Who's in Charge? Collaborative Leadership and the Democratisation of Curation
Emmie Kell, CEO of Cornwall Museums Partnership
Cornwall Museums Partnership is a charity which exists to help museums become more open and connected to the people they serve. And for them to do that, embracing new ways of working and investing time in creating the right organisational culture is really important. We provide leadership for Cornwall’s museums; support them, represent them and give them a voice. We are a sector-leading infrastructure charity which is not afraid to think differently. We invest in others and we try to help museums address the long term strategic issues that they have struggled to tackle on their own – things that are vital for the long term future of our distinctive heritage.
We are trying to effect some fundamental changes in the museums sector. But we don’t actually run any museums… and we are in a place where there are lots of museums (more than any comparable region in the UK), all independent, and independently minded and I think we are born with a healthy disrespect for authority in Cornwall. So how do we get anything done?
I’m trying to influence ‘beyond authority’ I can’t make anyone do anything – the whole ethos behind CMP is that the power lies in the team. That is the reason for our being. Back in 2011/12 museums in Cornwall were experiencing something of a crisis. Well two of them were, and had publicly communicated their financial difficulties. And a widespread lack of resources, coupled with long term under-investment in the sector, rurally dispersed organisations, working in isolated ways meant that many organisations were becoming less not more resilient. They did not have the skills, capacity or resources to move forward. It was clear that the opportunity to share skills across a diverse and dispersed network comprising 70 museums, was one that needed to be explored and this was the catalyst for a group of four museums to experiment with collaborative working – which ultimately led to the formation of Cornwall Museums Partnership.
We realised that through collaboration we could make scarce resources go further, and that partnerships could offer much needed learning opportunities and peer support.
We wanted to find a way to harness the knowledge and expertise of a wide range of stakeholders, including the communities which museums exist to serve – to innovate and succeed. Working in a more collaborative way offered a way to do this. So we set about testing the opportunities arising from collaborative working – initially with a small group and within 5 years with a network of 70.
We think that the fast changing environment in which we work, financial uncertainty, changing expectations of society mean that museums need a new kind of leadership. One which maximises the power of networks. Collaborative leadership which is where ‘leaders to use the power of influence rather than positional authority to engage and align people, focus their teams, sustain momentum, and perform. Success depends on creating an environment of trust, mutual respect, and shared aspiration in which all can contribute fully and openly to achieving collective goals. Leaders must thus focus on relationships as well as results, and the medium through which they operate is high-quality conversation.’ This definition felt (and still feels) really relevant for our situation.
So this is what we have tried to do. We have recruited people to our values and placed a strong emphasis on collaboration. We have facilitated a range of networks across museums, co-designed programmes with museums and supported museums to embrace co-design with their audiences. Our model recognises that expertise lies across organisations and we try to create opportunities to share and amplify best practice at what ever ‘level’ it is found in an organisation. Our approach is echoed by a report published last year by Arts Council England and Kings College called ‘Changing cultures Transforming leadership in the arts, museums and libraries’(Sept 2018) which identifies that ‘leadership in museums in no longer a question of focussing on the people at the top. It’s about creating opportunities for individuals to lead at all levels.’ For example Marina who works as a cleaner at Wheal Martyn Museum in Cornwall created a memory café and spoke at our annual conference last year.
Museums need to engage employees more fully at every level to improve efficiencies, increase agility, understand the needs of the communities we exist to serve, and innovate. Teams need to draw on diverse perspectives from both within and outside their organisations to solve problems and identify opportunities, especially when familiar ways of working no longer apply.
So what have I learned about collaborative leadership over the last 3 years:
Recruit to your values – we are collaborative and we stress that in our recruitment. It is still a relatively new approach for some people, who come with expectations about command and control, the default model is still hierarchical and to quote the Changing Culture report ‘ the art world enjoys celebrating and romanticising its leaders’. We want people who can be open and flexible and responsive because we know that collaboration is highly correlated with market performance. Collaboration creates an inclusive environment which allows individuals to be more creative and innovative.
You need to establish a shared sense of purpose – the difference between productive and unproductive collaboration is sense of purpose. For every initiative we clearly establish and reiterate its core purpose.
Creating a culture of trust is a core feature of collaborative leadership – to be trusted we must prove our ability to deliver, communicate our impact and trust our team and invest in them. We’ve invested in facilitation and coaching training for all members of our team. We are clear about our values and the behaviours that arise from them – this provides clarity and direction and helps us to do things consistently which builds trust.
Cultural organisations and I’d say specifically museums are agents of empathy – they are all about creating experiences which help people develop their empathy muscle – by experiencing what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. A high degree of emotional intelligence is what marks out the people who thrive in a collaborative environment. We need to listen and communicate effectively, care about what our customers and stakeholders think. If you care about maximising your public benefit you have to be genuinely interested in what people think – you have to create a reflective culture.
Small organisations are better at it – the brand can get in the way with larger organisations. The requirement of smaller organisations to be especially resourceful seems to result in them being more receptive to partnership working.
I’m learning that acting in a genuinely collaborative way, takes time, negotiation, persistence, patience and relentless positivity. It can be exhausting and lead to overload and burnout. You need to look after yourself and the wellbeing of your team. Something we are trying to get better at, at Cornwall Museums Partnership.
You cannot over communicate – that doesn’t mean just being stuck on transmit mode – it means an equal share of listening.
I will conclude this this quote from David Jubb – ex Director of Battersea Arts Centre in London:
‘Changing the way we work helps us increase our impact. For too long we have focussed on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ and this has led to museums which neither represent nor serve the communities for whom they are supposed to exist. We need to think about talent and diversity differently. Museums cannot be relevant without diverse leadership. A truly collaborative approach can help us achieve this.’
