Successful Museums – An Anniversary Tribute to Stephen Weil
December 7th, 2015
One of the Museum world’s most distinguished museum scholars, Steve Weil, died just over 10 years ago. He was a mentor and friend to myriads of people in many museums, of many ages, in many countries, at numerous conferences and elsewhere. Steve had been Scholar Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Education and Museum Studies and longtime deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian.
A brief biography appeared in the Washington Post and also in the New York Times.
[This introductory post is a work in progress: it concerns one of my principal interests, how organisations work and how decisions get made and why. Additional paragraphs will be added from time to time.]
A very fitting conference supported in part by the Getty Leadership Institute, ‘A Tribute to Stephen Weil: Making Museums Matter, 2006’ was held at the University of Victoria BC, Canada September 11-13. The Institute commissioned this presentation and for support of that I am grateful.
Though parts of this essay have appeared elsewhere the entire piece has not previously been published.
The essay addresses the matter of accountability, how museums might be judged to be effective in the pursuit of their mission and responsibility. Weil was a long time advocate of an approach to this which went beyond the dreaded metrics so beloved of those who believe they are in a position to judge such things. As the decade since 2006 has progressed accountability has become much degraded as corporatisation has invaded museums as it has so many other non-commercial sectors.
Many museums have been increasingly active in embracing change, most particularly in engaging visitors in their learning journey where they make a particular contribution. Likewise in advocating for issues concerning meaning, the value of cultural activities in individual life and in other areas such as biodiversity and evolution and social justice in respect of minorities including Indigenous Peoples. Yet they nevertheless have fallen to the ongoing drive to reduce government expenditure and been affected also by cycles of economic collapse including the Global Financial Crisis.
How museums respond to these pressures is a daily concern of those who lead museums as well as most of those who work in or are associated with museums. How often are they recognised for their success? The Natural History Museum in London, the Melbourne Museum, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. Many others.
At that vitally important level of leadership and governance how common is it to find superior performance? Too often government intrusion and the pressures to maintain the budget both through careful oversight and attracting greater community financial support comes to be the main concern. Too often, leadership ends up in the hands of those who believe they know about money, the law and marketing but understand little of the core mission of museums, the nature of their business and their history.
The concluding paragraphs of the presentation outline the meaning of the (unusual) terms purposiveness and capability as Weil used them. What follows then is a list of issues which the board, the board and executive leadership together and leadership by itself should regularly review. Some may say this is far too process driven. Professional judgement should suffice. Those who say you don’t learn leadership you do it. But organisations are complex and judgements are critical but seldom effective if they are only the judgments of one person. The Cuban Missile Crisis and much of American foreign policy and that of other countries illustrates that convincingly.
Atul Gawande is a surgeon and writer practicing at major hospitals in Boston Massachusetts. He was the 2014 Reith lecturer for the BBC. In those lectures he recalled the importance of using lists which had to be checked off by everyone. These helped significantly in major recovery surgery, of people who had been overcome by avalanches on mountains, for instance. Reference was made to the checklists which airline pilots use. In his second lecture he said:
We have made tremendous discoveries, but find it’s extremely complex to deliver on them. We have inadequate homicide investigations, for instance. We have flawed software design. We have intelligence failures. We’ve had tottering banks. And what we see repeatedly, again and again, I think is that as we embark on the 21st century we have found that the 20th century has given us a volume and knowledge and skill that is beyond what any individual can simply hold in their head, can know how to deliver on, and simply do it on their own. The volume of knowledge and skill has exceeded our individual capabilities.
And so then we went to the medieval approach… We’ve issued standards and guidelines and regulations. We’ll take away your licence if you don’t do this. Or, if we’re being nice about it – we’ll pay you more, if you do it, we’ll give you incentives. And that did make improvements in matters, but only a bit. It didn’t get us to what we want. And what we want in the modern version of the world is that the norm is to do X. And the way that we make it the norm are systems. And they can be as simple a system as just checklists. It can be defaults, it can be feedback loops. The important insight is that what we have to focus on is how to deliver on the guidelines and standards and knowledge that we have discovered, how to make it easy for everybody to follow.
These are lists but they are not the simple recitation of statistics, performance indicators which supposedly tell us what has been achieved but lack any information about the factors contributing to the outcomes that have been measured. Worse such lists often reveal what has happened after it is too late to take action to change course or remove impediments. As the enterprise collapses the only course of action is to sack large numbers of staff, cancel programs or restructure with all the damaging outcomes that attend such action. None of that amounts to good governance or leadership! Ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere and the systems in place have to manage that. That means the right oversight as well as the honesty to recognise when programs and policies don’t work.
In every consideration of policy and achievement a major focus should be on creativity and how people work together. I find it interesting that organisations highly successful in research and development share some features with other types of successful organisations. In the former, considerable effort is put into encouraging staff from different parts of the organisation to meet frequently to discuss issues central to the organisation’s main activity: people have morning tea or coffee and/or lunch together and the most senior staff attend those events. In one, lunch tables have places for a maximum of eight people because it is difficult for a larger number of people to conduct a single conversation. In one, staff have to present a seminar each year on a topic outside their own field of research. In another there are whiteboards in the foyers between section laboratories, and in the garden, which staff use during their discussions.
In a recent discussion on the ABC RN Late Night Live program journalist Laura Tingle, discussing her latest Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia How we forgot how to govern, mentioned that at the Reserve Bank of Australia, a successful organisation which has mostly escaped the depredations of the efficiency experts at the Department of Finance, all the staff go to morning tea.
The point is that in almost all organisations ideas are central to the future and ideas get worked through by conversation where they are evaluated and challenged. Without those discussions ideas may become solidified and enshrined as articles of faith, immune from challenge. That is precisely why boards, when they meet, benefit from a chairperson skilled at encouraging the exchange of views. A relevant story concerns a chairman who put forth a proposal and then asked for contrary views: when none were offered he postponed the meeting for a week by which time he said he wanted to receive contrary opinions.
Too often those responsible for governance do not see their role as both encouraging above average performance by the museum’s leadership, as Peter Drucker would say, and defending the museum against the depredations of those who would marginalise the museum as of little relevance and deserving of less support. The result is inevitable decline. What this essay contributes is, I believe, as apposite now as it was when delivered. There are too few Steve Weil’s around to urge us to think about what is really important.