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Museum Morale Boost!

  • 1.  Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-02-2017 11:11 AM
    Hello dedicated museum community! What are some ways you have improved (or seen other improve) the morale of your fellow museum workers in the work place? Are there specific team building activities, general practices, or fun traditions that have made your teams function better? 

    Looking forward to hearing your ideas, examples, comments below!

    Skye Malish-Olson
    Exhibition Designer
    Dallas Museum of Art
    Dallas TX

  • 2.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-03-2017 10:21 AM
    ​Every job I've taken in my career has either been new or the person before me had been asked to leave.  These positions thus reflected aspects of morale issues to be addressed, especially when I was replacing someone.  I did not plan my work-life trajectory along these lines but the results have taught me a lot, perhaps too much, about museum issues.  On the down side we know about low salaries, long hours, and, minimal benefits in most private (non-government) museums in this country.  These independent 501 c 3 entities make up the lion's share of American museums.  While these conditions will not appreciably change, we will continue to see excellent staff employed who are dedicated to the social purposes of their work rather than simply making a living.  These conscientious professionals are to be commended, supported and welcomed.  Brava and bravo tutti!

    The primary assaults on good morale that occur most frequently are caused by God-awful trustees or staff.  When I was assistant director of the Maine State Museum, Paul Rivard was the director.  He was without question a great museum leader and an extraordinary mentor to me for the five years we worked together.  He once said a director's job is to hire good people and give them the tools and freedom to do their jobs.  This is not always easy if a museum has one or two, or, more trustees and/or employees who are out-to-lunch, incompetent, meddling, toxic or some combination thereof.  All the team-building exercises in the world cannot combat this.  If the "problem people" do not leave, good staff will. (Though there is the syndrome of tolerating bad eggs, this does not help morale.).  

    Removing nasty malcontents is often difficult.  Even museum directors cannot always succeed.  On the few occasions when I have had to move people along, and have been supported, I have.  On the rare occasions I have not been supported I have failed.  (Such as when two employees who were married to other people were having an affair on the job that was quite damaging to museum morale, management and productivity but they were protected by a couple of trustees they befriended.)

    Getting back to Paul's statement: The museum field has a range of professional disciplines within it.  These include directing, curating, conservation, education, fundraising, security, maintenance, public relations, and collection management, to name a few.  Each holds certain skills, abilities and personal expectations to do their jobs well.  Most recognize the financial and other resource challenges they face and most either overcome them or work around them. Regularly blocking, interfering with, distaining, or, undermining these employees as they try to do their work lowers morale.    

    Museums tend to attract incredibly creative and smart employees.  Some can be quite independent (curators come to mind) (I was one for sixteen years).  This independence can be misread by certain people in authority.  Museums have a lot of square pegs and round holes and vice versa.  This is their strength and must be recognized, nurtured, protected, and amplified.  Occasionally there are dunderhead trustees and employees who do not have the capacity or interest in doing so as their own ignorance and egos disallow it.

    Certainly encouraging camaraderie, employee cohesion, mutually respective productivity and collegial admiration are all very important elements of running any organization and especially museums.   Exercises designed to encourage and sustain this are many and I  know others responding to this question will list wise ones.  Some happen informally in the workplace.  I encountered this at the Maine State Museum when staff unilaterally took a 10:30 coffee break in an ample office that allowed all to be there who wanted to.  It was wonderful, especially for me when I was the new kid on the block.  More formal moral boosters should be staff meetings when lead by staff who are excellent at bringing out people's best and are great at rallying support.



    Steven Miller
    Executive Director Emeritus
    Boscobel House and Gardens
    Garrison NY

  • 3.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-03-2017 12:53 PM
    Wow, good insight Steve! 

    Have you looked at some of the case studies from Museum Hack? I seem to remember reading a few here and there that had to do with improving employee morale. 

    Think it also depends a bit on the situation. There's probably different interventions for when you are just trying to have people who work together bond more deeply (i.e. already have a solid team) vs. something has happened that severely eroded morale and you are trying to turn it around.

    Ray Smith PhD
    Corita Art Center
    Los Angeles CA

  • 4.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-03-2017 02:44 PM
    ​The obvious answer is usually money, but we all know that raises and bonuses are probably out for most museums with their limited budgets.

