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Three Things to Think About This Winter

Lukkojaska - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The inauguration is over. For many, the new presidency lessens the feeling of daily doom, and we turn back to work that needs to be done. So here are three topics I've been thinking about in the world of leadership:

Reading Nina Simon in Connecticut in the Age of COVID

Ages ago--although time is mutable in a pandemic--our library purchased Nina Simon's book The Art of Relevance. It arrived, and then it sat in my office for months while we coped with COVID. This week, I read it.

Many of us have been Nina fans for years, beginning with her Museum 2.0 blog and her book The Participatory Museum. The writing in The Art of Relevance is clear, lean, and often funny, as Simon builds her arguments like elegant equations. You can probably complete your first reading in a weekend, although I suspect you will want to go back and read it again.

In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite Ninaisms.

  1. "It's not about you. It's not about what you think people need, want or deserve." That's followed by a dozen paragraphs discussing dogs, babies, elucidating the difference between want and need, ending with this: "Talking about what people need is like talking about going to the dentist. It sounds like a painful utility. I don't want to offer a service people would rather avoid. I want to offer the most desirable experience possible. I want our work to be wanted."

  2. "When we invite in outsiders of any kind, we have to do it on their terms not ours. It's their key. It's their door. "

  3. "The greatest gift insiders can give outsiders is to help them build new doors. To say, I want you here, not on my terms, but on yours."

Responding to a Comment

Last week I received a comment, which is a rare enough occurrence. The writer, who might live outside the United States, wrote to ask why so much of this blog questions the role of leaders, rather than followers. They wondered why the colleague I mentioned, who worked on her divorce rather than her workload, wasn't chastised, and they pointed out trust is, in fact, a two way street. Yes, followers must trust leaders, but leaders also trust followers, and mistrust happens for both. The most obvious example might be working at home because of the pandemic. For some, like my colleague, that could mean five hours of Netflix, online fitness, and divorce planning versus three hours of actual work.

My response? First, thank you. Blogging is often a one-sided dialog so it's nice to hear from readers. This comment pointed out something I'm not sure I was actually aware of. Maybe moving from follower to leader six months ago subtly changed my point of view? I do know that whether you are leader or follower, accountability is key. Without a metric that defines who you are in relation to organizational goals, your worklife is liable to be aimless, arbitrary, and ill-defined. Little is expected of you--at least that's the way it feels--and your connection to your museum or department takes on a Cinderella cast of of menial tasks in endless repetition.

That brings me to my last topic for this week.....

The Idea that Museums are Populated by Perfectionist Control Freaks

First, I wish museums' problems could be boiled down to one thing. That having a little fun at work, taking ourselves a little less seriously, talking about life backstage or experimenting with some sarcastic label writing might help. Those are some of the suggestions from Isabel Singer in a piece subtitled How We Might Get Museums to Loosen Up? Again, I wish it were that easy.

Let's face it, some folks are funnier than others, some more detail oriented, some rule players, some not. But Singer seems to suggest the museum world has an over abundance of perfectionists whose control freak attitudes hold museums back. True? I struggle with blaming the entire workforce for our collective psychological makeup. I wonder instead, whether a constant scramble for money makes museums cautious. Risk and experimentation come with the possibility of failure, and failure costs money and time, which is also money. Caution isn't always a psychological flaw; sometimes it's just treading carefully. When you have a moment, talk with your museum leader about what they might do if money were no option.The answers may surprise you.

And while it's important to have fun, to enjoy work, and feed our souls, to return to Nina Simon's wise counsel, it's first about the people we serve, and our ongoing search for the keys that make us relevant to them and their lives. As Simon reminds us, relevance is a process of constant reaffirmation and reconnection. In other words, what you think is funny or sarcastic or risk taking only works if it connects with the audience you're trying to reach.

A generation of us were raised around museums and heritage organizations whose missions were all some variation of collect, preserve and interpret as if we were all-knowing hoarders trying hard to guard and elevate our great treasures. In doing so, Simon writes, we imbue collections with power, and after a while we're more involved with the rituals of protection than the objects themselves, much less the world outside our doors. Instead, she asks us for a little empathy and the imagination to connect the treasures we've spent decades protecting with individuals in our communities. Your key to understanding those treasures won't be mine, nor mine yours, but Simon suggests it's our duty as museum folk to open the doors and let the light in.

“The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”, January 20, 2021.

Joan Baldwin


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