Archive for the 'Museums generally' Category
Wednesday, July 27th, 2016
I thought it would be appropriate to place on the site the details of the ICOM Australia Individual Award “recognising sustained international achievement over a long period” which I received at the dinner at the Auckland War Memorial Museum for the Museums Australasia Conference in Auckland New Zealand 17 May this year, 2016.
Details have been published in the the ICOM Australia newsletter, Museums Australia Magazine 24(4), Winter 2016 (“ICOM Australia’s International Awards 2016” by Nancy Ladas) and Museum Matters for July 2016 published by Museums Australia New South Wales.
It was a great honour to receive the Award, presented by Dr Robin Hirst, Museum Victoria and past Chair of ICOM Australia
I was especially pleased that following the award to me, the National Museum of Australia was presented with the ICOM Australia Institutional Award for the exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, shown at the British Museum in 2015 and Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum, shown at the NMA in Canberra over the Summer of 2015-2016. That award was accepted by Museum Director Mathew Trinca and colleagues.
The link is to the citation and my response.
My response draws on the ideas already presented on this website, not least in the paper presented to the conference for the late 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.
Sunday, January 8th, 2012
On June 10 last year I reported that the first part of Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, edited with Leon Paroissien, had been published as an e-book by the National Museum of Australia.
Late in the year the remaining essays were published. The complete e-book includes 25 separate essays covering everything from a review of the Pigott Report, developments since 1970 in museums generally through progress in art, science and history, education and touring exhibitions, digitisation and social media.
Following a consideration of the recent history of museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien, Anne-Marie Condé of the National Museum reviews the important Pigott Report into museums and national collections which reported ot the Australian Government in late 1975. Ian Cook, inaugural Director of the State Conservation Centre of South Australia (later called Artlab Australia) and colleagues describe advances in collection conservation, Tim Hart from Museum Victoria and Martin Hallett from Arts Victoria recount the revolution in technology in museums. Des Griffin considers the very recent advances in technology and social media.
John Stanton of the Berndt Museum writes on ethnographic museums and Bernice Murphy, presently National Director of Museums Australia discusses Indigenous art and art museums whilst Michael Pickering of the National Museum and Phil Gordon of the Australian Museum review repatriation.
Discussions of History and museums are provided by Peter Stanley of the National Museum, Tim Sullivan of Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Margaret Anderson of the South Australian History Trust, Kevin Jones of the South Australian Maritime Museum and Viv Szekeres, formerly director of the Migration Museum in Adelaide.
Daniel Thomas, one time director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, provides an overview of art museums. Caroline Turner, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and the Arts at the ANU recvounts the expansion in international exhibitions and independent consultant Anne Kirker reviews paper conservation in art museums.
Natural history museums and their challenges are discussed by Doug Hoese, onetime head of science at the Australian Museum. Michael Gore, foundation director Questacon in Canberra, and Susan Stocklmayer, director of the ANU Centre for the public Awareness of Science review science centres.
Regional Museums are considered by Margaret Rich, former director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat and by museum and heritage consultant Kylie Winkworth. Representatives of various regional museum organisations consider developments in many of the states of Australia.
Lastly, education and the visitor experience in museums, one of the fields in which there have been significant advances, is addressed by Jennifer Barrett of Sydney University who describes museum studies at universities, Barbara Piscitelli, researcher on young children and museums, who focuses on the relationship that children have with museums, Janette Griffin of the University of Technology Sydney who reviews school students’ learning in museums and Lynda Kelly of the Australian Museum who discusses family visits.
Thursday, February 18th, 2010
Hoots No. 14 – 18 February 2010: Advocacy: Grasp the Political
Downsizing: another silly idea promoted by advocates for small government and “New Public Management” and should be resisted.
(The next hoot will deal with global climate change and the fact that evidence for change includes evidence for increasing instability, not only warming: museum scientists should be actively promoting the evidence and not leave it to others.)
Twenty years ago Daniel Thomas, then Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and President of the Art Museums Association of Australia, wrote an article entitled “Grasp the Political” (Adelaide Review March 1990)
He wrote, “What art museums most need in the 1990s is to become politically and economically conscious. They must not only equip themselves with arguments as to why they should exist, but also with hard statistical data about their costs and their benefits.
“At the same time they must be very cautious about positioning themselves within the entertainment industry. There the user-pay principal reigns; the showbiz needs of popular exhibitions can displace special-interest exhibitions, such as scholarly art-history exhibitions or difficult, adventurous contemporary art exhibitions.”
