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Five Issues for Museums

One of the really interesting points about the appointment of Thomas Campbell to the directorship of the Met is that through the genuine leadership of de Montebello, the goals, mission and values of the Museum have become absolutely clear. That the Museum board would choose Campbell because, as the board chair said, he has a passion for art, demonstrates just how far that museum has advanced. The Met is a place where board members and staff value the essentiality of scholarship in contributing to the pursuit of the Museum’s mission.

Back to the ordinary world.(1)

Professional goals have been highlighted in museums, as in many others in nonprofit organisations employing creative people, with very little attention to the nature of the environment in which pursuit of those goals has to operate. No amount of outstanding professional expertise, knowledge and understanding will flourish unless the environment is conducive to that flourishing.

The result has been conflict and resentment, numerous unproductive exercises as executive managers pursue managerialist “solutions” such as downsizing and restructuring, seeking efficiencies and greater control over staff as if those will deliver desired results. Which of course they will not. At the same time staff complain that managers lack understanding and commitment, even that they are indifferent and ignorant, as they yet again talk of how important their work is and that because they are professional they have no need of unions, don’t need to bargain with executive management or take collective action. The powerful are accepted as doing what they want and the rest as having to suffer what they must, but resenting it.

1, Get the social processes right.

All those things we value, professionalism, creativity, discovery, increase of knowledge and understanding, require people rather than process. They flourish in an environment of trust where risks can be taken without punishment, failure can be celebrated as much as success, where the important outcome is the lesson learned. This is not simply rhetoric. These are the conclusions from well-conducted research in R&D and creative organisations.

The development and ongoing encouragement of such a climate, one which might be described as an “alternative village”, is the principal task of the leader. The task requires recruiting people to a set of shared goals representing the unique value which the museum seeks to reach so as to make a difference to other people’s lives.(2)

The development of such a climate is what characterised the successful Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. In its planning and execution it spanned some 25 years, it involved some four successive directors, the last of whom had served only a few months when Huygens landed. And it is what has contributed significantly to the success of Southwest Airlines and many other organisations, not least Apple. It is that lack of a climate of shared understandings which has led to the latest Airbus project faltering time and again as incompatible computer systems prevented smooth installation of the wiring and shareholders quarrelled.

What makes the difference to the success of an organisation is how people work together and how decisions get made. And how leadership is practiced. That is true of manufacturing organisations and it is true of boards. And it is true of museums. Rules and regulations, pursuit of efficiencies and application of psychological tests and other such devices do not. This is a mantra I have pursued for two decades. (However, clearly some commercial organisations need regulation since they have shown themselves to be incapable of good behaviour if left alone!)

Remember that aphorism, “If you want to know how the organisation is going, look at the people sitting at their computers. If they are smiling everything is OK.” There is no particular reason other than bad management why people in an organisation should not enjoy being at work and believe that what they are doing is worthwhile. It doesn’t have to be like many of those police shows on TV such as “The Bill” where those ‘in charge’ seem to do their best to diminish the self image of those ‘below them’.

2, Be engaged

If we want to ensure that we do the best job we can then we all have to be involved. We can’t leave it to others, no matters their position or level of knowledge.(3)

The need for certainty is often claimed by groups from farmers to business people. But certainty cannot be attained within the living environment. Certainty does not even exist within the historical past, a situation recognised by phrases like “history is a foreign country”. William Faulkner once wrote that “the past is not dead and gone; it isn’t even past”. That statement was made with reference to racial tension. Nonetheless, it is a universal truth. The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do.(4)

Former science advisor to the British Government and President of the Royal Society, Lord Robert May, in his address to the Lowy Institute in 2007, quoted Regis DeBray’s statement about revolution to emphasise that the way we see things is strongly influenced by our own experience and beliefs, by our identity.

We are never completely contemporaneous with our present. History advances in disguise; it appears on stage wearing the mask of the preceding scene, and we tend to lose the meaning of the play… The blame, of course, is not history’s, but lies in our vision, encumbered with memory and images learned in the past. We see the past superimposed on the present, even when the present is a revolution.”

The search for certainty deflects us from coping with a reality of ambiguity. Rather than the comfort of knowing that what we have done in the past will continue to be satisfactory we need to be confident that we can deal with change and uncertainty, even that agreements reached one day may be overturned the next, that the solution to the problem we tried yesterday may not work tomorrow because of subtle changes in the nature of the problem or even of how the problem is seen.

