Monday, October 27, 2014

The Five Ages of Collection Management

When I rebooted this blog back in July I promised that now I was no longer SPNHC president, I would be able to tell it like it is. I’ve spent quite a few years thinking about the profession of collections care, but I’ve always had to temper what I really felt against my desire to attract new, talented people into museums. But now I feel the need to balance that with a healthy dose of reality, and so I present for your attention The Five Ages of Collection Management.

The twenties. Freshly minted from your undergraduate degree or from grad school, you secure a job working with museum collections. Your knowledge is pitifully deficient, but you are confident and energetic and eager to learn. You are genuinely baffled by the negativity of your more experienced colleagues, because this is the best job in the world!

The thirties. This is when you hit your stride, the combination of energy and a few years’ experience making for a killer one-two punch that will allow you to remorselessly drive through almost any obstacle placed in your way. You will reorganize, re-curate, and upgrade collections and revel in the belief that you are genuinely making a difference. You are a collections warrior. Nothing can stop you.

The forties. By now you’re starting to look for new challenges and potentially new positions. Strangely, most of these opportunities, if they exist at all, seem to involve lateral moves to similar jobs in different institutions. Your contemporaries in other professions have passed you by, and you start to get a nagging sensation that you may be in this job for a long time.

The fifties. Oh dear. You may have moved institutions one or more times, and maybe got an ad hominem promotion, but you’re still doing more-or-less the same job you did in your thirties. You now work for a curator who’s younger than you are, who’s looking to “shake things up a bit.” She’s eager to see you “grow” in your job. After more than twenty years, you’re wondering what’s left to grow.

The sixties. With retirement beckoning, you’re still there. That world-conquering enthusiasm has atrophied; you still love the collections, but now you’re only interested in being left alone to research the history of some of your more obscure collectors. Your supervisors are comparing you unfavorably to the younger generation of collection managers and wondering whether you could be persuaded to take early retirement to make room for someone younger. Where did it all go wrong?

Well first up, it’s possible that it may not have gone wrong at all. There are some people out there who enjoy their job so much that the thought of doing the same thing for forty years holds no qualms at all. If you’re fortunate enough to be one of those people, good luck to you and you probably don’t need to read the rest of this post.

For everyone else, there are some solid reasons why collection management isn’t much of a “career” in the sense that this word is usually understood. There are a very small number of jobs worldwide, and those jobs are fairly specialized. Perversely, this means that they’re not particularly valued, because there’s no job market – it’s not like your employer has to be aggressive with salary and other benefits, either to recruit you or to stop you moving on.

Once you’ve got a job, you’re likely to find yourself in a fairly “flat” (i.e. non hierarchical) management structure. Most collection managers (at least in the American system) report to a curator and if they’re lucky they’ll have a collections assistant working for them; many don’t. For a collections assistant, there is at least the possibility of promotion to collections manager, but if curators are tenured, academic positions in your institution then that’s probably as far as promotion in-house will go.

Some institutions recognize this and have mechanisms to reward staff in post, by giving them additional salary and responsibilities. Unfortunately, the reality of a flat management system is that someone always has to do the basic work, and if there’s no one below you, that person is you. So your career development is less like climbing a ladder, and more like doing a reverse bungee jump; however high you climb, you’re still going to have to pack those loans.

At the same time, paradoxically, our jobs are both highly sought-after and technically challenging. They tend to attract smart, well-qualified people. So the potential for frustration is high. There is also – as Beth Merritt recently pointed out in an excellent CFM blog post – the problem of entitlement; smart, talented people working for poor wages in a structure that has no potential for promotion often end up thinking that merely by turning up every day they are doing their museum a favor, because they could be earning more elsewhere. This is a particularly toxic situation and lies at the root of many of the personnel problems that affect museums.

So what can be done about this? Some responsibility, inevitably, lies with employers, who need to think more about how to motivate staff in the long term. This process needs to start before you even make a hire. Job descriptions for collection management positions commonly use a “kitchen sink” approach, defining every possible activity that might be associated with managing the collection and adding a catchall “and other duties as assigned” in case they’ve forgotten something. This essentially means that no matter how your job or skill set develops over time, it’s impossible to argue for a promotion.

It’s a common approach, but – to be blunt – it’s also cheap and irresponsible; cheap because it’s a underhand way of capping salaries, and irresponsible because it ducks the employer’s obligation to invest in developing their human resources. A more honest approach would be to accept that people develop their skill set over time and to create job descriptions and a salary structure that reflect this. There are not so many collection managers in your institution that this will break the bank, assuming that you actually build potential for salary growth into your budgeting.

Another thing that employers can do to motivate staff in the long term is to diversify their workplace experience. Mix things up – create multi-disciplinary groups to tackle specific problems, or consider rotating staff between different collections and operational units to diversify their expertise. It’s also important to challenge staff; assigning jobs to people that take them outside their comfort zone.

Related to this, one of the most effective tools for motivating staff is delegation. Effective delegation is not a way of dumping your low-grade or boring tasks down the chain to more junior staff. As a manager, your criterion for delegation should be tasks that you would actually enjoy doing yourself if you had the time. Give challenging jobs to your staff and trust them to get on with them.