I just wonder how many people took any notice of these important statements.
This hoot comes from sunny San Francisco – well it was when I started to write this – with its many museums including the wonderfully redeveloped green California Academy of Sciences and De Young Museum of Art, currently showing the truly astounding exhibition of Tutankhamun (see recent articles on the ABC Science site on this Egyptian Pharaoh who died mysteriously when 19 – younger even than John Keats and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi who both died aged 25) and the always marvellous San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art.
It is also time to again recommend the Global Museum site managed by Roger Smith, now Director – Online Operations (East Asia) at the British Council. Like the Arts Journal Global Museum gathers together interesting articles focusing on museums all over the world; the site also has sections on travel, jobs, resources and links to various documents as well as links to podcasts, which can be downloaded, from many museums.
I have argued for years if not decades that museum people need to do a number of things to advance the goals of their museum:
- find how the benefits of their activities link with the benefits of other similar organisations and enterprises and seek to make common cause with them: it is relatively easy for the enemy to undermine the strategies of people or organisation acting alone, it is quite a different matter with many people pursuing a common goal;
- recognise that there are many lessons to be learned from other organisations, indeed from some which do not immediately seem relevant: leadership in a museum can benefit from understanding leadership practice in a hospital or even an airline; and
- understand that the goals of museums are not simply to put knowledge out “in the ether” but to have that knowledge make a difference for the common good; as Steve Weil said, museums are for somebody, not about something.
There are a few museums where staff have taken the argument up to the frontlines and tried to convince those in government and the community that a certain approach to a situation is appropriate and that some others are not.
“Layoff the Layoffs” is the title of an article in Newsweek for Februrary 5, 2010
Pfeffer’s recent article is a good summary of why the downsizing of organisations, which has been quite a fad for some decades and has been popular in the last couple of years as a device for coping with the GFC, is anything but economically positive quite apart from its often devastating effects on the people involved. Museum executives faced with the demands of downsizing, especially when it is part of “encouraging organisations to be more entrepreneurial” have a responsibility to their museum and their staff to make it clear to those who are promoting the “solution” that they do not agree with it. Unless there are the most convincing and carefully thought through justifications!
Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University where he has taught since 1979. He is the author or co-author of thirteen books including The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First, Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations, and Unconventional Wisdom About Management, a collection of 27 essays about management topics, as well as more than 120 articles and book chapters. Pfeffer’s latest book, tentatively entitled Power: An Organizational Survival Guide is to be published early 2010 by HarperCollins.
These quotes give a sense of where Pfeffer is coming from:
Power centres around scarce and critical resources and in times of uncertainty those with established credibility tend to be favoured as the enlightened. Those in power tend to define problems in ways which institutionalise their power. The more institutionalised the power is the more likely it is that the organization will be out of phase with its environment (from a 1977 paper with Gerald R. Salancik)
Organizational success comes more from managing people effectively than from attaining large size, operating in a high-growth industry, or becoming lean and mean through downsizing – which, after all, puts many of your most important assets on the street for the competition to employ.
Pfeffer opens his Newsweek article by pointing out that when the tragedy of September 12 2001 struck there was vast uncertainty about the future of airline flights. Almost all US airlines, and many other corporations, immediately laid off staff. Southwest Airlines did not. (I have written about this company before in “Lessons from Southwest Airlines” and “A chat with Herb Kelleher“) Southwest, which in fact has never laid off staff in its entire history, is now the biggest domestic carrier with a market capitalisation bigger than all other domestic carriers combined. Southwest’s former head of human resources once told Pfeffer: “If people are your most important assets, why would you get rid of them?”
Layoffs, Pfeffer observes, have become an increasingly common part of corporate life, some firms seemingly in permanent downsizing mode. If an industry is declining downsizing would seem inevitable. But in industries where demand is fluctuating? When a company lays off staff in a downturn, staff Â have to be when the upturn comes and demand increases. In the process considerable costs have been incurred!
Here is a quote that will surprise some and anger others even more: “A recent study of 20 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development economies over a 20-year period by two Dutch economists found that labor-productivity growth was higher in economies having more highly regulated industrial-relations systems – meaning they had more formal prohibitions against the letting go of workers.” So much for the notion of employment flexibility leading to economic growth!
