The Secret Museum Director: ‘Are we OK?’

In Advisor’s new feature, an anonymous Museum Director will document their thoughts and experiences in the sector. 

Sunday night. A mellow evening following a weekend completely free from engagement with heritage. I was relaxed, focused on home and family, and to no small extent, the rather good bottle of red wine that we had just opened.

And then a chance remark made me think about the week ahead, and my fingers began to itch, and after too-few seconds of deliberation, I reached for my phone and opened my emails.

Relaxation evaporated, instantly.

The subject line of the very first email read: “Feedback from our visit yesterday…” I went from rioja to risk mitigation faster than I could blink, as my mind began circling through all the potential things that could have driven the complaint. Was it the toilet that has been needing fixing for two months? The new (and rather safe) display around the site’s links with colonialism?

The volunteer that actively campaigns for young children to be banned from the museum? I had worked through responses and potential statements and was just wondering if it would require calling an emergency board meeting, when the little voice of reason intervened and reminded me that I hadn’t actually opened the email.

When after a deep breath (and an equally deep glug of wine) I finally did open it, and read beyond the subject line, it was a joy. A long message full of praise for the site, for that display, and in particular for the warmth and knowledge of the staff onsite. My quickly made plans, all that strategising and worry dispersed, leaving behind them the underlying pride that I have in the team and the place, and the genuinely exciting and work we are doing.

This all took perhaps 90 seconds. But it was long enough to disturb my peace, and enough to get me thinking. It raised several questions that I’ve been pondering on ever since, questions that can be boiled down to: as a sector, are we ok? What does it mean that my instant response to visitor feedback was an expectation of criticism?

Especially when I can count the number of actual complaining letters that we get in a year on one hand. What does this say about the disjoint between our relationships with our target audiences, and our actual audiences? Museum spaces are never neutral, but are they becoming a battleground?

It is so hard to leave the Museum behind once the doors are locked and the alarms are on.

And above all – how much pressure are we all putting ourselves under to continually deliver growth and exceed expectations? How much pressure are we putting on our amazing people to deliver? In a climate that has rarely been more challenging, and after three years of constant change and adaption. Is this fair?

There are no easy solutions to this. It is so hard to leave the Museum behind once the doors are locked and the alarms are on. It follows me home, as I plan events and exhibitions and the next steps, as I worry about board reports, and capital funding and cost of living. It comes with me on holiday, as I take pictures of great interpretation, and plan trips around key museums. But I must give myself a break – and possibly more importantly, make sure that my own slightly (!?) obsessive relationship with my job doesn’t become rolled out as part of our workplace culture.

So, I will turn email notifications outside of work hours off and will put my work laptop out of line of sight for the weekend and will encourage everyone to do the same. But I will still keep asking that question: “Are we ok?”