Quite often the knowledge that experts hold is discounted. A couple of politicians in the Howard government observed, “The views of a few academics are no substitute for common sense”. Too often the view that comes to be accepted is that put forward by a person we have learned to trust, who proclaims the same values we cherish, rather than a view which we believe adds up, makes sense and feels right. Too much decision-making is lazy: someone in authority says that they way ahead is to do so and so and we accept it, we go along with it. In the worst organisations, those in authority consolidate their power through intimidation. They gain power by promoting as important what they can do best.

An approach to an exhibition, a decision about structure of education programs, plans for research focus, interpretations of financial positions and their impact in later times, all offer opportunities for mistaken solutions: problems or even disaster might attend the pursuit of the proposed strategies if unchallenged. In the best organisations, those in influential positions seek to extend power to those who will do the work. Interestingly, a recent study by the OECD of school principals around the World found that in the best school environments there is considerable dispersion of authority and high levels of autonomy, not centralised control.

In the best organisations and the most effective communities and societies, truth is under continual challenge and debate; those in influential positions know they must have people around them who will challenge their views. In the Cuban missile crisis President Kennedy, learning from the failed Bay of Pigs attempted invasion, ensured that he did not intervene strongly in discussions about how to address the threat posed by the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Instead he stayed on the outside but insisted that the views of many others be sought. The result was that nuclear holocaust was averted! US President Barrack Obama is known as a person who seeks, and listens to, advice from a wide range of people but makes his own decisions.

3, Believe in our own goals

Those who achieve their goals are those who believe they can. It is not that “nothing succeeds like success” but that if you believe you can succeed you likely will. Yet everywhere people feel they are subject to many different pressures and that they have little chance of influencing let alone controlling their future.

If there is one behaviour which characterises the museum community more than any other, it is it’s extraordinarily self-absorption. As in many other domains a consequence is persistence in holding on to untested ‘truths’. A participant at a recent conference observed that for a field that is so self-absorbed, our limited capacity for self-reflection is extraordinary.

It is a common view that solutions to the problems facing museums are to be found in pursuit of those values which museum professionals hold to be important. Providing greater access to learning experiences through interactivity is criticised as giving in to the lowest common denominator. There is a near universal failure to look out, to see what successful organisations in other domains that are successful are like. Worst of all is the belief that professional values alone will bring us eventually to the goal we seek.

We can say that every journey begins with the first step. A very recent analogy comes from the address on his draft supplementary report on climate change and carbon emissions trading to the National Press Club by Professor Ross Garnaut on 5 September talking of Australia’s defeat of Pakistan at the cricket test in Hobart in November 1999.

When we began our second innings, the fourth innings of the game against the best bowling attack in the world other than our own, we had to score 369 to win, higher than any last innings score ever to win a Test Match. Pakistan quickly had us on the ropes at 5 for 126, when Adam Gilchrist joined Justin Langer. After the famous victory, Langer revealed the secret of reaching a goal that looks out of reach. “I said to Gillie, let’s have a crack, because you never know.

“The secret is not to get hung up about the impossible goal. Set your mind on getting through the next over, then the next hour, then the next session. After you have made some ground, its not impossible.”

In the absence of belief in one’s goals and values there is a loss of confidence, a fear of failure and ongoing frustration at inability to change things. High levels of morale within an organisation drive achievement. It takes a long time to develop positive morale and it can be turned around in the blink of an eye. As one observer said, people come to a job motivated, after a while they have lost that: what is going on in the organisation? It is like very young children, most of whom know how to draw but few can write; in later life few know how to draw but most can write. Much of creativity has been lost. (It is not that writing is not a creative activity, it is that most adults don’t pursue it as such.)

It is common from time to time, such as now, to observe that museums are showing themselves to be marginal, to be nearly irrelevant. It makes good copy. It allows us to wring our hands, to be desperate. But it doesn’t do anything more. And the basis of the assertion is untrue. Many museums are achieving important things in many areas. Most art museums can point to the substantial exhibitions that have reached very large numbers of the public: the impact is evident to anyone watching visitors to art museums now. Museums in Australia and the United States have made progress in relations with Indigenous peoples which are far ahead of the progress which governments have made. Many museums have advanced their understanding of learning and grasped the latest in information technology and social media. Some have not. Many make important contributions to knowledge every day. Many have made astonishing strides in gaining financial support. Others have not!

