A sense of direction and purpose

I’m writing this blog on the train on the way back from a week in Kyoto for the ICOM conference – this year’s theme was “museums as cultural hubs: the future of tradition”. All anyone could talk about, though, in coffee breaks and online as well as in the sessions dedicated to it, was the proposed new museum definition. There’s no doubting that museums are today very different than they were when the current ICOM definition of what museums are was written, and that definition doesn’t any longer capture the sector particularly well. It also, like most definitions, doesn’t set aspirations or a sense of direction for the sector, and that is, I think, where things started to get tricky. The proposed new definition aimed to set out a vision and values for museums as well as capturing the essence of a sector whose practise has changed and is continuing to change. Given the diversity of institutions and practise showcased at the conference and in the museum sector globally, that’s a hugely ambitious task, so I’m not surprised it got stuck.

In all the conversations I had with people at the conference, I also found disagreement not only on the wording of a new definition, but on who the audience for the new definition was supposed to be and what changing does for the sector. Is it a relatively simple change to broaden the wording of the ICOM statues so that they more clearly and accurately represent the sector today, or is it intended to have broader impact in the sector, inspiring us to have greater relevance and supporting advocacy for museums beyond our sector? Is it supposed to set out where we are or where we’re going? Is it a definition that is supposed to be fixed for decades, or constantly a work in progress?

Among the ICOM conference sessions, I spent most of my time in sessions organised by the University Museums and Collections committee, thinking not only about the complicated question of how museums could be defined, but about university and academic museums as a part of the sector. I’ve spent my career so far in national museums (and a national library), which are research-based institutions, but am trying in my new job to be conscious of what the differences – as well as the similarities – are between that experience and what I’ll be working with as Director of Museums for a university. Two related and overlapping themes came out in the UMAC sessions in Kyoto: that university museums see themselves as distinctive because they are institutions within institutions, and they are institutions whose parent institution does not have a primary aim to run museums, meaning that university museums have to consistently advocate for the relevance and value of their work. I can see how both of those are true, but they are also true of other kinds of museums, for example local authority museums (in the UK) which have been so heavily cut in recent years, or corporate museums whose role within their parent organisations I’ve always found interesting. More important than all of that, surely all museums have to advocate for the relevance and value of museums – or should do?

To be honest, I’m not normally all that inclined to these kinds of questions of definition, and would typically prefer to be doing things rather than defining and debating them or attaching complex language or frameworks. At the moment things are a little different, though, because I’m thinking about the sector while working on assessing the strategic alignment and clarity for the museums I lead. For any new director to get a sense of the organisation’s mission and vision, and the extent to which everyone’s work is aligned to it, is important, and especially so for organisations in the middle of a period of change. I’ve joined my new team in the middle of a large project to extend and reopen the Wardlaw Museum in 2020, which involves the whole team working together to redisplay galleries, develop a new programme of temporary exhibitions, and renew programming. Big projects like this one can – and are often used to – create change, but there is always a risk that when a large project finishes, the team “snaps back” to older ways of working.

My brief as the new director is to use the project to extend and reopen the Wardlaw Museum as the starting point for a larger reimagination of the museums and their relevance and impact within the university (and beyond). So, one of my highest priorities at the moment is working out how to take the momentum of the capital project and turn it into ongoing momentum for the museums team. That will mean we need a clear shared sense of our mission and vision, that honours what the museums have been in the past, takes the best of that and continues it, as well as adding new plans for exhibitions and programmes.

Our work on the exhibitions and programmes for the Wardlaw Museum is driven by creativity and curiosity, and by embracing the spirit of enquiry and the scale of ambition that the university embodies in its research and teaching. But, we’re a relatively small museums team, so expanding our vision and ambition means we also need to make plans and priorities that help us make choices about which new projects to take on, and which programmes we might want to stop. That’s where strategic alignment can be the most difficult but important – adding more and more new initiatives without stopping others can lead to fragmentation and a lack of focus even if there are resources for all of it. In the more normal museum situation where there aren’t enough resources for everything, I’ve seen in a previous job the damage to the wellbeing of staff that can be the result of poor or unclear prioritisation, so I’m determined to do things differently in this job.

Listening to the conversations at ICOM, and thinking with my team about our plans for the future of the Museums of the University of St Andrews, it’s clear that whatever mission, vision and strategic planning documents that we write in the end, they need to be working documents, rather than ones that are approved and then ignored. They should be tools to help us make choices about what to do and what not to do, as well as helping us to talk about our ambitions and plans for the museums so that everyone in the university and the sector knows what’s the same and what’s changing. Essentially, we’re working on what we want the museums to become, and how to get there – on our sense of direction and purpose.

It begins! But where to start?

The first month in a new job is all about learning, and quickly. The classic version of the ‘first 90 days’ model suggests that you should spend time before starting a new job preparing for a leadership transition. With the pressures of finishing up my old job and moving (internationally) it would be optimistic to say that I had much time for this. I know plenty about museums, and from my previous jobs I have relevant experience, which is all part of why I got the job. But I’ve been bearing in mind some advice I was given in a bar in New Orleans by another new(ish) museum director, that all that knowledge and experience is situational. It might not work or be relevant in the same way for this job, with this museum, in this university, in this town, with this team, and these colleagues.

