Links of the Week: March 23, 2021: Are U Capable?

Links of the Week: March 23, 2021: Are U Capable?

5 min read

This week Museum Human looks at capabilities (not just skills). Which matter more for a museum?

I think of capabilities as different than skills—to me, the latter are focused on individuals, while the former are about the overall ability of an organization to tackle problems in particular ways. You could say that workers who gain skills might leave the organization in search of places where they might better use these skills—or get treated better for doing so—while capabilities never leave the org (though they could result in staffing changes; toxic orgs gonna tox.)

For all its ethical issues and problematic clientele, McKinsey produces a good group of newsletters, which strike me as a bit less leader-focused and more holistic. Perhaps consultancies push organizational vision along with their leadership lessons?

These pieces ran over a period of time, but they were bundled in a recent newsletter, so I'm treating them as this week's readings. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Before we get to capabilities, here's an article from the Wall Street Journal on how companies can manage hybrid workplaces when workers start returning partially-en masse. Most museums weren't designed with lots of office space in mind, so crowding concerns are going to be a serious issue. Can museums be authentically flexible?


Harvard Business Review had a couple of articles about mindfulness at work, both remotely and in the shared workplace. I've written many times about mindfulness, so let's just look at it as a challenge to be present and aware of one's thought process. The first article details how mindfulness can be helpful while on Zoom call after call, while the second is a reminder that workers whose job requires surface acting (for museums, think visitor experience) might find mindfulness problematic. (Here are links from Quartz about the troubling aspects of the mindfulness industry and how even cars are part of the mindfulness lifestyle.)


The first McKinsey article on capabilities is a short interview with a senior partner wgi maintains that teaching capabilities has to be tied to particular outcomes, and that the learning should never stop. Organizations need to think of teaching as an investment in people, not just processes.

What this means for museums: institutions are particularly poor at follow-up and implementation, which is what staff look for. Museums sometimes aren't even sure what metric they should use to measure the success of new capabilities, just that they want their people smart. This is something to look out for with DEAI and antiracism action plans.


This McKinsey article from last February goes deeper into organization-wide skills (so, by my definition, capabilities) and therefore re- and upskilling. What does the organization need to do which it can't? How can the org address this with its current workforce, rather than just firing everyone and hiring new people with the desired abilities?

What this means for museums: can cultural institutions look to their current workers (and those who were laid off) to meet skills the leaders feel are missing? (Do leaders even know what skills their institutions already have? Do they know what work actually gets done?) If museums don't take a more proactive approach with their workers and work, then there won't be an institution left to rue the missed opportunity.


This short McKinsey article and the accompanying video on workplace of 2030 finds a lot of remote learning, virtual reality, and AI doing … well, whatever AI will do then. Of course, this all takes worker time and resources, which means money … and yes, I'm going to write that at least once in every piece for as long as there's a museum-field cult of busyness to fight.

What this means for museums: ffs, stop overworking your workers! Leaders, when there's too much to do for the staff you have on hand (or who are allowed in the building), don't make your first thought, "let's make exceptions to our worker capacity rules," make it, "it looks like we're trying to do too much." Later this week, I'll have a longer piece on the cult of busyness.


Finally, this interview from last month with former federal government HR chief and now Markle Foundation leader Beth Cobert focuses on how orgs should look to skills, not credentials, in building their internal capabilities. If the institution hired at all competently, it should already have the people and capabilities it needs; it just hasn't taught and activated it yet.

What this means for museums: again, stop laying people off (though that train has already left many stations). The money crunch means it's time to start being more proactive about changing the way donors and funders see the museum field. Workers have heard that the money just isn't there for staff salaries and benefits, which is why some leaders claim deacessioning and monetizing the collection is necessary. But have museums really tried hard enough to reconceptualize fundraising—and not just hitting up rich trustees? As Brooklyn Museum Director Anne Pasternak says in the New York Times article linked above:

“People will say trustees can pay for this. What planet are they on? Why is it the trustees’ responsibility to pay 100 percent of expenses for public institutions? That attitude is conflicting at best. It’s misinformed to think that every museum has a board full of billionaires.”

To quote Coffee Talk with Linda Richman, "discuss."

Even if we accept this take from museum directors who favor aggressive deaccessioning, have they tried involving more of their staff in the kinds of endeavors which are considered sexy enough for funding? What if staff salaries and unsexy maintenance projects were made part of the cost of exhibitions? This evolution of "indirect cost sharing" could finally do away with the idea that there are curatorial cores and front-of-house peripheries to museum work. If leaders can't inspire the funding classes or public sector to accept this view, maybe different leaders—or a different idea of leadership—is needed. At the very least, as pointed out by Joan Baldwin in the latest Leadership Matters newsletter, there needs to be an atmosphere of authentic, not performative, transparency:

Transparency doesn’t just mean reporting that certain objects are leaving the collection. Transparency means openness about mission, about why a particular piece no longer fits. Those conversations must happen internally before they happen externally, as the director, curators and board work to understand a painting’s meaning. Where does it fit in the collection? Is it an only child or does it have siblings either by the same artist or in the same period? What artists are missing from the collection? If a painting is sold, what would the museum add, and why? And on and on.

Instead we have a clandestine atmosphere of dueling and partial narratives that have done as much to roil museum workers as the deacessioning decisions themselves. Staff know that these decisions are part of the same package as layoffs and overwork.

Enjoy the links!

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cover image by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash [description: a circle of paper clips on a blue background]


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Links of the Week: March 23, 2021: Are U Capable? by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.