What I Learned as an Interim Museum Director

MarkMark Walhimer, Museum Leadership Leave a Comment

Insert diagram

Download PDF

For the past six months, I served as the Interim Museum Director at a university science museum. This experience provided valuable insights into effective museum leadership, which I’d like to share with fellow professionals in the field.

1. Event-Driven Success

Museums thrive on events. While high-quality exhibits, engaging programming, and excellent customer service are fundamental, it’s often special events that drive attendance and fundraising. For example, our “Night at the Museum” series increased visitor numbers by 30% and attracted new donors.

2. Visitor Appreciation

Value your visitors: thank them, welcome them, and encourage them to return. They are the reason you exist. We implemented a visitor feedback system and saw a 25% increase in repeat visits after addressing common suggestions.

3. Staff Empowerment

Your staff is your best resource. Empower and encourage them, providing direction for both the museum and their individual professional growth. We introduced monthly professional development workshops, which boosted staff satisfaction and productivity.

4. Radical Transparency

Be radically transparent. There should be little in the museum that requires secrecy, including wages, salaries, and planning. Share ideas, ask for feedback, and maintain an open environment. This approach may need to be tailored to your museum’s size and culture, but even small steps towards transparency can yield significant benefits.

5. Trust and Listening

Trust your staff and the public. They will provide valuable insights if you listen. Create an atmosphere of trust, transparency, and safety. We established regular town hall meetings with staff and community members, which led to several innovative exhibit ideas.

6. Efficiency Over Perfection

Fast is often better than perfect. Implement quick exhibits, programs, and meetings. Little is gained from perfection; it’s healthier to admit mistakes and make corrections. We adopted a “minimum viable product” approach for new exhibits, allowing us to iterate based on visitor feedback.

7. Honesty and Humility

Be honest. “I don’t know” is a perfectly reasonable answer, followed by “let me find out.” This approach builds trust and models continuous learning for your team.

8. Decisive Leadership

Make direct decisions and announcements sparingly – perhaps four or five times a year. If it’s more frequent, there may be an issue with your leadership style. When faced with a budget crisis, we made one clear decision to restructure, which was more effective than multiple small changes.

9. Systematic Approach

Set up systems, train staff on these systems, and trust them to make updates. Offer direction and guidance as needed. We implemented a new project management system, which improved interdepartmental communication and efficiency.

10. Lead by Example

Model the behavior you want to create. Others will often act as you do. By consistently demonstrating our core values, we saw a positive shift in organizational culture.

11. Stakeholder Engagement

Engage with all stakeholders, including board members, donors, and community partners. We established a quarterly roundtable with key stakeholders, which improved our community relationships and led to new partnership opportunities.

12. Metrics and Evaluation

Regularly measure the success of your strategies. We implemented key performance indicators (KPIs) for each department, which helped us track progress and make data-driven decisions.

Challenges and Solutions

During my tenure, we faced several challenges:

  1. Budget constraints: We overcame this by diversifying our funding sources and implementing cost-saving measures.
  2. Staff resistance to change: We addressed this through transparent communication and involving staff in decision-making processes.
  3. Declining visitor numbers: We tackled this by revamping our marketing strategy and introducing new, interactive exhibits.

Remember, while these insights were valuable in my context, they may need to be adapted based on your museum’s specific circumstances. The key is to remain flexible, open to feedback, and committed to continuous improvement.

  • Big meetings are seldom nessacary, quick one on one and followups are better than grandstanding
  • Documents, document and ask for feedback, over and over and continue to refine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *