Leadership Means Articulating Value (as a Group) Not Just as Individuals
or listen to this one
"I have two things to say about libraries. The first is that libraries are a place to make it happen. And the best quote I found about libraries is actually by Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. He says, "When you're growing up there are two institutional places that effect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you." J.P. Porcaro, New Jersey Chapter Councillor for ALA
"Libraries are the last safe, noncommercialized space that truly welcomes everyone in the community and brings them together." Jenny Levine, ALA Internet development specialist
There are more quotes, all of them strong, all of them interesting, and all of them about the library field as a whole. And here's what worries us: Museums, particularly history museums, and particularly history museum leaders, need to be able to articulate value in much the same way, and we worry that in too many instances, museum leaders talk about their own institutions and not about the field or history itself. And every time that happens the public fails to see history museums in the aggregate. Museums don't have to be the "a last safe space" or " a community center," but perhaps they are places where the average person learns history, not in a put-you-to-sleep-only-dead-white-men-are-important kind of way, but in a way that has meaning for an individual life. A place where learning about big concepts like democracy, individual rights, religious freedom not only makes you a better citizen, but helps you understand your life in context.
The idea of connecting past to present is the subject of numerous blogs and online conversations, most recently Frank Vagnone's Anarchist's Guide, but we think it has to become second nature. If you're a history museum leader and someone asks you about your museum, how do you respond? Is your answer couched first in the particular? The Blah Blah Historical Society owns an important house with a beautiful and rare collection. Sigh. Or the Somewhere Historic House was occupied by the British during the Revolution. Snore. What is the real value here? Isn't it that all history museums are threads in the warp and weft of a national narrative? That they seek to offer places where people can reflect and understand the concepts that make the United States unique?
If someone asked you what history museums do, what would you say? And if you're tempted to answer anything that begins with collect, preserve and protect, take a breath and think again. Float up 30,000 feet and think about why cataloguing, conservation and exhibitions matter. Then answer the question.