I’m comfortable processing large amounts of information, so I asked my new team to send me things to read before I started work, with the best intentions of reading and digesting them before day one. In the end, though, I skim-read some of them on the flight and arrived on my first day with much to do and learn. Since then, I’ve been reading everything I can get hold of – policies, documents, reports, schedules, briefings, old books and pamphlets, poems from a festival a few years ago, and many other things besides. At the same time, I’ve started talking to people across the university. Some of those meetings were set up by my new colleagues before I arrived, others I set up after I started work, but either way it’s fairly quiet at this time of year, so a good time to get to know people before the students arrive for the new academic year in September. I’ve asked each person in my team variations on the same two questions: what do you love about working here, and what could be better if anything were possible? Other people I’ve simply asked: how do the museums look from your point of view? How do we or could we work together?

All this information helps me understand what happened in the past, where the museums are now, where they are going, and what the plans and priorities are. It weaves together to help me form my plan for the second month and an outline of what I think the priorities will be for the first year or so. Making this assessment carefully but fairly quickly is important, because it helps me work out what to get involved in, what to leave running just as it is, what changes of plan might be needed, and where I can have the most positive impact. I’ve also been thinking about how I’ll get started with my plans, and where there might be allies and co-conspirators when I start forming plans and looking for support to get them going. I learned the hard way in a previous job that paying too little attention to how decisions are made trips up the best ideas and intentions later on, so I’ve been reading and listening between the lines for indications of that. I can read all the documents I like, but in every organisation the way things get done is a workplace-cultural wrapper around those, that it’s important quickly to understand to be an effective Director.

In an ideal world, there would be a month or two at the start where this kind of exploration and information-gathering was all that a new Director did. In reality, that’s never been the case for me when getting started in senior roles, and it’s especially unlikely here because I’m joining the museums team in the middle of a major project. Decisions have been deferred until I arrived, people want my input on forward plans, and some of these are urgent. The temptation to jump to action can be so strong, when you’re keen to make an impression in a new job – it can be tricky to decide which things can wait a little while, and which are things that genuinely need tackling right now. I’ve been creating some space by reminding myself that with each week that passes I’m more knowledgeable about the museums and the university, and so better-equipped to take decisions informed not only by intuition and experience but by a deepening understanding of my new job, of the museums and team, and of the university.

For a while, the list of questions to ask and people to meet got longer and longer. I set aside an hour at the start of each week to look at the list and prioritise, as well as time at the end of each week to write a few notes about my impressions so far. The list gradually stopped growing so fast, and allowing this planning and reflection time has also helped separate the work week from the weekend, soothing my tired brain – learning this much, this quickly, can be exhausting. Looking back at this first month, the most important thing, that helped make the structured information gathering and analysis possible, is probably something rarely talked about in all those articles and books about leadership transitions: sleep. It feels a little odd to conclude this post saying that the best way to start a new job is to take a nap, but sleeping well has helped me stay focussed and clear-headed. It also, I hope, sets a tone for the kind of leader I will be for the team, valuing work-life balance and wellbeing alongside the ambitious plans we’ll be working on together.

The first/last three months

I drafted this post the day after my last day at the Smithsonian, and edited it just before starting my new job. The last couple of weeks have been a blur of goodbyes and thank yous – it’s hard to leave behind colleagues who have become friends. At the same time, it’s exciting to think about what my new job will be like.

Once my job move had been announced, I started thinking about how I would go about getting started in the new job. There’s any number of books and articles about the critical first three months in a senior leadership role, including the classic First 90 Days by Michael D Watkins, which set out things to do in the first few days, weeks and months. Lath Carlson worked through many of these and distilled it down to a pretty amazing spreadsheet that he used when getting started in his new role as CEO of Museum of the Future earlier this year, and He was generous enough to share it with me. Some similar themes came up in a session at the AAM conference in New Orleans this May, in which three female museum directors from the US and the UK talked about how they got started. None of them mentioned a spreadsheet, but they had all taken a thoughtful and intentional approach, and had seen that pay off later on.

Thinking about this, and learning from the experience of other new museum directors resonated with my own experience, too. I already know from getting started in other senior leadership roles that the key is quickly getting to grips with large amounts of information, and building the right relationships early on. The first months are also an opportunity to ask questions that might get trickier once you’ve been there longer, even if you aren’t yet totally sure how the information will be useful. When I joined the British Library I asked if I could go and see the book-fetching robots in action, mainly because I thought it would be fun (although I’m sure I made a more professional-sounding case for it). Later, my team were working on an issue relating to locations and book ordering for which knowing a little about how the automated storage building worked became very useful indeed. As far as I know, there aren’t any robots fetching objects in the museum stores at the University of St Andrews, but as I get started I’ll use the same open-minded and curious approach as I get to know the museums and the team, now scaffolded by a more organised framework that draws on what I’ve learned from reading and learning from the experiences of other new museum directors.