Here are myths dispelled by studies of the effects of downsizing:
- Companies that announce layoffs enjoy higher stock prices than peers
- Layoffs increase individual company productivity
- Layoffs cut costs
The negative consequences of downsizing are particularly evident in R&D-intensive industries and in companies that experienced growth in sales.
Layoffs lead to lower morale leading to employees looking for another job at the first sign of better times, greater distrust of management and greater likelihood of stealing from the firm.
Layoffs also have a significant negative effect on the economy since laid off workers spend less, may demand social services payments from government, their houses may end up having to sold because of mortgage default and so on. The consequences to employees themselves can be devastating! Pfeffer says, “Layoffs literally kill people”.
(In the US those who lose their jobs also often lose their medical insurance which, as well as expected outcomes, can also lead to violent behaviour. Reviewing Michael Moore’s latest film “Capitalism: A Love Story ” Chris McGreal (The Guardian, 30 January 2010) writes, “Early on, Moore sets out the meaning of “Dead Peasants” insurance. It turns out that Wal-Mart, a company with revenue larger than any other in the world, bets on its workers dying, taking out life insurance policies on its 350,000 shop-floor workers without their knowledge or approval. When one of them dies, Wal-Mart claims on the policy. Not a cent of the payout, which sometimes runs to a $1m (£620,000) or more, goes to the family of the dead worker, often struggling with expensive funeral bills. Wal-Mart keeps the lot. If a worker dies, the company profits.)
Governments around the world have adopted the strategy of downsizing claiming this will lead to working smarter. The consequences of such downsizing have often led, as in business, to poorer service. At the same time as downsizing, outsourcing has also been promoted as allowing the organisation to fous on its core business. But as with downsizing it is now realised this seldom works to benefit the organisation as tasks and skills critical to the enterprise are realised as having to be in-house where they can be influenced appropriately by the culture and the staff involved interact with staff in the “business core”. One of the problems is that the downsized organisation seldom has the skills to develop an appropriate brief and project management regime for the outsourced contractor.
Most importantly, a downsizing operation seldom is accompanied by a clearly explained strategy for the future which will lead to a better company which is clearly explained to employees, those affected and those who are to remain. One of the critical jobs of leadership is not done!
For instance, Right Associates (“Lessons Learned: Dispelling the Myth of Downsizing”, Philadelphia, 1992) found that in 66% to 75% of companies which had downsized neither profitability or [productivity] had increased. They argued that companies must investigate alternatives, define the new organisation, plan the downsizing, develop a communication plan and nurture the survivors. Observing that outplacement assistance fosters positive career growth they emphasised that change has to be embraced: no person or organisation can escape the consequences of downsizing.
In the study of museums around the world it was found that the museum organisations that were perceived by staff to have achieved successful change outcomes, were also perceived to have managed the change process through a strategically linked vision of the future state and communicated in ways which enabled participants to know what would happen and how they would be affected by the change, provided appropriate financial, human resource and training in support of the change the change; executives were prepared to devote the time to meeting with people and created the energy to get the change initiated and sustained by leadership action which emphasised patience and support and leading by example through modelling the appropriate change behaviours. (See Morris Abraham, Des Griffin & John Crawford, “Organisation change and management decision in museums”, Management Decision 37/10, 736-751, 1999.)
Museum executives faced with the demands of downsizing, especially when it is part of “encouraging organisations to be more entrepreneurial” have a responsibility to their museum and their staff to make it clear to those who are promoting the “solution” that they do not agree with it. Unless there are the most convincing and carefully thought through justifications! (Note that the responsibility of boards and executives is in the first place to the future of the organisation.)
Monday, December 21st, 2009
Hoots No. 13 – 21 December 2009: “Co-producing” the Museum using social media; Education and “Radical Hope”: Noel Pearson’s essay on education and Indigenous Australians; an observation on the misdirection of attention on learning and teaching.
Co-producing the Museum – Social Media and Interaction with your Museum
On the Museum Marketing website Jim Richardson has written a very interesting article about the communications revolution “coproducing the museum”. It is the text of a keynote address he gave to the Museum Association’s Social Media Day.
Amongst the things he has to say are these:
“Change in the internet has been clear for anyone to see, with the shift from static web pages to dynamic and sharable content and social networking. The internet is no longer just a place to find information; it is now a forum for collaboration, a place to create, curate and share content online. This has changed the way we work, influenced the way we think and adjusted our individual place in society forever.
