Leadership is leadership, but an argument can be made that being the leader of a small museum requires a special set of leadership characteristics.
Leaders who excel in the small museum environment typically are:
- Consensus builders. They are always working with board members and a large group of volunteers with strong feelings about the organization. The director must be able to listen and find common ground among a wide range of stakeholders.
- Able to say “yes” to people when saying “no” to projects. Small museum leaders know when to listen. They can figure out and describe why someone is making an offer and steer that “why” desire toward something that better fits the plan and mission. Directors know how to postpone the decision to dampen the blow. They can also show how an idea may not mesh with the mission and strategic plan. In the end, the small museum leader can say “no” gracefully.
- Able to make the case for the museum, wherever and whenever. The director has an at-the-ready “elevator speech” to share at the grocery store or during a friendly card game. Ever the good ambassador (while not always agreeing completely), they often carry membership brochures in their glove box.
- Frequently changing focus and tasks during the work day. Because small museum leaders wear many hats over a day, they may shift from working on a grant request, to interviewing an artifact donor, to presenting at a service club luncheon, to leading a school tour, to meeting with a donor and asking for a major gift. Small museum work is not for you if you can’t stand interruptions or can’t complete a task.
- Broadly competent museum generalists. Small museums rarely have ALL the expertise in their volunteers and staff to get every job done – the small museum leader must fill the gaps. Whether its collections care, exhibits, marketing, or facilities maintenance, small museum leaders must be willing to roll up their sleeves and get the job done.
We truly believe small museum leaders are special – their skills and energy levels are unrivaled. Are there other characteristics that we should add to this list?
And, hey, the next time you talk to a small museum director, tell them how awesome they are.
Working in museums for nearly 20 years, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko has been a museum director since 2001. Cinnamon became CEO of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine in 2009. Before that, she was the director of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where she led the organization to the National Medal for Museum Service in 2008.
Stacy Klingler currently serves local history organizations as the Assistant Director of Local History Services at the Indiana Historical Society. She began her career in museums as the assistant director of two small museums, before becoming director of the Putnam County Museum in Greencastle, Indiana. She is past chair the AASLH’s Small Museums Committee (2008-2012) and attended the Seminar for Historical Administration in 2006. While she lives in the history field, her passion is encouraging a love of learning in any environment.
Cinnamon and Stacy are co-editors of the Small Museum Toolkit from AltaMira Press. They will be presenting sessions at the American Alliance of Museums in May and at the American Association for State and Local History on Small Museum Leadership Considered in September.