However, it’s not simply the responsibility of employers. As a current or potential collection manager, you need to take responsibility for yourself. And the first step in this process is a reality check.

The fact is that if you take a job in collections, you're not going to be paid much and your prospects for promotion will be limited. Furthermore, if you adopt a non-curatorial, non-faculty track - at least in the USA - it is unlikely that you will ever be in a senior managerial role in your institution and so your ability to effect change will be limited. If this is a problem for you, you may want to consider another career path. There are other jobs in the museum sector that are better rewarded and have better prospects.

Having said so, there are many advantages to working in collection management. Setting aside the pleasure of actually working directly with the amazing objects we hold, the job is diverse and if you prove yourself competent the chances are you will be allowed a fair amount of latitude to develop your own interests. But you need to take a level of responsibility for doing this; it is unlikely that your employer will do it for you. And, realistically, you may have to do some of this on your own time.

One important way that you can gain additional training and experience – and this is a shameless plug – is to get involved in professional societies like SPNHC. The training, usually in the form of workshops, is the hook by which you can justify participation to your employer, but it’s involvement in the running of these societies that will give you exposure to activities and projects at a level and scale that you wouldn’t necessarily get in your day-to-day job (enlightened employers recognize this as well).

When I started out working with collections, I swore that I would never end up like the various institutionalized miseries that I encountered at work. I'm in the middle one of the Five Ages at the moment, and I will admit to feeling a little nervous. But I'm working hard at sustaining a diverse range of projects and activities in my job, because I've also come to realize that if I'm still here and miserable in my sixties, it will be far worse if I have only myself to blame.

Picture sources:

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ebola. And Museums. Again.

My friend and colleague Beth Merritt is always saying that museums need to be the heroes. But so little of what we do is truly heroic. But now, I think we have a genuine chance.

In case you hadn't noticed, people are a teensy bit worried about Ebola at the moment. Yes, I know I told you about this months ago. You remember, when I was telling you about how museums ought to stop worrying about being popular and start being relevant.

Well here's an opportunity, handed to you on a plate. Across the western world, there is a slow, but steadily growing wave of panic building over Ebola. The media and conspiracy theorists are happily feeding this with misplaced doubt, weasel words, and outright lies.

People are wondering if they should travel by air; if they should let someone who's been to Africa teach their kids, even if they were thousands of miles away from the current outbreak; if we should institute compulsory quarantine, or stop all flights from West Africa.

In my kid's French class (yes, her French class for f*cks sake) they are discussing whether Ebola might be actually be airborne (it isn't), whether someone is sick from it in Rhode Island (they aren't), and whether this is why they should wash their hands regularly to avoid getting it (obviously flu just isn't scary enough).

There are people out there, trying to hold back the tide (kudos to Carl Zimmer for this article in the Times yesterday). But they need help. The CDC aren't the ones to do it; even if you don't believe the conspiracy theories, the agency is hardly covering itself in glory at the moment.

If only there was some organization, or set of organizations out there, that was skilled at presenting scientific information to a wider audience, that could (for example) rapidly develop some form of temporary exhibit on the science of Ebola that could go out to shopping malls and libraries and other places that people congregate, or host a talk, or send people to do interviews on local radio. The type of organization that opinion polls suggest, time and again, enjoys significant public trust.

So come on, natural history museums! Where are you? What are you doing and why aren't you all over this? You spend years bitching and moaning about how no-one appreciates how important you are, and wracking your collective brains over approaches to advocacy, and then when the opportunity to thrust yourself into the limelight drops into your lap, in the form of a super-scary zoonotic disease that literally everyone in the world is talking about, you look at it and say "Uh Jeeze, I'm not sure that's quite our thing…"

If you can't capitalize on this, then I hereby give up on you, museum community. You really are a waste of space and you plainly don't give a toss about the concerns of the public that pays your bills.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Hot Air

Lately, it seems like I've been posting a lot of John Stewart clips on Facebook. It's been a good few weeks if you want a good laugh at the apparent lunacy of the Republicans and their cronies at Fox News, what with John Holdren's testimony to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the Ebola crisis (which apparently is Obama's fault, along with war, famine, and death), and ISIL. Stewart's demolition of Rep. Lamar Smith's assertion, based on the behavior of the ice in his glass of water, that melting glaciers couldn't cause sea level rises, was particularly chucklesome.

Unfortunately, when you stop and reflect on what's going on, it's not quite as amusing. The Republicans are slowly and carefully building a public narrative that questions the integrity of the scientific community and hence the level of trust that you can place on what we say. A recent review of American public attitudes in PNAS suggested that while Americans view scientists as competent, they are not entirely trusted. A particular source of concern seemed to be the dependence of scientists on grant funding, the implication being that they will say or do whatever they have to in order to get their hands on money.