    One thing that doesn't cost a museum more cash is time. Time is money, right? So what's stopping museums from giving their employees more time off during the year? Usually time away has to be approved anyway, so it's not like you'll have a mass exodus from your staff of people not showing up for work all the time. Just two or three days extra is always appreciated, but a full five days gives the person a week to work with. If your organization can't function if an employee takes a few extra three-day weekends in the year, there are deeper issues you need to work out. Because you're not actually paying people more (you're just paying them for not working) you end up with the same amount budget-wise but you also have staff who are better rested with a stronger work-life balance who are ready to give you their all.

    Along the same vein, we as museums rely on volunteers for so much. We understand the value of volunteering. People who work at museums are often passionate about supporting other non-profits. Put the two together and you get staff volunteer time. What if you gave your staff a few days each year to volunteer at other non-profits? Recognize these staff who not only give your own museum so much of their time but are willing to go out into their communities and make a difference. Ask the volunteers at your own institution why they volunteer and they'll give you myriad reasons, but so many of the reasons thematically relate back to the fact that they get personal satisfaction, gratification, and pleasure out of helping. Volunteering can refresh a person's spirit, so don't just encourage your staff to volunteer...give them a few hours a year to get out there and volunteer. Who knows what ideas they may bring back to your organization, or what connections they may make that might benefit your museum in the long-term? This would also let your museum be more visible in the community, not just a building off in its own corner but a place that values being part of the community. Neither of these cost the museum any more actual cash, they do cost you work hours. But how much more effective is a happy employee over someone whose feet are dragging

    Sean Mobley
    Docent Services Specialist
    Museum of Flight
    Seattle WA

  • 5.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-06-2017 08:27 AM
    At our museums, people routinely lose leave because we don't have the staff to cover if everybody takes all the time they're due.

    John Templin
    Museum Interpretive Site Supervisor
    Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
    Williamsburg VA

  • 6.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-06-2017 07:06 AM
    Greetings, museum colleagues!
    I appreciate the subject of Museum employee morale being addressed; Steve Miller is 100% accurate in his assessments of the Trustee / Admin / Museum employee interaction challenges. 
    I liked his idea of staff coffee breaks together, or other informal gatherings during the workday; my one cautionary note is that these should remain informal due to the wild variety of daily duties in a museum. Our Administration has tried to arrange this kind of "all-staff" activity, but when entire departments cannot participate because their working schedules differ it can cause some resentment. Can't be helped, but can cause interdepartmental stress.

    Lee Gambol
    Distance Learning Coordinator
    Cleveland Museum of Natural History
    Cleveland OH

  • 7.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-06-2017 08:44 AM
    ​I recommend the book Carrots and Sticks Don't Work for some great ideas about what motivates people (which is often not money). You're right that there are challenges inherent in our operating environment, but there are things we as leaders can do to try and mitigate them; this book gives some ideas.

    Christopher Kolakowski
    MacArthur Memorial
    Norfolk VA

  • 8.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-06-2017 11:57 AM
    Everyone's mileage may vary, but from my perspective, the two most problematic classes of people in the museum environment are 1) Executive Directors with no museum background who try to bring a military or business model into a population that eschews both models and 2) Trustees/Directors who want to "play" at museum work and think they have direct authority over staff. 

    As mentioned, many museum people are highly creative and a bit independent.  These are necessary traits.  They also are sticklers for the rules.  We all know horror stories where a Board decides that the solution to fixing a museum's ills is to hire some retired military officer or business executive (who really does not need a job) to take over as museum Director and whip these slackers into shape.  Having no understanding of professional museum protocols, they immediately go about the business of trying to force staff to violate basic professional ethics and procedures.  When they refuse, that person is often terminated.  A new person is hired and said Director finds that the new person is just like the other one.  This usually ends in numerous careers being damaged, along with the attendant financial catastrophes for those folks, until the Director decides the job isn't fun and leaves a pile of institutional wreckage behind.  The question is whether the Board will recognize their folly, and move to hire a seasoned museum professional. Sadly, many of these people are incapable of recognizing fault among those they view as their peers.

