Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 1: Leadership, Mission, and Governance

from aaslh.org
Welcome to my first ever book review series, where I will introduce you to the wonderful resource that is the American Association for State & Local History's Small Museum Toolkit.

I really appreciated that the book kicked off by giving advice on programs and resources to help museums improve themselves. Accreditation and assessment programs are not just about funders ensuring resources are well spent. These standards are a way for the museum to gain credibility in its professional and general community circles. What museum wouldn't want to do that?

As a toolkit for small museums, the content in this book is pretty familiar. While we work museums of all shapes and sizes, the majority of my work happens with the smaller organizations - museums that only have one or two staff members. We always brace ourselves when we hear that the key staff member of a community museum is leaving. It can either mean great things or terrible things. As the author puts it, "bad leadership can quickly undermine a small museum, but, on the other hand, a small museum can soar with good leadership." The key message here is that leadership is a critical component in museum operations, both at the staff and board level.

One of the things that really jumped out at me was the chapter on mission and vision. As the authors point out, many museums have mission statements that say the museum "will collect, preserve, interpret...", and a lot of museum professionals were raised on this mantra. I can honestly say that I've been in school classes, workshops, and other environments where people started laughing over the similarity between mission statements from vastly different organizations. I'm pretty sure that we don't want people laughing at our mission statements. This article went on to say that a museum's mission statement needs to set the strategic direction of the organization, accept fiduciary responsibility for all aspects of the organization, and act as a vehicle to connect with community. Does your mission statement do that?
Taking this one step further, I think every museum needs to take this paragraph back to its board:
"If you already have a mission, you must ask yourself these questions: Do we have the right mission? Is it understood and fully supported by all members of the governing authority? Is it understood and supported by all members of the staff? Is it understood and fully supported by the key stakeholders? Without a discussion about mission, and ideally vision, it is impossible for an organization to arrive at appropriate strategic goals for the next, say, three to five years. And without a serious group discussion about mission and vision, unacknowledged issues, disagreements, and contrary viewpoints will continue to sleep comfortably beneath the surface, causing an array of issues and not a clue as to their cause."

The chapter on do-it-yourself strategic planning is one that I think a lot of museums could benefit from. All too often I hear people express concern over long-term planning for small museums; that it would be too demanding to expect volunteers to put in that extra work (more on that in a minute), and the organization can't afford to hire a consultant to do it for them or guide them through the process. As the author notes, at its core, a strategic plan is just good project management. It is a lot easier to achieve your short & long-term goals if you have a map or chart that everyone can see and support; that keeps things focused and on target. The readiness table is a nice way for any group to ask themselves if they are really ready for planning discussions or if they need to do some other homework first. I also appreciate that the author reminds people about potential stumbling blocks and the need for people to be very forthright in discussions. The exercises and tips for convening meetings and managing change are reminders that any potential issues need to be addressed head-on or they could sabotage your efforts.

My other favourite chapter was on the relationship between the board and the director. One of the key pieces in this chapter was a little table that outlines the differences between a board member and a volunteer. This is a discussion that has come up in recent meetings and there are definitely different opinions on the subject, so I geeked out a bit on the clarity and concise nature of the author's statements. Basically, board members are responsible for the organization while volunteers assist with its operation. Not every volunteer votes at board meetings or evaluates the director or analyzes various reports or determines what should be accepted into the collection. That is above and beyond the typical volunteer; board members have accepted serious, legal responsibilities. Your typical volunteers on the other hand, will help by giving tours or running the gift shop or tending the gardens or doing database work - all important tasks but not exactly legally binding. As soon as someone agrees to be a board member, they have taken things up a notch. Asking them to assist with planning and policy development isn't being too demanding; it is just part of the job they agreed to do.
This chapter also includes great info on how the board can best manage its resources and build on successes. And that brings us back to the beginning of the book - assessment. Not only do staff need to be evaluated on a regular basis, but the board needs to evaluate itself - individually and as a group. As the author puts it, "performance is critical to the health of the museum". So again I ask, what museum board or staff wouldn't want to ensure the organization was as healthy as possible?

So that's it for book 1. As you can probably tell, I really, really liked this one. Looking back, this might be less of a review and more of a highlighting of info, but whatevs. You should read this book.

Want to hear about the others in the series? Check these out:
Book 2: Financial Resource Development and Management
Book 3: Organizational Management
Book 4: Reaching and Responding to the Audience
Book 5: Interpretation: Education, Programs and Exhibits
Book 6: Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

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