Story 11: Learning to Lead

Story | Print | eMail | Related Media | Archives

The Big Questions

Written by Mike Spock

Here are some of the bigger questions and decisions I was involved in that didn't follow our deliberate effort at getting all the stakeholders involved and being thoroughly transparent.

Free or Charge?

As described earlier (see pages 4-5), my first real challenge was that the museum was free. It was clear that we were stuck with an inadequate budget, even to sustain existing programs. We already had too much to do without taking on excursions into new territory, which was exactly the course I hoped to pursue. The board's annual appeal seemed maxed out, and Museum Aid's Christmas Bazaar was already in place. Although I had no experience with proposal writing I understood that project grants might be a way of getting new things started, if not a particularly good strategy for maintaining a program. If we wanted a healthy budget we needed to go for earned income.

But charging for a children's museum really seemed awful, maybe even counterproductive! The board, staff, and I clearly had to develop a compensatory arrangement for—using the old-fashioned term—"needy families." We screwed up our courage, put the plan in place, and hoped it would work.

Attendance soared! But it was more than a decade before families caught on to Free Friday Nights, and Jim Craven's midnight maneuver made it possible to let school and community groups in free of charge.

Resign or Relearn?

Overwhelmed by my managerial inadequacies, I had to decide during the Director Project whether I should resign and turn over the reigns to another leader, or whether I could learn enough fast enough to make adjustments to my role so that I could continue without jeopardizing the museum and even help the museum grow and prosper.

With my McBer colleagues, we constructed a model of shared leadership where I figured out a way to delegate most of the roles I had collected over my first seven years, moving managers into roles where they had the skills and vision to take over their divisions and leaving me with the tasks that I should have been doing all along and could not be delegated to others. It took me a while before I learned not to wander, uninvited, into someone else's turf, but I was a motivated learner and my newly refocused role soon became second nature.

Babies or Collections?

When I fell in behind Jeri Robinson's drive to make a big push towards accommodating preschool kids and their caregivers, I recognized that it would be the most profound change yet in the museum's profile of users, in the museum's programs, and ultimately in the missions of all children's museums thereafter. As I had predicted, as the audience changed, most middle-age kids now saw the museum as for "babies" and no longer for them.

Therefore, curating cultural artifacts and offering multicultural programming and exhibits tended to be beside the point. At the time it was thought that, developmentally, preschoolers were at the age where they could not use or make much sense of cultural collections or experiences like the Japanese House.

While the house is still part of the museum's ambitious Japanese Program it once included the Japanese collection, study storage, temporary and touring exhibits, seasonal celebrations, collaborations with Harvard's East Asian Studies Program, teacher and floor staff training, classroom kits, project grants, community advisors, and the program's specialized staff. We called these comprehensive thematic areas "Plum Puddings" into which you were invited to stick in your conceptual thumb and pull out interrelated resources or learning experiences.

The plum pudding model was unsustainable, and as key staff members moved on, comprehensive areas were gradually retired. How to provide broad audiences, including very young children, with authentic cultural experiences with real objects is a continuing challenge. What to do with the collection—including the Japanese House—awaits future decisions by leaders of the board, staff, and the community.

Move or Stay?

Should the museum stay put and continue to live comfortably at the suburban edge of the city or move downtown? As John Bok was fond of saying, "Downtown is where the people are, Jamaica Plain was where the people aren't." In a radial city like Boston, downtown is the hub where all the transportation systems come together. And in a city of often hostile neighborhoods, in order to serve everyone, you also had to be on neutral turf. Everyone needed to feel equally welcome. No one was allowed to claim exclusive ownership of the museum.

But even as I and most of the board were itching to move, the assessment of our readiness conducted in the mid-'60s by fundraising counsel Bob Corcoran came back with the news that we could not make the move until 1) The Children's Museum became more top of everyone's mind; 2) we had exploited our Jamaica Plain site to the max and had run out of useable space; and 3) we could find an affordable and adaptable site that met the museum's needs and would be seen as a attractive home for visiting families, school and neighborhood groups.

It took sixteen years of searching, planning, fundraising, construction, and moving to achieve those goals. In the meantime we converted the old auditorium into an interim Visitor Center before the move to Museum Wharf. And still for all the lengthy and careful planning, our shaky relationship with Museum of Transportation partner almost brought us all down together!

Next: Sustainability