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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.

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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.

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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.

The Abbott Government and the Future of Australia

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Like thousands of Australians I have been almost consumed by frustration over the political situation in Australia over the last several decades. To anyone reading these pages that will come as no surprise. The last 25 or so years have for the most part been exceptionally difficult as politically and economically the country seemed to retreat to the past, to embrace more than most other countries an economic model which on examination lacks any real justification in history or people’s behaviour, a subject I have already traversed in the context of education policy.

Australia has achieved some astounding things in its relatively short history.

And it has been through some horrendous experiences, though almost as nothing compared to what has fallen on the citizens of many countries. And continues!

But more than that, the embrace of a policy – neoclassical or market economics – which focuses so much on the short run, on a belief in the merits of competition and financial rewards and more, indeed an ultimate gain in individual gratification through financial success, has led to further marginalisation of the less advantaged and ongoing limitation in the expectations for many. That is seen in policies for education and housing which entrench advantage, in limited investment in infrastructure of all kinds and in continued reliance on resource exploitation and primary production, a “dig it up and ship it out” mentality which allows that commercial enterprises, especially those owned by overseas interests, need not necessarily devote resources to research and development in this country because the answers can be got from overseas, sometimes from their branches. In particular little attention has been paid to economic diversification whilst the contribution of some areas of the economy, especially mining, are vastly exaggerated by their supporters. The Australia Institute has released reports showing, for instance, that solar energy contributes more to the economy than coal mining.

To some, such things as concern for the disadvantaged, for universal access to education and universal health care, to decent housing for everyone and to functioning and attractive physical and natural environments, to a system of justice which recognises and protects the dignity and justifiable right to reasonable privacy for all, a society in which creativity and inquiry are valued and not least a society in which diversity, cultural, racial, gender, age and more including sexual orientation, seem justifiable only in an economic frame. That these things, along with workplaces which respect and appropriately reward the unique contribution of everyone, do actually contribute very substantially indeed to economic success is evident beyond any doubt to anyone who considers that evidence. Seemingly, that is not sufficient to those who allow that personal experience and entrenched belief should trump everything. So political propaganda and patronage of fear can play havoc and divert attention from the imperatives of the future in favour of the emergencies of the present. Something that the wonderful Barry Jones said decades ago.

Ignoring the substantial contributions that Australians have made to science and the arts are just part of the mix, a view that innovation is something that business does but government doesn’t. That is wrong! As Mariana Mazzucato points out in her book The Entrepreneurial State (Anthem, 2014), very many extremely significant commercial developments developed from basic “blue sky” research by government funded agencies, not from business. Business takes on the results of the basic research and brings the product to market. To do that requires business to be prepared to take risks, including the risk of failure, an essential element of innovation. The claim for certainty heard often from business is antithetical innovation and ignores the real world.

The response? The Australian government’s spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP is now the lowest it has been since 1978 and the third lowest of any OECD country. For several decades there has been a drive for CSIRO to be more commercially oriented and substantial numbers of staff have been lost from the organisation. In 2007 the Productivity Commission reported concerns about the focus and called for the tax breaks for business investment should not be targeted only at commercial benefit. Then science minister Julie Bishop dismissed the concerns.

In October 2014 the Abbott government announced $500 millions for programs entirely directed at certain areas of the commercial economy and Industry Minister Macfarlane acknowledged that there were concerns about reductions in funding but blamed the budgetary situation!   At the same time most other countries are investing heavily in science. The 2013 budget contained very substantial cuts to research in universities and proposed increasing charges for students attending universities. These were part of proposed university deregulation which large universities, some policy groups like the Grattan Institute and the Business Council supported. That is despite clear evidence that in Australia the return to the community is far greater than that to the individual.

Of course we do well in sport: well we don’t actually achieve internationally in sport as we do in the arts and in science, for our size. Recall the number of leading actors, dance companies, orchestras – the Australian Chamber Orchestra recognised as the best small orchestra in the world – authors and musicians. Films don’t miss out because they are no good but because of the scene being swamped by huge promotional spends by overseas companies.

The fact that business can thrive quite satisfactorily and at the same time be regulated to protect the legitimate interests of the citizenry is not a deeply held view. Too often, especially in respect of financial institutions (which incidentally have done best from the measures put in place to confront the Global Financial Crisis), an attempt by government to regulate is howled down. For the governments led by John Howard and Tony Abbott almost any regulation is seen as a burden. Indeed the Abbott government seems intent on abandoning any role in regulation and even the notion of Australia as a nation except in respect of defence and foreign policy and a few other things such as “being open for business”, whatever that means. Providing we determine who comes to this country and allowed to stay!

All of these issues are ones traversed energetically in the increasing conversations in social media and more serious places. But governments in the last 25 years have not necessarily listened to those views which do not suit their philosophies. Though one would have to say that the Rudd and Gillard governments were characterised by substantially greater intelligence than some others. A contested view of course. But think education reform and the response to the Global Financial Crisis. And the substantial raft of legislation passed despite it being a minority government: being supported by intelligent and committed independents made a difference which Abbott refused to admit, branding the government illegitimate but not labelling the coalition government of David Cameron in the UK with that epithet.

