Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Challenges facing museum leaders

Janet Carding and Patrick Greene discuss the challenges facing museum leaders and outline some solutions

The following article was published first in Museum iD.  Janet Carding is now Director, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. CAMD is grateful to Museum iD for allowing us to reprint this exchange.  Museum iD is now available online via an app. See: museum-id.com


Leadership requires thoughtfulness, strategic foresight
and patience to get things done © Royal Ontario Museum


707733-5b1908e4-c20f-11e4-82a9-aa24e0046838JANET CARDING is Director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. Prior to joining the Royal Ontario Museum, she was Assistant Director, Public Programs and Operations at the Australian Museum in Sydney. In addition, she taught the Museums and Galleries Administration segment of the University of Sydney’s Museum Studies programme. Carding originally hails from England where she obtained her degree from Cambridge University in History and Philosophy of Science and a Masters from the University of London in History of Science and Medicine. Her career in museology began as an entry-level curator with London’s Science Museum, before moving into the areas of exhibition and programs development and being appointed Head of Planning and Development with the National Museum of Science and Industry.

MM_DAY02_0264DR J. PATRICK GREENE OBE is a British archaeologist and CEO of Museum Victoria, Australia. Greene was appointed in 1971 to conduct an exploratory excavation at Norton Priory near Runcorn in Cheshire, England. His findings were so important that he was retained for a total of 12 years to organise an excavation. The excavation formed the basis for a thesis which led to a PhD awarded by Leeds University in 1986. In 1983 Greene was appointed as Director of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. In 2002 he was appointed CEO of Museum Victoria. Greene has been President of the Museums Association (UK), Chairman of the European Museum Forum, Chair of the UK Expert Panel of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and a member of the English Heritage Industrial Archaeology Panel.

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We invited Janet and Patrick Greene to take part in a Museum Correspondence and discuss some of the challenges facing museum leaders and outline the solutions they are currently implementing at their respective museums. This is how their conversation went:

Patrick – I’m going to start by talking a little about leadership in museums. I think museums are intensely heterogeneous organisations. By this I mean that in a museum you can find yourself at a meeting with many different specialists, each with their own perspective. A teacher, marketing specialist, anthropologist, conservator, translator, zoologist and security expert might easily work on a project together at our museum, and I can’t think of many other places where that would happen!

“Leadership requires thoughtfulness, strategic foresight and patience to get things done”

I think leadership in those situations can be about connecting, joining-up and establishing a common purpose, and making sure that miss-communication and the use of vetoes are kept to a minimum. It requires thoughtfulness, strategic foresight and patience to get things done. The good news is that there are often these leaders in many parts of the museum, but sometimes their skills aren’t recognised, or developed. Am I painting a picture you recognise?

Regards, Janet

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Janet – yes, I do recognise the diversity of skills that go to make up a museum – often combined in single individuals in smaller museums – and that is one of reasons I enjoy working as a museum CEO so much. At Museum Victoria we have worked hard at developing a networked organisation with very clear objectives, team working, training to develop managers and a recognition that leadership can be found anywhere – providing that there is a strong commitment to delegation, a high level of trust and a culture of mutual respect.

It’s important that we remain vigilant to prevent a return to silos and that processes and rules do not become bureaucratic inhibitors of change. The result is a very creative environment – and I’d love to hear what your teams are achieving at ROM!

Regards, Patrick

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Patrick – ah silos, the perennial issue! You are right, vigilance is necessary to avoid them, and at the ROM we are quite self-consciously trying to move away from silos, and avoid setting up new ones. I suspect that there is always a natural tendency to create a ‘them and us’ situation, and also there is a fine line between a team that is working well, and a team that is internally okay, but forgetting to communicate and involve others outside their immediate group. Even when you set up cross-museum project teams, they can get so engrossed in what they are creating and delivering, that they don’t tell anyone else what is happening.

At the ROM we’re using our intranet to communicate throughout the museum, and aiming to broaden out those who contribute to that internal noticeboard. We’re also starting to set up more brainstorms and workshops when staff from right across the museum can contribute ideas for programs and projects.

But the most significant change we’re making is to start to see the entire museum as a series of Centres of Discovery where our visitors can explore our collections, expertise and programs thematically. We’ve partly borrowed the concept from the interdisiplinary Centres of Excellence you see at universities, but see them as Centres of Discovery because unlike a university we have a built-in public face, where our visitors can engage with us everyday and via the web.

Each Centre, such as – for example – ROM Ancient Cultures, has a Managing Director who brings together curators, educators, program developers, online, and communications, and they together create ways for visitors to explore and participate in the life of the museum. The experiences we are creating this way of course include traditional exhibitions, events and opportunities to volunteer, but also new experiments such as using Google Hangouts to chat with curators online. These Centres exist as much virtually as they do physically, and it has taken a while for us all to adjust to them. They are much more a philosophical change than an organisational restructure, as we are defining the Centres for the benefit of our users, rather than based on what is convenient for us. But now we’re moving to this approach, we’re finding that they are also a great way of forming new partnerships with universities, NGOs and other groups who want to work with us.

If this idea is successful I think that might be the ultimate way to demolish silos, and keep us all focussed on how we can work with our users and partners to create brilliant experiences and generate new knowledge. And we’ll have fun while we do it!

Regards, Janet

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Janet – your transformative leadership at ROM is impressive. The Centres of Discovery concept is an interesting way of getting a range of people to work together and to communicate and I will watch the results closely. As you say, communication is the key. One of the challenges is to create a culture in which people do communicate – but sparingly as not everyone needs to know everything.

