Leaders in Museums

As we near the end of the Spring semester, many graduates, myself included, are finding new professional opportunities, or delving back into work after graduation. For  my last post as the Graduate Assistant for the Museum Scholarship Certificate, and on behalf of my peers, I want to take this moment to consider two questions:

1) what kind of leaders are we/do we want to be within the field of museum scholarship and material culture studies, and;

2) how has our academic focus on scholarship prepared us for the challenges of leadership? What skills in our academic and professional archive have prepared us to be museum directors, lab managers, collections management specialists, curators, education and outreach directors, and beyond?

Consider this article ~ Whitehair_HistoryNews2016 ~ written by Karen Whitehair in the Winter 2016 edition of History News titled “We Are All in this Together: Twenty-First-Century Museum Leadership” on the leadership crisis in museums. As part of a writing assignment for a course through the American Association for State and Local History, Whitehair critiques the “demigod”-like expectations placed on museum directors. She offers advice from a handful of museum leaders on how they became leaders and the characteristics they say others can learn as they’re thrust into management positions.

A helpful read for professionals at any career-level, some advice may be new and some may be good reminders for reassessing one’s own goals. Throughout the piece Whitehair takes note of the active initiative each leader took to learn more about managing people, communicating effectively, and inspiring others to act on your vision.

MSMC Committee Member, Mary Alexander is interviewed in Whitehair’s article and says she learned from leaders she found effective. She advises:

“To review your own talents…and select a few ‘weaknesses’ you’d like to overcome and find a teacher or mentor to help.”

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, President/CEO of the Abbe Museum notes that she is “interested in being a leader of leaders. If I don’t develop leadership skills in others, then I end up only being a manager and no one is truly leading.”

Kristin Laise states that museums are businesses. Whether for profit or not, the leadership in a historic house museum will share the same qualities and practices of a small business leader. Finding effective ways to partner with others and grow the “business” of sharing history with the public is what Whitehair means by her title “We Are All in this Together.” Museums should figure out a business model that mutually benefits them and surrounding organizations with similar goals.

From a scholarship perspective, effective leadership means critically considering your museum’s role in the community, accessibility of your collections, the perspectives being communicated, and the relevance of your museum to larger societal discussions. Is your museum supporting or challenging the status quo? Leadership requires scholarship to make meaningful and relevant content, and scholarship  needs leadership to implement those ideas effectively.

Considering the first question of this post, I’d like to see myself and my peers from this Certificate program be leaders who embrace changing and alternative ways of managing museum spaces and material culture collections. I’d like us to be leaders who challenge our staff, volunteers, and visitors to question interpretations and functions of our material world. I think this conceptual challenge engages visitors with the material and can be an avenue for community discussion or promotion of newly imagined exhibits.

More importantly, leadership requires integrity to reflect on our own biases. To address my second question, this is what our academic achievements have taught us: to critically understand our theoretical and methodological roles in constructing historic, artistic, and cultural expressions of our past, present, and future. Not only should we continually learn from our “weaknesses” and failures, but discern our current strengths and abilities as leaders. As Anthropologists, American Historians, Librarians, and more, we have been trained for leadership. We ask big-picture questions that will drive the mission of an organization while considering how that vision is implemented at all scales. We have been trained in research methodology; in writing reports and grants; to lead and participate in groups; to be reflexive; and to communicate the importance of history, culture, archives, objects, and stories in daring ways.  No matter what direction we choose to take next, we are the solution to the leadership crisis.

~Sarah Janesko
Master of Applied Anthropology Candidate, Archaeology
Museum Scholarship and Material Culture Certificate