In the end statements of the kind museums are becoming irrelevant, or visitor numbers are declining, are of no utility because they are generalisations, aggregates. (They represent the “crisis of confidence” that Campbell alluded to.) Some museums have marginalised themselves, for all kinds of reasons. As have many different organisations. Others have certainly not done so. We need to understand the differences and how they have come about.

To be useful statements have to be the basis of greater understanding. Alfred North Whitehead said, “In the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. The importance of truth is that it adds to interest.”

4, Celebrate achievement

In the last 30 or so years, with the ongoing pursuit of managerialism and its attendant focus on efficiency, transparency and accountability, performance indicators have been the catch cry. That which could not be measured was considered not relevant. Even though time and again it was pointed out that those things which could be measured were probably less important than those that could not. Can musical excellence or superior artistic achievement generally be measured? It can be judged. But those judgements are often flawed in the sense that when one looks back very often the conclusion is that previous opinions are not what one would now think. The work of many artists and musicians, once held to be inferior, are now highly praised. Johannes Brahms’ fourth symphony, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, the first works by French Impressionists, and so on and so on were all criticised.

Celebration of achievement allows reinforcement of those goals and values which bind the people in the organisation. No opportunity should be missed to note and comment on achievements. Those achievements will come through understanding of the purpose. That is a product of the strategic planning. The leader’s principal role is to reinforce the meaning of those achievements and the promise they hold.

Unfortunately too often strategic planning is turned over to one or two people or some small group, sometimes from outside the organisation. Few things could be more destructive! Strategic planning is another opportunity to bring people together to reinforce the goals and values, to involve those who will work to achieve those goals. It is an arena in which the executive leaders reveal their commitment and understandings.

Lynda Gratton and the late Sumantra Ghoshal, leading management and leadership experts, say, “Conversations lie at the heart of managerial work. Managers talk. It is through talk that they teach and inspire, motivate and provide feedback, plan and take decisions. Conversations lie at the heart of how companies develop new ideas, share knowledge and experience, and enhance individual and collective learning.”

They observe, “Yet, in most companies, very little attention is paid to the quality of conversations. As a result, a vast majority of conversations tend to be dehydrated, ritualised talk that add no value to anyone. Most conversations in most companies tend to be either uninteresting or irrelevant.” The conversations forming the strategic plan develops the organisation. Ownership of plans comes from participation in developing that plan.

5, Form alliances.

A well-known aphorism is “divided we beg, united we bargain”.

Few people or groups can achieve difficult things by themselves. Too many other forces are in opposition, even forces demanding no change. One would have thought that the lessons of the past would suggest abandonment of the ‘we can do it ourselves’ approach. This is not confined to museums; distinguished historian Tony Judt recently observed that the government of the United States, and other countries, had learned nothing from history! Had the countries that joined the ‘coalition of the willing’ to invade Iraq in 2003 studied the experience of Britain in its occupation in the 1920’s of the lands now know as Iraq (a country ‘invented’ by Britain), the failure of the expectations that a leader could be found who would rule the ‘country’ while the oil reserves were exploited, they would surely have taken a different course.

The museum community, like the academic community, is also fractured. Some groups of professionals in certain disciplines are still not accepted into the fold by those who once controlled legitimacy. Fracture lines also run along the lines of management and others. Despite many groups comprising museum directors having achieved very little, such groups still seek to exercise control over other groups representing particular disciplines. Educators undertaking qualitative research on learning are distrusted because they do not use quantitative methods, public relations staff are branded as part of administration, and librarians are accused of being increasingly irrelevant in the digital age.

In the politics of the natural environment and conservation, environmentalists were strongly criticised recently on the website Grist for their narrow definition of the issues and their failure to recruit allies form other areas. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus claimed that in respect of climate change particularly, environmental groups had failed to gain what they ought to have achieved.(5)  They had given in too easily. The response of some spokespersons for the environmental groups to these criticisms predictably denied failure. When a culture of denial drives debate about the future then failure is imminent. (This is not an endorsement of the views of Shellenberger and Nordhaus, who have recently been criticised in Grist because they “take piles of garbage (i.e. Republican talking points) and repackage them with some green-sounding lingo and then put their green credentials behind them”.)