“One of the challenges is to create a culture in which people do communicate – but sparingly as not everyone needs to know everything”

Using the intranet, as we do, is a great asset but information overload is one of the dangers that technology makes all too likely. As CEO it is impossible and undesirable that I should know everything that is going on in our museums. That only works, however, if there is a clear vision and a strategic plan that provide a sense of direction for the Museum, a strong commitment to delegated decision making and capable trusted staff. The big things get brought for approval to our Executive Management Team on a weekly basis and I also have weekly briefing from my four direct reports. Beyond that there is a wonderful sense of discovery as initiatives throughout our museums come to the surface. How do I find out about them? By making sure I’m visible in the museums, am approachable so that colleagues can share their enthusiasm with me, and that I join the daily coffee queue! Next week, following the bi-monthly meeting of our Board, we will hold staff meetings at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks Museum and at our collections store at Moreland. We try and make them as entertaining as possible while delivering key messages on topics such as health and safety. I report on the deliberations of the Board and make sure I’m around for long enough for people to discuss the content with me.

Both of our museums are encyclopaedic in their collections and that is what makes working in them so fascinating. Every effort to get people working across the boundaries of subject disciplines is worth making as that is often where the most exciting ideas emerge. Our scientists have been carrying out bioscans in some of Victoria’s most important natural environments and work closely with local Aboriginal communities. The results have been impressive, with generation and acquisition of knowledge by everyone in involved in truly collaborative manner. It’s a transformation in working practices that a networked approach makes possible. At the Board meeting on Monday our strategy for the next five years is the key item on the agenda – I’ll let you know how it goes!

Regards, Patrick

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Patrick – I love the idea of you as CEO having a ‘wonderful sense of discovery as ideas come to the surface’. That is one of the things I enjoy most too! It is also a great indicator of institutional health I think, that there are ideas and plans bubbling up and being delivered by a group of trusted staff who know they have permission to innovate within the strategic framework you have established together. It means that we no longer have blockages and obstacles that are stopping good ideas, but it also means that the team know when to check in with something that otherwise would come as a nasty surprise, or where an issue arises, and that you trust them to do just that.

I think what you say about information overload is also important. We all need to know where the information is, and that the right people know about it. Not that everybody has to approve everything.

Tell me a bit more about your five-year strategy, does it take some of these ideas further, and did the Board approve it?

Regards, Janet

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Janet – the Board did approve the five-year Strategy. The need to be flexible and agile in a fast-changing environment, in which predicting the future is increasingly difficult, is fundamental. The means to achieve it are centred around the further development of the networked museum that we have been building steadily and which has great support throughout the organisation. We have five strategic directions. Deepening Connections is a response to the increasing desire of the public to have participatory relationships with us. Investing in Knowledge, Collections and Expertise emphasises the continuing need to keep building these fundamental areas. Digital Transformation reflects the rapid advances in the technology and systems we use to communicate and generate content. Organisational Resilience is essential in the face of reductions in funding from Government and other challenges. Building Victoria’s Cultural Capital is unashamedly focussed on the people we serve in our state. The vision for Museum Victoria is leading museums that delight, inspire, connect and enrich. We’ve chosen words that have emotional values behind them in response to what visitors are saying about their experiences with the Museum. Does any of this strike a chord with you?

Regards, Patrick

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Patrick – congratulations on the strategy approval and yes it does strike a chord with me. I think many of us are working out how we can address the same issues such as digital transformation, and the wish for deeper, participatory relationships, and at the same time work out how we can each make a unique contribution because of our particular mix of communities, collections and expertise. I love the use of words with emotional values, both very smart and also accurate. My experience is that many of our visitors feel very passionately about their museum, and that our role is to set out to create museums that inspire the next generation. The difficulty, as you recognise, is that visitor expectations now mean that they might be delighted in different ways than their parents or grandparents.

Looking back through this correspondence it feels to me that we’ve covered much of the territory well, but one more question for you, if I may. I’m often asked about how organisational transformation, and how innovative projects can bring about the sorts of changes we’ve been talking about. Colleagues at other museums tell me that they are part of a project that changes the way people work, and they have high hopes it will influence the museum as a whole, only to find that the larger museum has a way of shrugging off the impact and continuing serenely on its previous course. What are your thoughts about how you make your museum as a whole open to change, and how you allow those innovations to lead to transformations on an organisational scale?

Thanks and regards, Janet

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“People will change if they recognise change provides benefits – they may be reluctanct at first but this is often followed by ‘why didn’t we do this sooner?’ ”

Janet – I’ve found this correspondence very useful as a way of holding up a mirror to our work here in Melbourne – part of leadership is the requirement to check how our initiatives are working out in practice and make adjustments where necessary to achieve our goals. That leads me to your question: How do we make our museums open to new ways of working and avoid reverting to the old ways? My response is that it can sometimes feel that change is taking place very slowly, but it is heartening to look back over the past five and ten years and see that the organisation is now operating in significantly different ways now. People will change if they can recognise that change provides benefits – there may be great reluctance at first, but in my experience it is often followed by ‘why didn’t we do this sooner?’

Thanks and regards, Patrick

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Got an idea for a Museum Correspondence? Museum-iD would like to hear from you. Please contact Gregory Chamberlain (greg@museum-id.com) to discuss it.

Reprinted from Museum-iD magazine, issue 15, pp. 48-52, and Museum-iD magazine (digital edition), sample issue.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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