Alongside thinking about the new job, as I worked towards my last day at the Smithsonian I also had to stay focussed on the one I was still doing. Leadership transitions were something that I’d talked about with my Getty Leadership Institute cohort last summer. Some of us had worked with museum leaders who right up to their last day were pushing to do more and finish more, perhaps trying to secure their legacy, but putting significant pressure on their staff and creating commitments for others to deliver or to carefully renegotiate later on. Others among us had found it frustrating when a departing director hadn’t paid attention to things that needed tackling before they left, or had left important decisions or discussions until later, often leading to a tricky or turbulent interim period. It’s a careful balance to strike, and one that there’s no standard recipe for, but it’s clear to me that once you (and everyone else) know you are leaving, your priorities should change, and the way you plan your work changes.

I started planning for my last three months by making lists of what I would finish before leaving, what I should make sure I handed over to someone else, and what things would pause or stop. That last category was the trickiest, because it included some things I’ve been passionate about and committed to, but I had to pause so that the next person can choose their own priorities. I talked to my team and colleagues about what they needed, including about the problems I could help them solve or roadblocks I could help get out of their way so that issues didn’t come up after I left. I asked them to look at my draft lists of what I would do and what would pause and used their feedback to keep refining the plan, and to prioritise what to work on. I followed up on things, wrote briefing and handover notes, and switched to a weekly planning cycle (Trello was a great way of organising all this) so as much as possible was finished off and handed over smoothly. Until the last day I held out hope I would have time to write a blog post about an object I’d been fascinated by (this overdue blog was even mentioned at my leaving party) but knew that I had to keep my focus on the things my team and my colleagues needed me to take care of, not the things I would find most interesting.

I also did the filing. Unexciting, perhaps, but important – handing things over in an organised way means that whoever takes over from me has easy access to the things they might need. I know from experience that it can be difficult when your predecessor leaves their files in a disorganised state, so this is partly this is about being helpful to the person who takes over. But it’s also a little more selfish, as I found that getting started with the filing early enough gave me a chance to think about what I’ve done and achieved in the job that I’m about to leave, as well as to reflect on what I tried that didn’t work, and what I’ve learned along the way. Among a jumble of miscellaneous things in my office drawer I found my earliest notes from when I was just getting started in the job, which included a diagram sketching out what I saw as the the highest priorities and key areas a month in. Although there’s much I’ve learned since then, it was good to see that I’d got it about right. So, slightly unexpectedly, doing the filing reminded me that my early intuition about the big, complicated job I was preparing to leave had been spot on, giving me a confidence boost for the new one.

Looking backwards and forwards

I’m starting this blog as I get ready to start a new job as Director of Museums at the University of St Andrews. In between working out the logistics of shipping my belongings across the Atlantic, and thinking about where to live, the move is prompting me to think a little about how I got to the point of taking up this extraordinary opportunity, and to reflect a little on museum careers.

I hadn’t always planned to work in museums – or even to study a humanities subject – but a change of subject (from mathematics to history and philosophy of science) at university prompted a rethink. I was lucky enough to do a two-year traineeship at the Science Museum, London, before going back to university to do a PhD in the history of science. After that, I worked with numismatic collections as a curator in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, and set up and ran a collaborative project on money in Africa. From there, I became Head of Asian and African Collections at the British Library, and then Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs (Chief Curator) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which is the job I’ll shortly be leaving to move to St Andrews.

Looking at this career path one way, it’s been a kind of zig-zag. After I’d participated in a Clore Leadership Intensive (formerly Short Course) in 2011, I decided that I would aim for leadership roles, and moving between institutions has meant that I have been able to rapidly progress in my career. Being flexible about what the next move might look like has opened up opportunities that might not have been open to me had I been more narrowly focussed.

It hasn’t been random, though, and the more I reflect on my career path so far, the more clearly I can see the pattern. In each new job I’ve taken, I looked for two things: an interesting challenge that I was well-fitted for, and an opportunity I could learn from. Now, when looking at potential jobs I might apply for, I identify what the challenge is and think about my skills in relation to it. I’m not talking here about ticking off everything on the list of essential and desirable requirements, but something more akin to asking myself whether I could make a difference, whether I would enjoy working to tackle the challenge, and how what I’ve done in the past equips me for this as a possible next move. The learning part is just as important, as I’ve realised that I’m happiest and most motivated when I’m developing my skills and knowledge, learning from the people I work with and from the things I’m doing.

Being part of the Getty Leadership Institute’s 2018 cohort helped clarify that I did want my next job to be a directorship, and a year on, I’m about to start making that plan a reality. Any new museum director has much to learn – the first few months are sometimes characterised as drinking from a fire hose. But I won’t be doing that in a quiet period, since there is already an exciting project under way to extend the Museum of the University of St Andrews and reimagine its exhibitions and programmes. To reflect on what I’m sure will be a busy time, I’ll be writing something each month about my experience getting started as Director of Museums, and thinking about museums and leadership along the way, too.