Underdevelopment

All I do at work anymore is fundraise. The annual fundraiser is in three weeks, and my coworker (singular) and I have been working our asses off to make it go smoothly. I cannot believe how poorly planned the event is. With the Boss on her maternity leave, it’s up to me and the administrative assistant to make it happen. The board committee shows up for weekly meetings during which they play on their Blackberrys under the table while half-heartedly listening to whether we should have the same dessert as last year or a new one. The meeting breaks, an hour and a half later, with no decision made. The only decision is that we should all email our choice by 2 pm tomorrow.

Instead of all the work I came here to do — collections management, archival digitization, exhibit development — I spend all of my time putting together packages for the upcoming Silent Auction, take reservations for the event, book bands and photographers, and work as a bartender at all of the other smaller special events. This upcoming fundraiser is mission critical. It raises all of our operating expense fund for the entire upcoming year. All of our operating expenses.

My boss has all but said that the next year depends entirely upon the money raised at this event. But never having done this before, there’s no training, no help, nobody who did this last year to walk me through this. Until the museum can create a stable financial base, all of my efforts are going to be oriented to the season’s fundraiser. In the spring, it’s the major annual fundraiser. In the fall, it’s gearing up for a booksigning and lecture. In the winter, it’s a holiday themed dinner. And in the new year, it’s another booksigning and lecture. The museum has zero endowment, and barely scrapes together enough to pay its staff.  I have no idea why the museum decided to spend their hard-earned money on me, who has very little experience in special events and fundraising, when they could have spent their funds more wisely on a development director to raise money.

Phone Tree

If you call a major museum and ask for the curator, you probably get handed off to some assistant to the assistant curator, or the registrar, or an office manager. If you call my museum and ask for the curator, you get me.

99 percent of these calls shouldn’t even make it to me, but our front desk volunteers are ancient and can’t follow instructions, nevermind filter my calls. So they just send them straight through to me. I get dozens of the following questions weekly, if not daily. You get to choose the proper response from the choices provided under each question.

1.  I have an old newspaper / rock / dinosaur bone. I’m at the front desk. Can you come tell me what it is?

a) No. We are unable to provide identification and authentication services (not to mention we don’t collect newspapers or dinosaur bones or rocks).

b) Screw you. I’m not an on-call curator.

c) Oh Goody! A Newspaper / rock / dinosaur bone! I’ll be right up!

 

2. I have a Declaration of Independence, and I want to sell it to you. How much is it worth and how much will you give me?

a) At this time, our museum does not have any funds available for the purchase of artifacts. More importantly, it is against museum policy to provide any authentication, monetary valuation, or appraisals for any items. I am happy to provide you with a list of professional appraisers.

b) Ha-ha SUCKER! I hate to tell you this, but the chances of your document being authentic are slim to none. Can’t wait to see the look on your face when the documents dealer tells you as much! How much did you pay for it?

 

3. I have a very urgent research question and hope you can help me right away. [15 minute story about the person’s great grandmother] Can you help me with my geneaological research?

a) Our archives and library are open by appointment only, according to museum policy. You are welcome to make an appointment with me to come in and use our archives and library for your research. My earliest opening is…

b) Who cares?! Your stupid genealogy is neither my problem nor in my interests.

c) I know you’ve got no one to talk to besides your 17 cats, but I’ve got better things to do. Could you hurry the hell up here?!

A Tale of Two Museums

Now that I’ve been here at my museum job a couple of months, I’ve started to realize just how much work lies ahead. I was lured here to a small local history museum with the promise of what’s to come, the vision that strategic planning was well underway and that plans were being laid to get us from Point A to Point B – from a museum that presents outdated (and just plain inaccurate) history to one that will become a place for people to explore this region’s diverse peoples, cultures, stories, and communities. But now that I’m here, it’s clear that I stand on the edge of a vast chasm between where we are now and where we want to be. It’s hard to see how we can manage to raise the funds needed to completely overhaul all of the exhibits, expand our building with new construction, and become a “top tourist destination” (truly, that is an official strategic planning goal) when we rely on volunteers to kindly donate basic office supplies like pens and paper.

I wondered if the museum’s past could shed any light on this. Had the institution successfully overcome such daunting challenges in its past? The short answer: hell no!

