Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review - A Handbook for Museum Trustees

Photo courtesy of Amazon
A Handbook for Museum Trustees, by Harold and Susan Skramstad, is set up in a way to help board members grasp the vital role they play in museum operations. It outlines the important steps board members must take collectively in order for operations to run smoothly. It also stresses that board members come from all walks of life, which means it is extremely important that they communicate by sharing their differing ideas to ensure everyone is on the same page. These ideas should also reflect a common goal and the museum mandate. Topics of discussion in this text include: expectations and roles of the board of trustees; improving museum and board performance; recruiting trustees and staff; and, lastly, how to address difficult board issues.  Overall, the Skramstads provide thought-provoking insight on board operations with supporting notes on how to proactively improve board relations. The points I would like to focus on include: board makeup, board operations, and board mandate.

The Skramstads help us envision the board of trustees as a human body, comprised of separate operational parts that work together for the greater good of the whole: “A board is an organism, not unlike the human body. The parts that make up the human body-eyes, ears, nose, arms, legs, teeth, feet-are different and distinct, each with a separate function, contributing to the health of the whole in a different way … The same is true of a museum board.” (16) So if you are on a board, it is safe to say it is crucial to analyse your role and the impact it has on how the board operates. Unfortunately, many times this is an oversight in the museum world. In order for a board to be successful, members must actively work towards a common goal; one of the first steps in doing so is the analyse and understand what each board member contributes. Once you understand your role on the team, you can actively identify goals, contribute ideas, and collaborate on projects together.

Many times the board remains static instead of fluid, concentrating on set ideas with little movement. I am a strong believer that one of the best ways to gain a fresh perspective is to open the line of communication between the board of directors and frontline staff. Those who work in the trenches everyday know what your community likes and they too like to share ideas about how to fulfill your museum mandate. And do not forget, this includes your volunteers as well. This text repeats the importance of ensuring that you do just that: “board members would be well served to get to know some of their museums’ best and most active volunteers [and staff], who will have great insight into the institution and its visitors. They know what the visitors like and don’t like better than anyone, and they’ll be glad to tell you all about it. For board members to provide this kind of listening post for the museum is not micromanagement but good stewardship of resources” (53). One of the best ways to do this is to communicate and collaborate with your frontend staff. Remember, all decisions must reflect the museum mandate and focus on sustaining the wellbeing of the museum collections, exhibits, and other assets when working collaboratively with others in your institution. It is important to know what your core values are, what your mission statement represents, and where you plan on heading in the future. As a board member, is it crucial that you work on this vision with those in your museum in order to be successful.

Boards, like museum staff (paid staff, volunteers, etc.), are comprised of people with different personalities, backgrounds, and levels of training. Yes, it is important that we embrace diversity but sometimes with diversity comes differences of opinion, which can lead to negative board culture if not monitored properly. The Skramstads dive into different ways to eliminate negative board culture, which include: motivating the board and retaining good board members, addressing terms of service and succession, performing exit interviews and evaluating board performance (86-95). It is healthy to put structure in place and I am an advocate of this in the museum field. People succeed when given direction because their work is now serving a purpose. Much like in your museum, this text suggests to assign a mandate for the board as a way to provide added direction and support:

While the magnet for all museum activities and for all staff and board activities should be the institution’s mission, the board should have its own mission. A mission provides a rationale, and a charge for the board’s work and may help prevent misunderstandings amoung trustees. Similar to a museum’s mission statement, the board’s mission should clarify three things: what the board does, the outcome of that activity, and the value of that activity (76).

So, in conclusion I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: What is your mandate? What goals have you set? How will you reach these goals? What do you have planned for the future? What are the expectations for each board member? Do they understand what is expected of them? Is the board’s performance being monitored? Do board members actively work with museum staff (both paid staff and volunteers)? And, are ideas and opinions shared in a positive and supportive environment? I agree with the Skramstads belief that when an institution starts asking themselves these kinds of questions, they are one step closer to creating a unified and supportive board and museum.

Sandi Stewart
Advisory Assistant

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