Black Hole or Shining Star

Is your Museum a Black Hole or Shining Star?

Our museums are not monoliths. However, it is so easy to think of them in that way. We insistently reference “the organization” in marketing, in mission, in our appeals and even when we consult about its faults and missteps. How many times have we attended meetings or lunches where we reference mistakes from the past perpetrated by “the organization”? Comments such as, “I can’t believe they made that decision” or “When is [fill in your museum name] finally going to change” resound. On the flip side, we often say “wow, they really are doing some awesome things” or “our organization has made great strides with x,y,z” or “we should try doing what [that other museum] is doing”(on this particular point, look out for another blog where I share a concept coined Mt. Vernon Syndrome)

I believe this tendency [to shape our museums into monoliths] stems from two well-intentioned perspectives. First, calling out the organization for misdeeds and past failures avoids backbiting and gossip and this should be commended. We know backbiting and gossip crushes the soul of an individual, creates mistrust, and stymies creativity and positive action. So, naturally, throwing an organization under the proverbial bus seems like the more salutary approach rather than blaming others and fault-finding. In reality, we should examine all angles and determine fairly why decisions were made. Second, when it comes to propelling the organization forward, our default is to promote a unified message. We want to portray an organization so unified that “the individual” or small groups within the organization are deemed inconsequential to the bigger picture. This often manifests itself in well-meaning speeches where usually the leader of an organization recognizes “everyone for all of their hard work” when everyone in the room knows who cut the checks and who rolled up their sleeves.

It is important to analyze past mistakes in order to improve, while at the same time, promote unity to avoid too many disparate actions that sap energy. This is a constant balancing act. Great museum leaders somehow find a way to navigate this balance by avoiding backbiting, unifying, and giving credit and constructive criticism at the optimal time and place. Healthy self-scrutiny seems to be a common characteristic of the terrific leaders I have been privileged to meet over the years.

So, what are we to do with the monolith conundrum? I have started to ask myself; is this museum a black hole or shining star? A black hole is all- consuming. Its gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape it. The form seems immovable and is the center of attention. On the contrary, a star shines forth with intensity. It does not discriminate where it shines its light, yet the star is unified. The star is outputting and selfless and has individualized rays that nurture. The star, in some respects, is entirely made up of its rays.

Can we begin to shift our perspective and see museums as hubs of community, people and individuals where expressions of mission are as prolific as the rays of a star? If we are being truly honest, this is essentially how they function anyway, despite our best efforts to mold them into that idealistic monolith created in our own image.

Recently, I hastily drew a couple diagrams to help me visualize the black hole and shining star examples. At the center of the shining star you will see community, people and individuals. Perhaps people and individuals is redundant. They are at the center and are expressing mission. The black hole is consuming. At its center are organization, mission, standards, objectives and perfection. These are not objectionable concepts. I am simply pondering over how they are sometimes emphasized and elevated over expressions of community, people and individuals. If you have stumbled upon this esoteric post, thanks for reading! I never claim to have profound answers, just odd questions!

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