Dr Tehmina Goskar, Director of the Curatorial Research Centre shares an example of this in practice from the flagship programme she has developed in partnership with us at Cornwall Museums Partnership
To support our philosophy of collaborative leadership and to encourage a radical shift in power relations in Cornish museums, we have originated the Citizen Curators Programme—a work-based curatorial training and museum awareness course for volunteers from our communities. This experiential learning programme has been designed to support the democratisation of museum decision-making and to open up the knowledge locked in our collections. Our paper will share results of the research carried out through the pilot programme in 2017/18 and share work in progress on the full 3-year programme. We will illustrate our findings against the context of Cornish identity and distinctiveness as our Citizen Curators will be leading the curation of the Cornish National Collection—a distributed collection of artefacts and memories that reflects the diversity of Cornish society past and present.
I am a curator, facilitator and historian of material culture. I think well-functioning museums are critical indicators of a civil society. Cultural democracy, the civic agenda, co-curation, co-production, co-creation are themes which are regularly discussed at professional cultural events. We are diving into these complex ideas before facing what we really need to be talking about. We should be discussing permission, trust and control in our organisations. Who is involved in decision-making, and why? Who isn’t invited to the table? “What does it really mean to give authority over museum content to the citizen?”
In our rural and Cornish context, time and cost of travel is our biggest barrier to cultural opportunity and this is amplified when you look at routes to working or volunteering in the museum sector. We describe Citizen Curators as an introductory work-based curatorial and museum awareness course for volunteers in our communities. It is the most wide-ranging curatorial training programme of its kind currently underway in the UK and relies on being collaborative in its structure. At the Curatorial Research Centre all of our educational work is led by research and evidence. By June 2021 Citizen Curators will have produced not only 100 trained volunteers and directly involve 30 staff, apprentices and interns, the programme will also produce a major body of quantitative and qualitative data that will make a significant contribution to museum and curatorial pedagogy. Power model of museums. Museums need to understand where their power lies and then learn how to share their power more widely. I developed this model of museum power based on an inverted pyramid.
Developing the 50% model of a curator – part knowledge creator, part communicator. The Citizen Curators will develop a set of competencies around 5 areas of skill and awareness. They will increase their confidence in using their new-found knowledge to challenge established ways of doing things in their museums. The only prerequisites to joining the course are high motivation, demonstrable curiosity, open to new ideas, and able to commit time. Citizen Curators activity sits right in the middle of traditional categories of museum roles. Each group is asked to produce two collections-based interventions, one digital, one museum-based.
The core syllabus for the full programme is based on five themes: collections, research, communication, communities and interpretation. Each core session comprises a half-day workshop and a mini-challenge which reinforces their learning through gallery-based group work. Throughout, there is a mixture of group activities and individual work. While in the museum they learn from real life scenarios, such as observing art hangs, undertaking condition reports or writing for websites. Optional masterclasses and field trips have included citizen science, conservation subject specialist museums, exhibition critique, museum ethics and taking part in national consultations on museum issues. The whole programme is designed to be flexible around the busy lives of volunteers most of whom are working or studying alongside.
The pilot took place at Royal Cornwall Museum October 2017-March 2018. Most recruits were under 26 – the target age group for the pilot. These pilot Citizen Curators developed projects based around the museum’s Chinese collections and fine art collections. One was a reinterpretation project to begin to decolonise those collections; the other took place on Instagram on the theme of Hireth – examining people’s feelings of Cornish identity.
Participant satisfaction in the pilot was high. This was monitored through qualitative feedback and a formal exit questionnaire. We can also quantify the impact. Participants are asked to rate their confidence levels in 11 key areas relating to our competency model at the start of the programme and then again at the end. We also collected feedback from museum colleagues. The main criticism of the pilot programme was that integration with the wider museum team could have been better (this led us to establish mentoring). There were some practical issues related to space, use of desks, access to stores and computers. Some ideological opposition suggested that the participants should not be permitted to use a title with ‘curator’ in it. Positive feedback included how the programme had helped to raise the profile of the museum in new places. Citizen Curators were chosen as a key stop on a tour by Prince Charles (Duke of Cornwall).
In year 1, the whole programme was over-subscribed with 3x more expressions of interest. All places were filled. Our target for retention is 70%. We have retained 71%. A major cause for lower numbers was the temporary withdrawal of one museum from the programme because of logistical problems that they could not overcome. Three of the seven museums have retained their full groups. Drop out has mainly been caused by change of personal circumstances or health reasons. Other causes have included lack of satisfaction in the museum volunteering experience—although participants have been reluctant to give their reasons on the record. Attendance has met or exceeded our targets, particularly in the core programme. The number of non-Citizen Curators interested in participating in the workshops have exceeded our expectations –staff, apprentices and interns—these are other pathways CMP is investing in and promoting.
This cohort together with the pilot group and year 2 and 3 will be invited to set the criteria for the Cornish National Collection. The brief is to designate a distributed collection that must represent the diversity of Cornish Society past and present. This is a strategic priority of Cornwall Museums Strategy. It is in direct response to the recognition of the Cornish as a national minority in 2014 by the UK Government under Council of Europe Framework Convention. After 29 April – Year 1 Evaluation Day – we will collate our data and analyses and reflect on their individual and group journeys. Interim feedback has been constant. The importance of consistently keeping communication channels open and asking probing questions is critical in a process like this. What questions would you ask? What questions would you like answered?
This is a blog post based on the presentation that Emmie Kell and Dr Tehmina Goskar delivered at the ‘Museums as Agents of Memory and Change’ Conference in Tallinn, Estonia, earlier this year.