Seen in this light, Rep. Smith's ongoing investigation into the peer review system at NSF takes on a whole other dimension. It could be that, as Smith claims, he is just fulfilling his obligations as an elected public representative in the face of stonewalling from the agency, which is claiming (rightly) the need to maintain the confidentiality of the peer review process. But it's an inevitable truth that if you sling enough mud at something then eventually some of the mud starts to stick.

If you look at the list of grants that Smith wants to review, there are a few patterns that spring out at you. There are the usual set of quirkily-titled social studies proposals (the Republicans have a long-standing abhorrence of NSF funding of this sort of research) and more than half the proposals are for work that takes place overseas (your taxpayer dollars being paid to 'furriners'). This plays into a narrative popular with a certain class of Republican voter, whereby (in their opinion) the Federal government squanders public funds on frivolous projects that do not directly benefit the American people.

But there are also a fair number of grants on the list that relate to climate change. Eight of them, in fact. The interesting thing is that seven of these grants do not deal with gathering evidence of climate change. Instead, they are projects concerned with communicating with and educating people - especially children - about climate change and its impacts. So, for example, we have a film, a musical, a museum exhibit, and a program to develop cooperative educational partnerships, all focused on the issue of climate change.

By now, I hope, you will have begun to see the story that is being shaped by the Republicans. "The scientific community is just another lobby organization. They benefit from a system - peer review - whereby they get to decide how your money gets spent without any oversight from your elected representatives. They choose to spend that money to further their own agenda of promoting the 'theory' that climate change is caused by human activities, corrupting the minds of our young people through educational materials and museum exhibits which, you, the taxpayer, are paying for. They criticize us for taking money from our friends in oil and coal, but they themselves are only interested in getting grant funds to pursue their own interests."

In short, they can argue that the strongest possible reason for accepting the reality of climate change - that the overwhelming volume of scientific evidence and scientific opinion supports it - can be challenged because the system that generates and supports the research is flawed and because rather than being impartial, as the  PNAS study suggests the American public wants us to be, we scientists have gone one step further and have become advocates for a particular point of view.

It's a pretty effective strategy, because it aims for the root of the scientific process - peer review - and says that, much like evidence in a court of law, the case for climate change is fruit from a poisoned tree. It can't be trusted. At best, it makes us look like we are on a level playing field with lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry.

If you work in a museum in the U.S., then this should bother you a great deal. Notice that one of the grants targeted for review is NSF DRL-0915778, "Hotspot California: Bringing Dioramas to Life Through Community Voices," a project at the Oakland Museum of California to develop an exhibit that (in the words of its abstract) will showcase five real places in California that exemplify high biological diversity and complex environmental issues. Innovative approaches to interpretation will emphasize personal connections to these places and infuse static dioramas with visualization technologies that illustrate environmental change over time. I haven't seen it, but my friend Pat Holroyd (who has) says that the exhibits "are really cool and have been transformative for that institution."

So this is personal for us. This is our job, it's what we do and, as I argued in an earlier post, it's what we need to be doing more of if we are to advocate successfully for the ongoing relevance of museums and their collections to society. At the moment, we trade on public trust - that oft-quoted, much-valued feature of museums that makes us a valued resource for information. But if NSF's recent experience is anything to go by, that trust is likely to be the first thing that comes under attack. And we will come under attack, because museums are an effective mechanism for getting information about scientific research to people who might not otherwise be exposed to it.

We currently say - and we should continue to say - that what we tell people is based on conclusions drawn from the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence; in many cases that evidence actually comes from the collections that we curate and the work of our own scientific staff. But once the integrity of our staff is called into question, you can easily imagine the voice of outraged conservatism - "I'm not having my kids go to some museum where activist staff fill their heads with propaganda about climate change."

For many museums this is not a new phenomenon - those of you with long memories may recall the Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum nearly twenty years ago. But in natural history, we're used to being seen as the cuddly place where kids go to learn about dinosaurs and pandas.    True, museums have tackled - and continue to tackle - the issue of climate change. But as the weight of evidence and opinion turns towards the conclusion that the impact of our species on the planet's climate represents a major challenge for future generations, we are going to come under increasing pressure to moderate our message from those with a strong political and economic stake in promoting the opposing viewpoint.

This is going to be a time for fearless leadership from the top of our institutions down, starting at Board level. So what do we make of the recent brouhaha regarding the presence of well-known "climate skeptic" David Koch on the Board of the American Museum of Natural History? There are those that say that Koch, as "one of the biggest funders of groups that deny or misrepresent climate science and biggest contributors to climate pollution" has no place in the leadership of an institution like AMNH. But as I look at the challenges facing us, I wonder whether it isn't exactly the opposite.

If museums like AMNH can't accommodate someone with Koch's views on their boards without compromising their message, aren't we basically proving what the Lamar Smith's of this world would have people believe - that we have abandoned any semblance of impartiality in favor of  outright advocacy? My - perhaps naive - belief is that if AMNH, or any other museum for that matter, has a strong, honest, principled stance on the content of its programs, it should be able to resist the attempts of any board member, however wealthy or powerful, to push those programs in directions that contradict the weight of evidence. It's better to have them at the table than to exclude them and prove Smith and his congressional allies right.