The explosion in social media has created a socio-cultural shift; the way that people act is changing and audience expectations are snowballing both online and offline, and museums need to think beyond simply building a fan page on Facebook, writing a blog or starting to use Twitter to keep up with the change.â€
He points out that people who use Facebook, iPhones, iTunes and Wikipedia, with its hyperlinks allowing users to “drill down” through information, find many of their interactions with museums, including their websites, to be unsatisfactory: static and difficult to engage with.
He quotes The Centre for the Future of Museums, “For Americans under 30, there’s an emerging structural shift in which consumers increasingly drive narrative. Technology is fundamentally enabling and wiring expectations differently, particularly among younger audiences, this time when it comes to the concept of narrative.
“Over time, museum audiences are likely to expect to be part of the narrative experience at museums. While the overall story might not change, how it is presented may change to allow visitors to take on a role as a protagonist themselves.”
He gives some really interesting examples of museums which have grasped change in the way they use social media to allow active interaction by virtual and physical visitors. Some of them are:
Tate Modern released songs, initially exclusively inside the museum, to which visitors could listen through listening posts and later on the Tate Tracks microsite, then invited the public to participate in searching for an additional track. The invitation potentially reached up to two million people. Young musicians were invited to compose a piece of music inspired by an artwork in the museum and the public were invited to vote for their favourite submitted composition.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art launched a project – “It’s time we MET” – asking people visiting the permanent collection to photograph their experience and using Flickr enter it in a competition to star in a new advertising campaign. Almost a thousand pictures were posted; a panel of judges selected two winners and five runners up.
N8 Audiotours asked members of the public to create their own audiotours about items found in venues around Amsterdam.
Brooklyn Museum launched 1stfans. “1stfan membership is an interactive relationship with the museum that takes place online and in the museum. Part of this relationship is through websites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr where private members’ areas contain content for 1stfan members. The content in these areas includes artists composing tweets, members sharing pictures, exclusive videos and access to an active online community.”
The V&A in London used a skillfully designed web page to lead people through webpages containing clues to which interested bloggers responded. “The bloggers received further cryptic messages over the next few weeks and 7thsyndikate also entered their real lives with graffiti planted near their homes and adverts placed in newspapers. This all ended with an instruction to dress in a hat and sunglasses, and with a newspaper under the left arm, these spies were to meet a man wearing a tan mac, bowler hat and dark shoes at the Albert Memorial in London. From here he marched them single file to the entrance of the V&A and the exhibition “Cold War Modern”. In total, 35 bloggers made it to the special preview of the exhibition.”
Education: Noel Pearson
Those who read this blog will know of my interest in learning. I wrote a response recently to the Quarterly Essay, “Radical Hope” by Noel Pearson, director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. The response was kindly posted on the “Save our Schools” site by Trevor Cobbold.
“Radical Hopeâ” traverses very important issues in respect of the education “gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, maintaining cultural identity on the margin, the nature of learning and indigenous rights including responsibilities of governments on the one hand and individuals on the other.
As Mr Pearson shows there are extremely significant findings from educational research relevant to the education of Indigenous students. Education in the western tradition of the dominant society in Australia does not by any means require suppression of Indigenous identity: in fact quite the contrary. Maintenance and strengthening of identity is fundamental to survival for almost everyone, a fact suppressed by advocates of assimilation. Diversity of identity strengthens society!â€
Quarterly Essay 36, “Australian Story” by Mungo MacCallum includes a series of responses to Pearson’s essay by people such as Fred Chaney (a director of Reconciliation Australia), Peter Shergold (Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 2003 to 2008) and Peter Sutton (University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum and author of “The Politics of Suffering…”).
While the world is crying out for creativity and innovation the attention, at least of the media and business and politicians, is focused on league tables, judging teacher effectiveness by student test scores and performance pay. All these are significantly flawed and little evidence of positve contribution of them is available. The studies of learning and education show that early childhood is the critical time for intervention and that well qualified and highly regarded teachers are what make, in the long run, the greatest difference to educational achievement and a life lived, along with encouragement at home and a strong sense of self worth.
It’s rather like the major issue of now being the personal behaviour of golfer Tiger Woods, as economist Paul Krugman observed in respect of global climate change and the COP15 meetings in Copenhagen in his debate with Bjorn Lomborg.
A recent contribution to On Line Opinion by Peter Vintila observed that “Most of us believe that climate policy aims to protect an endangered planet from a badly-ordered human economy. Now listen to just about any politician or industry spokesperson and you soon hear something different: the point, all of a sudden, is not to protect the planet but to protect the human economy from the planet.”