On Friday, March 15th, Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design hosted the first Drexel Museum Leadership Conference. The conference comes off the heels of Drexel’s still-new merger with the Academy of Natural Sciences and their recent announcement of a graduate program in museum leadership. What could have easily been just an ad for their new program, and to some extent was, ended up being a very rewarding and informative experience.
The conference was broken down into three sessions. Each session featured a keynote speaker and a panel of well-traversed and respected museum professionals. Sessions included discussions on museum governance, ethnic identity, and sustainability. Throughout the program, several recurring themes popped up including museums as community leaders/advocates, museum directors coming from other fields, and the ambiguity of job descriptions in the field.
Why and How Does Museum Governance Matter?
The first session began with Dr. Brent D. Glass, Director Emeritus at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History introducing the first keynote speaker: Ford Bell, President and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. Bell introduced himself as an “emerging museum professional,” and introduced the session on board governance by telling a great story of board involvement from the Detroit Institute of Art. During a time when the DIA was hurting, the board was willing to “roll up their sleeves” and do a lot of work for the organization, which led to the Inside Out program.
Julie Hawkins and Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice of Drexel University and ANS President George Gephart joined the discussion and fielded questions from the audience. Several attendees and panelists lamented the often contentious relationship between boards and the executives they deal with directly. Bell suggested that a board should “be hands on but fingers off.” Glass added that when he first met with a board he was working for, he stated “I don’t answer to any of you, I answer to all of you.” Having worked directly with a board over the past three years, the insight from the entire panel was both refreshing and informative. The relationship between a board and top-level executives bears great weight on the success of an institution and the morale of its staff.
With people from both sides of the aisle (board member and staff) in attendance, several great ideas were brought to light. One that everyone seemed to agree on was the need for job descriptions for board members. Bell suggested that one of the main jobs of a board member should be to “help everyone in the community realize how important the museum is.” This was one of the first references to the museum as a community pillar, which I hoped would be addressed more directly in the second session.
Museums of Race and Ethnic Identity
This session had a lot of potential to delve further into several issues than it did, but ran short on time. Keynote speaker Camille Akeju, director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, spoke at length about her institution’s history. While interesting, it took time away from the opportunity for further discussion with the panelists. In light of Nina Simon’s recent article about white privilege in museums and the upcoming discussion on race at the National Constitution Center, I was hoping to gauge the panelists reactions to the role of a museum as a forum for debate and discussion within the community it serves.
Joining the conversation from there were Gail Harrity, COO and President of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Dr. Amy Slaton of Drexel University, and Carmen Febo, Executive Director of Taller Puertoriqueno. But if Ford Bell was the highlight of the first session, Interim President of the African American Museum of Philadelphia Patricia Aden was easily the star of the second. Aiden was described as “fascinating, bold, witty, and inspiring to listen to” by EMPs in attendance. Aiden described two particular issues that were brought up in a strategic planning meeting. Essentially, the AAMP had constituents who felt the museum’s focus should fall on slavery and civil rights. Aiden’s response was to highlight the diversity of racial identity amongst AAMP’s visitors to encourage the museum to broaden their scope.
Febo brought up typical small museum problems like funding, but added that institutions of ethnic identity often fall into the category of “token.” Aiden echoed this statement, noting how other institutions bombard AAMP with proposals for co-programming in the weeks leading up to February, but few build actual long-standing relationships with the institution.
During the breaks (which included free lunch – bonus!) I was able to do a fair amount of networking. I chatted with directors and vice presidents from the NCC,
the Academy, the Penn Museum, and University of the Arts as well as staff from the Academy, Please Touch Museum, Penn Museum, and Drexel University. Events of this nature are a great way to get your name out there and make good connections in the field.
In addition to the aforementioned free lunch (free breakfast too!), attendees were afforded the opportunity to tour the new URBN Center at Drexel University. The URBN Center is an architectural marvel that houses all of he creative/design-based majors at Drexel. SHould you find yourself wandering about University City, I highly recommend sneaking a peak at this building. With staircases that call to mind their mobile counterparts at Hogwarts and student work everywhere you look, it’s an artist’s dream.
What Are the Strategies and Models to Sustain Museums?
The third session , introduced by Dr. Martha Lucy of Drexel University, focused on sustainability. While this issue may be out of the hands of many EMPs, it is still one that directly affects you. Keynote speaker Dr. Julian Siggers, Director of the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, focused his address on the impact of these so-called “blockbuster exhibits.” While there are obvious benefits (immediate attention, membership/attendance spikes, additional revenue), Siggers also addressed the negative aspects of these exhibits. Aside from the obvious issues such as limited range of topics, cost, and high marketing costs, Siggers indicated that blockbuster exhibits detract from the main collection and put a tremendous burden on the staff. One ongoing joke amongst Siggers and fellow panelist Derek Gillman (President, Barnes Foundation) was that the most successful of these exhibits are those that focus on “sharks, pharaohs, and dinosaurs.”
Siggers, Lucy, and Gillman were joined for the discussion by Vince Stehle, Exectuive Director of Media Impact Funders and a former reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Early portions of the discussion addressed Nina Simon’s article on Deliberate Unsustainability. Simon alleges that museums are built to “survive, not succeed” and that museums are the “cockroaches of the museum world,” leading Siggers to quip that museums are more like Keith Richards. After a fair amount of discussion, the only consensus that there is no one answer, and that each museum’s situation would determine its ability/method to sustain itself.
The topic of museums as community leaders was again brought up, this time as a question of whether or not such a practice is sustainable. Again, the answers given indicated that it would depend on the museum, and again, the topic didn’t get much more discussion. Siggers moved on to tout the spirit of collaboration amongst Philadelphia museums and the worthwhile addition of adult programming to local institutions. Amongst Siggers’ final thoughts was a quote that I’m sure will resonate with everyone in our profession: “We’re all overextended and under capitalized.”
Overall, the Museum Leadership Conference was one of the best museum events I have attended. The panelists and keynote speakers represented a variety of institutions and brought a tremendous amount of insight and experience to the discussion. In particular, Ford Bell, Patricia Aden, Julian Siggers, and Derek Gillman provided excellent insight.
Hopefully Drexel will host another conference like this one in the future. If they do, what issues would you as an emerging museum professional like to see addressed? You can leave your suggestions as a comment below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.