    Worse, sometimes, is when Trustees/Directors feel that they should be directly involved with, and have authority over, certain museum operations for which professionals have been hired.  We all want these people to be willing to volunteer to work "under" the appropriate staff, but we all know how this often works out.  Unless there <g class="gr_ gr_2111 gr-alert gr_gramm gr_inline_cards gr_run_anim Grammar multiReplace" id="2111" data-gr-id="2111">is</g> a strong Executive Director and Board leadership to quash this, it can take a heavy toll on morale.  In my personal case, I was Director of a museum whose model might have been Ma and Pa Kettle open a car museum and The Little Rascals come in and say: "Hey, guys!  Let's put on a play!"  With the expected hilarious results.  When I tried to explain that the educator and curator are there to build "professional capital" and that it was unfair for board members to claim that capital for their own, things took the expected trajectory.

    We all expect lower than desired salaries and benefits when we enter this field.  We do it because we love it and believe in it.  To have it viewed as some kind of hobby that anyone can do is particularly demoralizing.  In my role as a museum Director, I always put my staff before the board in much of my decision making.  I empower them to be the best they can be in their jobs and try and provide the tools and resources they need.  I get between them and any board member who is behaving badly. 

    I recently challenged my staff to build the kind of large, immersive exhibit that had never been undertaken here before. We had creative sessions where everyone could put in their ideas.  Things evolved and changed as the Marketplace of Ideas won the day and the results were impressive.  To me, to our Board, to our visitors, and, most importantly for my staff, to our museum peers in the community who praised the exhibit for its high-quality and creativity.  This episode, as much as any, is a good example of creating high morale in a work environment that otherwise is quite stressful.

    David Beard
    Executive Director
    USS KIDD Veterans Memorial Museum
    Baton Rouge LA

  • 9.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-06-2017 01:11 PM

    Hi Skye,


    This sounds silly but we salvaged a dollhouse that was built for a program several years ago, and it has become a hub of creativity for a lot of staff. People from different departments contribute to it, we have an adjacent mini art gallery with rotating exhibitions; storylines and drama among the characters; etc. It has become a place for us to come together and be creative in a new way. It's by my desk (as are many supplies for making furnishings/characters/décor/...) so people are welcome to add to it whenever they want and if I or my office neighbor are at our desks, we engage in conversation around it, and often others come over to join in.


    Have fun!




    Stefania Van Dyke
    Senior Interpretive Specialist, Textile Art & Fashion and Special Projects

    Denver Art Museum
    100 W. 14th Avenue Parkway
    Denver, CO 80204

    Visit and subscribe to our e-newsletter. The Denver Art Museum salutes the citizens of metro Denver for helping fund arts, culture and science through their support of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD).


  • 10.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-07-2017 08:05 AM
    ​David! Thank you for my morning laugh.  Alas, as we know, humor is a very serious form of expression and your points are too well taken.  Love the car museum scenario.   Two points I neglected to include in my comments: the most common reason staff leave jobs is because of bad bosses, not low pay, lousy benefits, annoying work locations, etc.  Also, bosses will be well rewarded by complimenting and praising staff (assuming it is due).  I have always thrived with appreciation and encouragement. 

    Excellent conversations about an incredibly important topic all!


    Steven Miller
    Executive Director Emeritus
    Boscobel House and Gardens
    Garrison NY

  • 11.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-08-2017 10:35 AM
    When The New Jersey Historical Society was suffering from low morale a number of years ago, the senior staff watched the video FISH! (Original FISH! Video).  We then had a constructive conversation about how to create an environment in which everyone would bring their best to work every day.  We created a document that defined how we wanted to work together and then subsequently used that in interviewing potential staff members as well as in performance evaluations.  It worked!

    Sally Yerkovich
    Director of Special Projects
    American Scandinavian Foundation
    New York, NY

  • 12.  RE: Museum Morale Boost!

    Posted 11-08-2017 02:19 PM
    Last year, senior staff formed committee of junior staff members to help improve moral. We named ourselves the "Staff Needs and Camaraderie Committee - SNACC).

    We surveyed our staff for preferences and availability, and have been implementing programming for the last year and half or so. Based on staff feedback, we've organized the following:

    • A monthly article discussion club
    • A monthly yoga session
    • A monthly staff newsletter, SNACC SNAPs (Staff News, Awards, and Press)
    • Happy hours
    • Holiday party
    • Pumpkin painting on Halloween
    We meet 1 or 2 times a month for an hour and do work on projects between.

    Alexander Tronolone
    Manager of Teaching & Learning, Grades 6 - 12+
    Brooklyn Historical Society
    Brooklyn NY