I started my investigation by listening to volunteers. Some have been with the museum for over a decade and I learned a lot from talking with them. The biggest theme running through all of my conversations with them has been that they all long for the good ole days, the way the museum used to be. The way they described it, it was like where I stood was the site of a bomb blast and all I saw were charred remnants of what once was. It became clear that the museum they cherished had somehow changed dramatically, and they were skeptical of where the museum was going. While no one articulated exactly what had changed, or in what ways, I sensed that they felt that the museum had lost its way.

I wanted another point of view, so I went to the Boss. Her take helped shed light on specific events that rocked the institution. The museum always faced enormous financial hardship, but in the 1990s, things went from bad to worse. The museum’s then executive director wanted to spend his way out of irrelevancy. He took on a mountain of debt to finance a staff that grew to dozens, hired professional consultants for (incomplete) exhibit development and (poor) design, and boosted morale with extravagant staff happy hours, with the museum footing the bill. By the time of the executive director’s sudden death, all staff had been let go, and the museum was taken over full-time by unpaid volunteers. For years, these unpaid volunteers ran the museum and made enough headway on keeping collections agencies at bay that the board was finally able to hire a full time executive director (the Boss) in the mid-2000s. Since her start, the Boss has worked tirelessly to reduce the museum’s debt load, halting all purchases and expenditures save those deemed absolutely necessary. Which explains why we kept a wish list for basic office needs so that volunteers could provide our supplies, like paper for the copier and pens. And why the museum went 18 months as a staff of three before I was hired.

Things were getting clearer for me. The volunteers resented their loss of authority and power and felt displaced by paid staff after they had spent years running every aspect of the museum. The staff struggled to establish professionalism in a museum that had relied on well-meaning volunteers who, in reality, had no business running a museum. In an effort to re-draw boundary lines around responsibilities, tasks and duties that the volunteers had handled became staff-only and the staff began to exclude volunteers in strategic planning, branding, and institutional goals.

But things finally became clear to me after I stumbled on an institutional history of the museum. The museum was founded 80 years ago as a pet project by a woman who started a local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. Her thinking was that any “real” American city should have a museum. While she meant well, she had no business running a museum. She ran off early supporters of the museum (who went on to found the Heard Museum) and struggled to garner financial and community support. She failed to establish a mission for the museum, and as a result, the museum never developed any identity or brand. At the same time, she wrote a museum charter that requires (to this day) that the museum maintain formal affiliation with the local DAR chapter. She failed to steer the museum in the right direction and ran it into the ground for 60 years before her daughter took over for the next 20 years, until the museum finally hired its first museum professional. It was run by professionals for only a few years before volunteers again had to pick up and dust off the flailing organization.

Is it any wonder that today the museum faces such enormous challenges? Today we want to escape the DAR image of celebratory Whitey history, a move that will alienate the very constituency that currently supports the museum. At the same time, the museum must escape this Whitey-centrist interpretation to gain any semblance of professional respect and to expand its base of support, increase its audiences, and be taken seriously. The stories that the volunteers hold dear are the very ones that construct this mythic narrative of conquering and “civilizing” the west. The museum that the staff envisions is miles away from the one that is, and the museum that the volunteers value is one whose time has passed.

Here We Go Again

Yesterday was a rough day.

One of the fundamental things that I expect from a boss is that s/he will be a leader, a visionary who can guide the organization. But the other is that s/he will be someone to whom I can take my questions and concerns so that we can work towards solutions together. Yesterday I went to the Boss with a major problem — I have to present a program tomorrow to 250 kids and as of this moment, still have nothing to present. Today I’m stuck at the front desk taking admissions all day, so I thought I came prepared — I brought all of my notes and files up to the front desk to work from the computer there all day.

No dice. On an average day, that 386 is so slow it’s ridiculous. But today I can’t even get Word to load, and it can’t make a connection to the network, which is a problem because the files I need are on the server. I called the Boss (who is at home today, leaving me as the only staff person on site) and her response?

“We have to do a better job taking care of the equipment we have. We may not have the nicest computers or projectors or whatever, but we are responsible for taking care of what we have. I can’t help it if you are not taking care of the equipment you are provided. I’m not going to call some computer repair company to come in and tell us that we are not taking care of our stuff. You’ll have to make do with what you have.”

It’s through no fault of my own that the network cable is so frayed that the wires have split and are spilling out of the casing all over the place. And she expects me to man the front desk all day with no resources to do my job, but still holds me accountable at the end of every week for the work that I haven’t been able to accomplish. Guess I can subtract several hours from my sleep tonight so I can type up what I’m going to hand-write at the desk today.