Go back further and think of the reforms of the Hawke and Keating Governments, not just economically. The Whitlam government whose achievements have been so acknowledged in the last weeks of October following the death of Gough Whitlam aged 98, achievements of vast long-term economic importance, achievements denied at the time. The Fraser government which enacted some of the Whitlam initiatives, embraced humanitarian approaches to asylum seekers and immigrants which have so enriched this country in the context of multiculturalism initiated during the Whitlam years, difficult though that was. And advanced Indigenous interests.

Now we face critical issues at almost every turn. As I have already written, these essays under the subject of “In Australia” address some of those issues and eventually will suggest some approaches for the future. But the views and suggestions are just more amongst the many views and suggestions of others, the thoughts and opinions of the many Australians whose commitment and intelligence will be evident to anyone reading, listening to or watching the more serious publications, radio and television programs. Most of the last two and some of the first are to be found on the platforms of the ABC and SBS, media branded as inefficient at best and biased at worst by those of the right. Despite being trusted by over 80 per cent of the population on every survey! Despite their attention to the very values which so many cherish and which on occasion have been embraced politically.

The next two essays address a very difficult subject: is the Abbott government competent to lead the country.

A Challenge to our Vision of Humanity

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

‘Are we all here, Do we really count?’ references a statement Australian sociologist and writer Hugh Mackay made some years ago. In his most recent non-fiction book he points out that The Good Life is not one “lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust … It is one in which we treat people the way we would like to be treated… A good life is not measured by security, wealth, status, achievement or levels of happiness. A good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way.” Mackay has written 14 books including novels, his latest being Infidelity.

Mackay’s lesson is the basis for contrasting statements about humanity with observations of the horrors which ordinary human beings have perpetrated or simply allowed. That humanity has made progress is an arguable statement which is too seldom not seriously thought about or realistically discussed. It is also a view which contrasts with the dominant economic view, one that as Professor Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and one time Sustainability Commissioner for the UK, has pointed out shows we have evolved as social rather than economic beings.

Two books, Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room and Bernard Schlinck’s The Reader are among many scores of books and films which draw out the horrors and the conflicts faced by ordinary human beings, not politicians or generals or soldiers. Do these books and films make any difference to how we run out lives and influence the future of our society? Though there is greater international peace, the horrors continue within national boundaries, sometimes boundaries artificially drawn by colonising powers.

Conflicts continue to generate millions of refugees, deny a future to men, women and children, destroy towns and cities, economies and futures. Yet countries with influence seem unable to agree to stop them. Aid becomes another just another business, another opportunity for colonisation in another guise.

Faced with the need to help those fleeing persecution, arguments are advanced about queue jumping, about illegal asylum seekers, about population growth at the same time as skilled people from poorer countries are recruited to jobs in rich countries so corporations can avoid the costs of  training people already resident in that country. Inequality increases as fewer people gain greater wealth and what should be self evident truths remain denied. And discrimination on the basis of race and more continues, as it has for centuries.

A Prime Minister apologises, people weep, then what?

Continue to essay, “Are we really all here. do we all really count?

Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), 2011, Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia.

The first part of a volume on developments in museums in Australia since the 1960’s has just been published as an e-Book on the web site of the National Museum of Australia.

Museums were established across many parts of the Australian continent during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. However it was in the latter part of the twentieth century that the greatest burgeoning of museums occurred. These decades also witnessed the consolidation of a sophisticated museum profession, the creation of a single national professional association “Museums Australia” and an active participation of Australian museum professionals in the international museum context. The essays in this section jointly seek to present a scholarly study of museums and museum practice that is also accessible to people outside the museum profession, who daily demonstrate their active interest in museums and their programs.

There are 11 essays in five sections.

Museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

Conservation in Australian museums by Ian Cook et al.

Ethnographic museums and collections by John E Stanton

Transforming culture by Bernice Murphy

Repatriation by Michael Pickering and Phil Gordon

War and Australia’s museums by Peter Stanley

History in the new millennium or problems with history? by Tim Sullivan

Art museums in Australia by Daniel Thomas

International exhibitions by Caroline Turner

Collecting works on paper by Anne Kirker

Museums and the environment by Douglass F Hoese

The second part to be published in late June or July will include further essays on history and science museums. Additional sections will deal with education programs and regional museums and there will be essays on museums and digitisation and social media.

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 10

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 10 – June 20th, 2009

The new Acropolis Museum opens in Athens, the British Museum should change its name and appoint a board representing the nations whose ancestors created the collections it holds; the education system is anaethsitizing children and stifling creativity, according to Sir Ken Robinson, educator and expert on creativity. And in New South Wales, more pointless reorganisation of the public service.

The tenth “Hoot” gives me the opportunity to talk about two issues of the greatest interest to me, cultural property and its contribution to our past and our view of ourselves, and education and learning and creativity.

