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Successful Museums – An Anniversary Tribute to Stephen Weil

Monday, 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.


Monday, May 25th, 2009

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 7 – May 25th, 2009

Early childhood education, the importance of teacher quality and training to students’ gains from schooling. Museums and schools and the impact of the digital revolution: those organisations which have failed to take advantage of the revolution have “withered where they stood! And do directors of Art Museums know what they are talking about?

More on education, learning and schooling: (I have been reading extensively about this topic. The literature is extensive, the research of the highest quality and the notice taken by many politicians and the media of the findings has been less than impressive.)

Here are excerpts from some of the papers.

Early childhood: Early experiences have uniquely powerful influence on the development of cognitive and social skills and on brain architecture and neurochemistry; both skill development and brain maturation are hierarchical processes in which higher level functions depend on, and build on, lower level functions and the capacity for change in the foundations of human skill development and neural circuitry is highest earlier in life and decreases over time. These findings lead to the conclusion that the most efficient strategy for strengthening the future workforce, both economically and neurobiologically, and improving its quality of life is to invest in the environments of disadvantaged children during the early childhood years.

“Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce”, Eric I. Knudsen, James J. Heckman et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 103 no. 27, p10155″“10162 (July 5, 2006)

This is an incredibly important paper bringing together neurobiological, behavioural and economic perspectives from studies of humans and other animals which make it absolutely clear that failure to invest significantly in early childhood development makes cognitive development in later life more difficult and more expensive. It also makes clear that health of the mother during pregnancy and involvement of the mother in early years of the child’s life is critical!

A wealth of research makes clear that these issues are particularly significant for families at the lower socio-economic levels of society. Early childhood intervention is not child minding but must involve qualified early childhood educators. Think of parental leave and the costs of good support in early life, the experiences of urban settings of high rise apartments and the lives of “minority” families which are portrayed time and again in TV police dramas.

What matters is the quality of the teacher: Whereas students’ literacy skills, general academic achievements, attitudes, behaviours and experiences of schooling are influenced by their background and intake characteristics ““ the magnitude of these effects pale into insignificance compared with class/teacher effects. That is, the quality of teaching and learning provision are by far the most salient influences on students’ cognitive, affective, and behavioural outcomes of schooling ““ regardless of their gender or backgrounds. Indeed, findings from the related local and international evidence-based research indicate that “˜what matters most’ is quality teachers and teaching, supported by strategic teacher professional development!

“The Importance of Teacher Quality as Key Determinant of Students’ Experiences and Outcomes of Schooling”, Kenneth J. Rowe (Australian Council for Educational Research), discussion paper prepared on behalf of the Interim Committee for NSW Institute of Teachers (available on the NSW Institute of Teachers web site).


Teacher training and teacher effectiveness: Measures of teacher preparation and certification are by far the strongest correlates of student achievement in reading and mathematics, both before and after controlling for student poverty and language status.

“Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: Review of State Policy Evidence”, Lind Darling-Hammond, Education Policy Analysis Archives vol 8 no. 1, 2000

And again:

Teachers’ effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching.

“Does Teacher Preparation Matter? Evidence about Teacher Certification, Teach for America, and Teacher Effectiveness”, Lind Darling-Hammond et al, available here.

(This paper refutes the proposition that teachers don’t really need training in how to teach, what they need is strong background knowledge of content. Young people with degrees in various subjects were recruited as part of the “Teach for America” program in the US and given few weeks of training and then sent to schools where the majority of students were from “minority” backgrounds.)

Museums and Schools: the digital revolution and its consequences. This was one of the papers delivered at the Museums and the Web conference in Indianapolis earlier this year. link to the site for that conference takes you to the video of talk by Maxwell Anderson, now director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The past fifteen years of the digital revolution have seen transformation of cultural content and experiences through the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as the Web. These technologies have radically changed the types of content that are created and how it is distributed and used. The chains of connection from originating source to end user have been remade so as to be completely different from those of less than generation ago.

