Friday, May 2, 2008

Museum Leaders must be Civic Leaders

posted by John Durel

I've just returned from Denver where I presented two sessions on the museum director's role as a civic leader, one for ACM and one for AAM.

Museum leaders must be active participants in the civic conversation of their communities. What are people concerned about, interested in, aspiring to? How can you, as a museum leader, help your community create a compelling vision for its future?

The question is not how can the community help the museum, but rather how can the museum's resources be used to help the community achieve its vision.
Drawing on the experiences of four museum directors who participated on the session panels - Julia Bland from the Louisiana Children's Museums, Amy Lent from the Maine Maritime Museum, Shari Buckelew from the Children's Discover Museum in Normal, Illinois, and David Donath from the Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, Vermont - here are some guiding principles:
  1. Create a culture of civic participation in your museum. You, board members, and staff should participate as citizens in community activities and organizations. Become a community leader, not just the head of an organization that is in the community.

  2. Choose a prominent platform that will position your organization for opportunities that arise. Shari, for example, joined the Chamber of Commerce and eventually became president, which put her museum in a position to be the lead tenant in a downtown revitalization project. David served on the state historic preservation commission, which enabled him to take the lead in a statewide program to promote cultural tourism and sustainability.

  3. Choose civic conversations that align with your museum's mission. Look for a win-win situation, where the museum gains as the community gains. Make sure your mission becomes part of the civic conversation and community vision. Julia's vision for New Orleans, following Katrina, focused on the well being of children, which has led to the Children's Museum taking the lead in the creation of an Early Learning Village that will bring together several other organizations.

  4. Use the media to position yourself and your museum as a leader in the community. Amy took the opportunity of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown to write to Time magazine, pointing out that boat building in Maine was just as old, and that boat building remains a major industry in her state. Within a week one of Maine's senators was quoting her letter.

  5. Be politically savvy. As you participate in civic life, become aware of the sources of power and influence, and build relationships accordingly.

Some questions for you:

  • What are your experiences as a civic leader?
  • What challenges have you faced?
  • How do you balance the need to run the museum with the need to be out in the community?
  • How do you know when to say no to a request to get involved in a community project?
  • What success have you had?
  • How has being involved in your community helped your organization?
Share your story! Comment on this blog.

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