Parthenon sculptures and the new Acropolis Museum in Athens: The new Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi, looking out on the Acropolis and the Parthenon, opened 20 June. The third floor features a reconstruction of the entire Parthenon frieze, the plaster casts of the sculptures (removed by Lord Elgin) held in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery differentiated from the genuine sculptures by their white colour.

In “Majestic in Exile” in the New York Times of June 18, 2009 Nikos Konstandaras (managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini and editor of the English-language weekly Athens Plus) writes, “I have no doubt that one day all the Parthenon Marbles will be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum….

“Meanwhile, if the British Museum wants to be true to its self-appointed task of serving as curator of the world’s civilizations, and if it really does not recognize the geographic, national or ethnic origins of its masterpieces, then it should have the grace to acknowledge this in practice. It should drop the possessive adjective from its name and call itself simply “The Museum.” And its board of government-appointed trustees should be replaced by representatives of the nations whose ancestors created the works that it displays.

“This would mark the end of colonial and imperial provenance of acquisitions and open a new era of exchange and cooperation between the world’s museums. Questions of ownership would be secondary in this new dialogue of free and equal nations. The Parthenon’s sculptures have the power to transform those who gaze on them.”

In a report on the opening on ABC Radio’s Correspondents Report on 21 June Helena Smith reported on the opening. Introducing the report Elizabeht Jackson observed, “Activists, including David Hill, the former managing director of the ABC who heads the Sydney-based Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, hope the new museum will reinvigorate the campaign to bring back the Elgin marbles – the artworks that have been displayed in the British Museum since Lord Elgin removed them from the Acropolis over 200 years ago.”

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Creativity and Education: Sir Ken Robinson, former professor at Warwick University and speaker on creativity and education, has just published a book (authored with Lou Aronica and published by Allen Lane) entitled “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, stories of people who found passion in areas of life that were not the focus in traditional schools. In 1998 Robinson chaired a Committee which produced the report, “All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (the Robinson Report)”. The Times said: ‘This report raises some of the most important issues facing business in the 21st century. It should have every CEO and human resources director thumping the table and demanding action’.

Robinson argues that current education practices stifle creativity and are a “turn off” for thousands of young people very much because they don’t give enough attention to subjects in the arts. Education is founded on two premises, the enlightenment idea of (rational) economic man and the need for cultural identity. It’s value is seen in how well it prepares people for work.

Robinson was in Australia in the last couple of weeks and was interviewed extensively on the ABC (730 Report on TV1 on 16 June and 17 June , Margaret Throsby’s Interview on ABC Classic FM  and “Life Matters” on Radio National) ; several other interesting people with innovative approaches to education were also interviewed on “Life Matters” in the week starting 15 June.

In one of Robinson’s celebrated lectures, available on the web at TED, he makes a number of points common to all his talks.

“What’s it for, public education? I think you’d have to conclude — if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this … who are the winners — I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it?”

“Children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue .. what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.

“Every person’s intelligence is distinct.”

Referring to Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and the environmental crisis, Robinson talks of an education crisis. “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, ‘If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.'”

In a more recent talk (at the Royal Society of Arts) Robinson quoted anthropologist Robert Ardrey, “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”

In the second part of the interview with ABC TV1’s presenter Kery O’Brien, Robinson said the following: “What I find is that head teachers are critical in schools, like college presidents are essential in universities and in political systems. Leadership is really important from every point of view. I mean, look what’s happening in America at the moment: that shift from the last presidency to the current one. There’s been a total change of mood because people take their cue from the tone of the leadership. And it’s true in every system I know. If you find a school where a head teacher gets it, anything is possible, and I mean that literally.”

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In New South Wales, Premier Nathan Rees has announced that the departments of government will be amalgamated into eight “super departments” with the aim of delivering better services for the people of NSW. dollars.

“I am determined to have the best structure to deliver better services for the people of NSW,” Mr Rees said. “These changes are designed to ensure a greater focus on our clients, better integration of public services and to cut internal Government red tape.”

The reforms will, according to Premier Rees, “Improve service delivery, better align a sprawling bureaucracy; and ensure the best value for taxpayers”.

All this ignores the evidence that restructuring achieves little benefit unless a lot of effort is put into explaining t he benefits and justifying them and providing resources to see thought the adjustments which will have to be made. It remains true that what makes the difference is how decisions get made and how leadership is practised. Coordination and ‘alignment’ require oversighting which carries with it al the problems of restricting innovation and suppressing dissent.

In 30 years governments almost everywhere have failed to understand best practice as seen in the most successful organisations and have merely created an unsustainable level of inaction and confusion.

Numerous articles on this site deal with this.

Remember this quotation, usually (but wrongly) attributed to Petronius: “We trained hard … but every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised.  I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising … and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing inefficiency and demoralisation.” (1)

More quotations are to be found here.

(1) According to Wikipedia, the actual author of this piece of wisdom was the American writer Charlton Ogburn Jr. (1911-1998), in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in 1957 which recounted his experiences as a junior officer in the famous WW2 US Army unit known as ‘Merrill’s Marauders’, and the quoted passage referred to his somewhat chaotic early training.