The effects of these “˜disruptive technologies’ has arguably been most profoundly felt in the cultural and informational industries: news, entertainment and education. In the publishing, broadcasting and recorded music industries, the landscape has been completely reworked by the new digital supply chains and the business models that they enable. Those content producers and providers that have not embraced new models for distribution on-line have been usurped or have withered where they stood.

“Building Digital Distribution Systems For School-Based Users Of Museum Content: New initiatives in Australia and Canada”, Darren Peacock, University of South Australia, Australia; Stuart Tait, The Learning Federation, Australia; Corey Timpson, Canadian Heritage Information Network, Canada, In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009.

Museums and Audiences: challenge: Thomas Campbell, the new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says that engaging visitors who don’t feel comfortable is one of his primary challenges. “There is an enormous potential audience that simply isn’t coming here,” he says. “They come for school trips, but it wouldn’t occur to them to come again. Without sacrificing standards, we need to remind people that coming to the museum is not big deal. You’re not taking test. You don’t have to prove you know about the artists. It’s just fun.” Extract from “Reshaping the Art Museum” by Robin Cembalest in Art News June 2009


Friday, May 15th, 2009

Owl’s Hoots No. 6, 15 May 2009: Education and schooling, teaching and assessment: what is the unique value of museums in education? And European Space Agency launches not one but two giant telescopes into space. Another astounding recording from Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela! And museums in Chicago: new buildings and miserliness.

Education and learning, early childhood intervention and performance assessment: I was fortunate in April to attend the recent conference of the American Education Research Association in San Diego, California – 18,000 or so delegates, up to 90 concurrent sessions over five days from 7:30am to 6:00pm! Leading researchers dealt extensively with standards of education, assessment of students and teachers, the development of brain function and cognition and many other important issues.

In asserting that the high stakes testing regime, so common in the USA and some other countries in the last decades, has narrowed the mind, Professor David Berliner of the University of Arizona quoted a letter from John Adams (1735-1826; second President of the United States) to Abigail Adams in 1780, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”  Berliner asserted that students were learning what Adams’ sons and not what his grandsons were to learn.

Intervention in early childhood education is amongst the most important issues but is not receiving the attention it ought to. Orla Doyle of University College Dublin and others including Nobel prizewinner in economics James J Heckman of the University of Chicago (“Investing in early human development: Timing and economic efficiency”, Economics and Human Biology 7 (2009), 1-6) point out that research has shown that “intervening in the zero-to-three period, when children are at their most receptive stage of development, has the potential to permanently alter their development trajectories and protect them against risk factors present in their early environment.

“Children from poorer households also have lower verbal and cognitive ability and more emotional and behavioural problems on average. Parental education, particularly that of the mother plays a major role in the child’s development as educated parents are, in general, better equipped to provide stimulating home environments. ..Early investment in preventive programmes aimed at disadvantaged children is often more cost effective than later remediation.”

Linda Darling-Hammond (who was on President Barack Obama’s transition team) and Elle Rustique-Forrester of Stanford University in reviewing the consequences of student testing for teaching and teacher quality (in chapter 12 of the Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education vol 104/2, p 289-319, June 2005) note that the centerpiece of state educational reforms over the last decade has been the development of educational standards to guide school practices and investments. “The central assumption is that by holding students, teachers, schools, and districts responsible for results on standardized achievement tests, expectations for students will rise, teaching will improve, and learning will increase. [However] while tests might be levers for greater equity, they have long been used to keep students separate and to exclude students from educational curricula, programs, and opportunities.”

The important conclusions are that “… assessment systems in which teachers look at student work with other teachers and discuss standards in explicit ways appear to help schools develop shared definitions of quality. Evaluating work collaboratively rather than grading students in isolation helps teachers make their standards explicit, gain multiple perspectives on learning, and think about how they can teach to produce the kinds of student work they want to see.”

Our understanding of learning and what advances it, has changed radically in the last several decades but the appropriate strategies for education authorities is far from agreed. Similarly, many museums are approaching their education function as if the responsibility is only to schoolchildren in class excursions (or field trips)and giving them lectures and handing out worksheets for completion by each child individually. In doing so they are ignoring their unique ability to provide free choice learning opportunities.

