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Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian
I left the museum in 1987, after sixteen years, to become the deputy assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution. My new job entailed partial supervision of fourteen museums, a staff of about 3,000 and a budget of $150 million. In order not to feel overwhelmed, I told myself that all I had learned at The Children's Museum had put me in good stead. I thought I could use the same processes we had used and just add a few zeros to every dollar spent. Since, at The Children's Museum, we had either invented all the systems we used or borrowed them from elsewhere, including "how-to" management books for large corporations that we read avidly, I was sure our systems would be too unsophisticated for the Smithsonian and that I would discover their urbane staff using systems superior to our homegrown version. The reality was the reverse. The Children's Museum staff had loved creating systems that worked. What we had invented or adopted turned out to be very sophisticated indeed.
Almost no middle-management staff in any other institution where I worked was trained and then held accountable for managing their own finances or their own time. Most museums worked on geologic time and didn't think that getting things done was a priority. All the museums I worked in subsequently needed systems imposed on them to accomplish tasks on time and on budget, and they often resented it. The notion of being accountable for the corporate whole was new to them. I became an expert in opening museums on time and on budget, but all the practice of training middle management to account for their work, their time, and their money was a new and unfamiliar requirement wherever I went.
The culture of most museums gave supremacy to the curators and other "intellectuals." Curators thought the business of running the organization was slightly unsavory and reserved for technocrats on whom they simultaneously looked down and were dependent upon. In many institutions there are two operating factions, each resentful of each other and deeply uninterested in each other's work and yet co-dependent. Most museum leadership was complicit in the notion that some work was more worthy than other. The Children's Museum believed that all work was essential for an integrated whole.
In many museums, the intellectuals believe deeply that their work is so lofty that accountability is irrelevant. Overspending and delay are part of their armamentarium. By imposing elsewhere the discipline we had all accepted throughout The Children's Museum, I gained a reputation as a well-known philistine wherever I worked.
I remember the advice Roger Kennedy, director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution when I was its deputy assistant secretary for museums, gave me when I lamented that I used to be known as a "nice person. He said, Check back with those trusted friends and see if you have changed." The reality is that The Children's Museum folk have remained my friends for life. As they each eventually left the museum, they spread out among many museums and caused change that mattered. Many rose to leadership positions in their respective institutions. Now many are consultants and teachers and much in demand. Yet many of us stayed in touch over the intervening years. We did so because we became each other's touchstone about what mattered in work and life and how to go about it.