Museum people can make common cause with each other, first and foremost, no matter the nature of the museum, art or history or science, small or large. All share a concern to communicate with the public, all are concerned with collections of one sort or another and with the experience of interaction with those real objects. All manage the information relating to the collections of objects in essentially the same way: the information about an art work has some fields in common with items of cultural material. The multidimensional nature of the data requires the same kind of approaches in respect of ensuring authenticity about the object’s history, its connections with people and places. All share a former history in which curators were held to be the ultimate authority as to what could and could not be said reliably about the object. And the challenge posed by social media (web 2.0) and the use of tags representing the way others interested in the object describe them is a challenge common to all.

Because collections and information are important, museums share concerns with libraries and archives, because of their public education role they share goals and aspirations with all groups representing educators and those interested in advancing genuine educational achievement. The debates over history and revisionism are of concern to museum curators and educators and other colleagues in museums. Thus they can join with academics and those concerned with school curricula to push for understanding of history as a search for understanding rather than an agenda setting exercise to shore up patriotism, an approved view of the past, how the country has progressed to a greater height.  The ongoing human impact on the natural environment surely leads to common interests of natural history museum people with community environmental groups.

To ignore the likelihood that others have useful lessons for us to learn which will make our job easier is like explorers from the ‘developed’ world seeking water in a new land but not asking the people who already live there. It is like astronomers of the Renaissance exploring the nature of the universe, ignorant of the knowledge held by Arab and Greek scholars centuries earlier.

Pursuit of common cause does not mean consistent agreement on all matters. Genuine respect for others demands recognition that sometimes allies will disagree and that often those disagreements need not lead to disunity on other matters. Genuine loyalty is important, slavish agreement is not part of it.

And we need to laugh more! There are very few issues indeed where humour is entirely out of place. Comedians are even able to find humour in certain aspects of death and taxes. Indigenous people are extraordinarily adept at finding humour in their past history. Why should museum people be any different?



(1) Expanded notes from a talk given to the Museums Australia Futures Forum, Canberra 1 September 2008
(2)  It is the difference the museum makes to people’s lives that is important, not the museum’s continued existence (Stephen E. Weil, “Are you really worth what you cost, or just merely worthwhile? And who gets to say? In “Asking the Right Questions” Museum Trustee Association in collaboration with the Getty Leadership Institute October 11-12, 2002.)
(3)  Al Gore in Chicago in February at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings said, “I believe in my heart that we do have the capacity to make this generation one of those generations that changes the course of human kind. The stakes have never been higher. We have the knowledge, we have the emerging technology, we have new leadership, we have cabinet members and science advisors and NOAA heads and policymakers in all of the important positions who are your colleagues and who have taken the time to go and be a part of public service, in many cases largely because of this challenge. Keep your connections to them. Become a part of this struggle. We need you. Keep your day job, but start getting involved in this historic debate. We need you.”
(4)  Sir William Deane delivering the first Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture in August 1996
(5) “The Death of Environmentalism. Global warming politics in a post-environmental world” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus Grist 13 Jan 2005. “Few things epitomize the environmental community’s tactical orientation to politics more than its search for better words and imagery to “reframe” global warming. Lately the advice has included: a) don’t call it “climate change” because Americans like change; b) don’t call it “global warming” because the word “warming” sounds nice; c) refer to global warming as a “heat trapping blanket” so people can understand it; d) focus attention on technological solutions — like fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars.
What each of these recommendations has in common is the shared assumption that a) the problem should be framed as “environmental” and b) our legislative proposals should be technical.
Even the question of alliances, which goes to the core of political strategy, is treated within environmental circles as a tactical question — an opportunity to get this or that constituency — religious leaders! business leaders! celebrities! youth! Latinos! — to take up the fight against global warming. The implication is that if only X group were involved in the global warming fight then things would really start to happen.
… Because we define environmental problems so narrowly, environmental leaders come up with equally narrow solutions… [such as] like florescent light bulbs, more efficient appliances, and hybrid cars [as being] sufficient to muster the necessary political strength to overcome the alliance of neoconservative ideologues and industry interests in Washington, D.C.”