and asked whether this wouldn't be a good idea for museums, tweeting, "What if museum jobs were treated more like (paid, of course) internships, emphasizing learning throughout the organization?" I responded that it's an idea that's long appealed to me, "but only if the museums hiring acknowledge their role as teachers and mentors. Otherwise they are just upholding the Cruella Deville mentality so many interns experience. There are too many bad leaders as it is. Are there enough to teach?"

At the end of the week, Weisberg also wrote a thoughtful piece on the future of museum conferences. In it he considers the merits of virtual versus actual, free versus paid, once a year versus once a month conferences. One of the lines that struck me is "It goes without saying that museum workers and influencers need to push their institutions to recognize that citizenship in the field is more than just 9-to-5 and spare-time extracurriculars." Whew, there's a lot in that sentence. It suggests all of us have agency over our employers and the museum service organizations we join. It assumes that among the top three things museums and heritage organizations do, are seeing themselves not only as collection builders and audience servers, but as field-builders.

There is great power in coming together with your colleagues at a conference. In a darkened auditorium, on a Zoom screen, around a conference table or over a cup of coffee, you harness the brain power of humans outside your own organization. You hash things out. Maybe you do a little ranting. In the best of worlds, you're as good a listener as you are a speaker. And all on your employer's dime. Why? Because in theory, you're learning things that benefit not only you, but your sending organization. And, if you speak, your "fame" splashes back on your museum, making it the place that spawned this smart, creative human.

But something weird happens around conferences, whether virtual or actual. I would argue that too often the actual ones, but maybe the virtual ones as well, happen in a bit of a vacuum. You go, you talk, you listen, you see--since many conferences are also an opportunity to visit multiple sites--and then you go back to work. The trip closes over like quick sand. Your colleagues ask how it was, you tell them what museums or heritage sites you visited; you email your invoices and receipts, and a week, a month a year from now you come across your notes from that meeting and think about all the ideas you had. That's a bit dark, I realize, but how many museums--much less individual staff--build in downloading time for colleagues returning from conferences? On the flip side, as Weisberg suggests, how many organizations see conference attendance as a museum citizenship experience? Because how many of them a) see themselves as building a field and b) that the wider field is something they're responsible to and for.

All of that loops back to the question of museum apprenticeships. I believe in apprenticeships in part because it's ridiculous to spend thousands of dollars for a graduate degree to enter a field where jobs are tight. Why not learn on the job, while deciding if this is the field for you? But to make that happen--essentially shifting the knowledge transfer from graduate programs to museum apprentice programs-- museum staff has to see itself as teachers, teachers in service to the field as a whole

In a perfect world, museum leadership knows that at some meta level museum hiring and museum culture reverberates across the field. That with every hire comes an unspoken obligation to guide and mentor staff. Sometimes new staff soak up everything offered while others give as much as they receive. And when staff outgrow a particular organization then it's our obligation to help them leave, and to leave well. Apprenticeships ask us to teach and learn, and so do conferences, whatever their format. But as Weisberg hints, what might make them more than one-offs is an understanding that every time we share information with our colleagues, whether in a formal apprenticeship program, in a Zoom with museum neighbors or in an auditorium at a national conference, we nurture museum citizenship. What does good museum citizenship look like? If it were a thing, how might the field change? Could urban museums work together to create apprenticeship programs? Would large museums make sure emerging professionals not only had a professional development money, but were encouraged to present--in whatever format--to the wider field? Would neighboring museums collaborate with one another more?

What are your thoughts?

Leadership Matters will be on hiatus next week, returning the week of December 6th. For those of you celebrating Thanksgiving, I hope it's a happy one, and that regardless of the meal, you're surrounded by people you love.

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


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