Huge telescopes launched into space: On May 14 the European Space Agency (ESA) launched two powerful new flagship telescope observatories, Herschel (containing the largest mirror ever carried into space) and Planck. An Ariane 5 rocket carrying the two observatories blasted off from the ESA’s launch centre in French Guiana in South America. On the BBC Jonathon Amos reports (in several items with videos) that the observatories will study space and time in more detail than in the past and give scientists a better and clearer window on the universe. The rocket will take the observatories out to a position some 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, an ideal station from which to view the universe. The launch comes during the International Year of Astronomy. The event is covered by other media including Deutsches-Welle World on line.

Another magnificant Simon Bolivar Orchestra performance: I have previously written, talking about “quality”, of Venezuela’s youth orchestra movement and the conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Their recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Francesca da Rimini has just been released. The Times of London’s review of the live performance of the symphony at the 2008 Salzburg Festival read, “In Tchaikovsky’s allegros you imagine steam rising from the fiddlers’ flying fingers. The gorgeously played horn solo in the slow movement was as melancholic as anything in Dostoevsky..”

In the liner notes interviewer David Nice asks Dudamel if his [horn] soloist (in the symphony’s second movement) is the same horn player heard “executing the obligato in the scherzo of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony so brilliantly”. Dudamel replies, “No it’s the other principal horn player. Of course we have quite a choice, because there are 16 horns in the orchestra”. Remember that when Dudamel was auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the orchestra’s president reported the remarkable reaction of the players, “We had combustion”. The performances on this album are truly outstanding! It is more than youthful enthusiasm.

Miserly Museums in Chicago: In the Chicago Tribune for May 14 (“City culture scourges“), Mara Tapp, organiser for “Cool Classics!”, a book-based art-and-culture after-school program,  writes, “When the Chicago Public School year ends June 12, elementary students will not be able to visit for free the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry — because none offer free days until September. Let’s call them the Truly Miserly Museum Corps.”

The New Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago designed by Renzo Piano is written up in the Art Newspaper and the New York Times May 13 (with pictures).

Next week: More on education and schooling, learning and cognition and another quote from John Adams. Perhaps some comments on advances in museums in Australia after the Museums Australia conference in Newcastle this coming week.

Tom Flynn and the Parthenon Sculptures and other outrages

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

is the website of Tom Flynn Art Advisory Services. There are a large number of very interesting essays on a number of differnet issues facing museums including return of cultural property, the Churchill Museum at the War Cabinet Offices and so on. The blog and the website both have lots of interesting commentary, including (April 2008) commentary on the Parthenon sculptures and the UNESCO conference in Athens in March 2008 on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin. Tom has a post “Parthenon Marbles Case Overshadowed by Iraq Looting” on the museum security network about the Sculptures also.

This is a copy of the updated entry in the Links page of this site.

Declaration of the Universal Museum – an Update

Friday, August 10th, 2007

Note: This update includes references to some of the items concerning the Declaration from 2004 through mid 2007. The previous references can be found here.

In early December 2002, nineteen of the world’s top art museums issued a statement firmly opposing the repatriation of cultural material. Attention was drawn to the continuing claims by various countries and peoples for return of collections held in the major museums of the world.

Debate on this issue has continued in conferences, on websites and in journals.

Although at the time, it was claimed that return of Aboriginal human remains from museums in Britain to Australia would be hampered by the Declaration, it would seem from recent events concerning material of human remains from Tasmania in The Natural History Museum in London that no reliance was placed in the Declaration. Rather the issue concerns objects created by people.

Nor has the Declaration been the basis for any aspect of the negotiations between art museums in the USA and the Italian Government over classical archaeological items alleged to have been stolen. There are notes about this later.

We can recall that the British Museum asserts that it “is a universal museum holding an encyclopaedic collection of material from across the world and all periods of human culture and history. For the benefit of its audience now and in the future, the Museum is committed to sustaining and improving its collection”.

The British Museum was significantly involved in the adoption of this Declaration and its director, Neil MacGregor, has vigorously defended it.

Continue to article.