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Why Isn't the Museum Field Training Leaders?

Dwight Burdette, CC BY 3.0,

This week I spoke to a researcher and statistician. She is interested in resilience, both individual and organizational, and she likened the last six months to a hurricane. Not the kind of weather event described in museum disaster plans, but epically disastrous none the less.

Disasters lay bare your weak points: You failed to get enough insurance; you built too close to the shore; you neglected to maintain equipment, and on and on. But they also expose less obvious weaknesses: organizations that stifle creativity; organizations where staff isn't valued; and perhaps, most importantly, poor leadership.

Years ago when Anne Ackerson and I first started writing and speaking about leadership in the museum world, it seemed as though we were the only ones talking about it. People were a little mystified by what we had to say, as if they wondered whether poor or mediocre leadership was actually a thing or just something we were whining about. Occasionally it was difficult to get a panel about leadership on the roster at national meetings because the running of museums and heritage organizations was not on program committee's favorite topics. There was a sense that if things weren't going well leadership wise, that the fault lay with poor choices by a given museum's board of trustees not a systemic crisis in the field itself. Yet look at the field now. The storm of COVID-19 has laid bare a world of lousy leadership, harassment, and racial inequity. And it doesn't have to be this way.

Not everyone entering an MBA program expects to be Jeff Bezos, but almost every MBA program offers its first year students a variation on Harvard's Leadership and Organizational Behavior course, the assumption being that whether you lead or whether you follow, you need to understand the importance of good leadership, and its impact on organizational behavior. With the exception of programs like John F. Kennedy University's dual degree program in Museum Studies and Master of Business Administration, the same is not true among museum studies programs. In the museum field, leadership is viewed as a choice. Students say, "I'm not sure I want to be a director. It's too stressful." Then, five years into their career, they find themselves leading a curatorial team of 10. They're not the museum director, but their position requires all the same skills and decision making.

Is it possible that the hue and cry for a "new form of leadership" in museums is the result of decades of leadership by people forced to learn on the job? Some perform brilliantly--witness the 36 interviews in Leadership Matters. They are leaders who bring equal measures of self-reflection, humility and empathy to their museums every day. But many do not. Would a graduate program save them and prevent their organizations from being becalmed in a sea of mediocrity or worse, becoming poster children for harassment, bullying and racism? Maybe. At least it would point out that leadership is part and parcel of museum life, whether we choose to be directors or not.

Not every museum or heritage organization will survive the COVID crisis. Isn't it incumbent on museum graduate programs everywhere to acknowledge that leadership training isn't a through line to the director's office? Sometimes it's about behaving like a leader no matter where you are in the museum hierarchy. Mid-career museum professionals seem stunned by the fact that promotion takes them further and further from the the subject matter that drew them to the field in the beginning. Instead of wrangling objects, paintings or scientific specimens, now they wrangle humans, registrars, fellow curators, art handlers, consultants, and more. And it's epically more challenging.

We conclude Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord with a Leadership Agenda. (To read the full agenda, click on the tab at the top of the page.) If I were to write the agenda today, I would change our suggestion for graduate programs from "Introduce leadership training and development in all course work," to "Make leadership training a core course of study." Whether you dismantle the traditional organizational hierarchy or maintain it, the individuals making decisions need to understand that museums are more than content. They are about people, and people need good leaders at all levels.

Joan Baldwin


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