Sunday, November 8, 2009

Opening Up

When I was director of the Upstate History Alliance, I spent time in many extended conversations about small organizations--and particularly about how to encourage small organizations to strive for best practices. And not surprisingly, my conclusion about organizations is the same conclusion that every good teacher probably comes to in a classroom--that if you're not ready to learn, you won't. For small museums and historical societies to move forward, there has to be not only a spark, but a willingness to fan that spark into a full-fledged flame of change.

Professional development should provide the spark. I think it's important to learn skills, but I think it's critical for staff and volunteers to understand the "so what" of what we do--and to understand what Stephen Weil called the shift in museums from being about something to being for somebody. Although I don't think about professional development in quite the same way now that I'm working as a consultant, it's still an important part of my work. Some days I spend with organizations where I can see they are just not quite ready to make change. They applied for a planning grant because someone told them they needed to; they think writing a plan will automatically help them get money; they have a crisis and want to fix the immediate crisis but not the larger problem; they have a million reasons why change can't happen. Those sessions are always a bit discouraging.

This fall, though, I've had a couple days with organizations where I can almost see the wheels in people's brains begin to spin as they contemplate new ideas. Last week, I did a MAP Institutional Assessment at a small museum in northern Colorado. Over a great pot-luck dinner, the board lit up with enthusiasm as they thought about the ways in which they could consider a step forward, moving from an organization whose job was to collect and catalog, to one who shared the stories that those objects represented with the community--and to find ways to invite the community into that sharing process.

Earlier this fall, at a session at Woodchuck Lodge, the home of literary naturalist John Burroughs, the board benchmarked the homes of other writers -- but then our conversation moved to ways of interpreting the house. One board member had found the novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (now on my own reading list) with a great quote about the meaning of a writer's things vs. a writer's words. That led us to a discussion about how to include Burroughs' words in more concrete ways--so yes, the guide could read his words; then yes, visitors could be asked to read words; then yes, we could give a card with the quotes read to each visitor to take home.

Of course, it's easy to have enthusiasm in a meeting--and the challenge then comes into putting those great conversations into practice. But that excitement of discovering new ideas is a first step that will take an organization down that creative path. And as each museum considers new board or staff members, finding ones that exhibit that spark can be a critical next step as well.

And by the way, that spark of learning holds true for me as well--so on my Colorado visit I learned a bit about elk hunting, sheep wagons with solar panels, ditches with boards of directors, saddle-making, ranching, and that Thursday is Burrito Day at the Hi-Way Bar (pretty good ones, as it happens!)


Linda said...

I see a whole range of small museums - some where there is brilliant, warm inclusive leadership that inspires people to seek to grow, others where there is a ghetto mentality, and nothing is going to make them change.

And so many in between. But leadership is so important.

In passing - in defence of those who catalogue (me) - unless we record what the stories are around the multitude of objects already in our collection, we will lose the stories that they should tell.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks for your comment, Linda--no defense needed for those catalogers--because I have, more times than I can remember, wished, as I read the most basic accession record, that someone had bothered to collect and catalog those details...and you're right--leadership, whether it's volunteer or staff, is the critical piece.