(II. A Challenging ContextNMAH Strengths, Problems, Constraints, and Challenges)
F. Management Challenges
Clearly, the problems and constraints noted above amount to a major management challenge. That challenge is compounded, however, by four additional challenges that seem noteworthy in the current environment.
The challenge of managing transition
One might imagine an important national museum that, within a short period of time, experienced three things: major new gifts; rising public interest in its themes and content; and an orderly nation-wide search for a new director. This could be viewed as highly beneficial -- a wonderful opportunity for creative change, building on past success. But it would nonetheless constitute a major practical problem, the challenge of managing transition. That would be true if all were well to begin with. For the NMAH, however, the problem is more complicated. The large challenge that is ordinarily presented by transition is even larger for NMAH.
The challenge of building and sustaining the trust of the general public, professionals, and donors
Museums in general enjoy a bond of trust with the public. Among museums, NMAH enjoys a special and precious trust. It is visited by millions of school children for experiences recommended by their parents and teachers. It bears the implied imprimatur of national legitimizing authority. NMAH's special position of trust is one that many institutions would aspire to reach -- one very much harder to gain than to lose.
In the context of recent public controversies, the challenge of building and preserving trust might be seen as especially sensitive and important for NMAH. Private funds must be raised in large amounts without creating the perception or reality of excessive donor influence (discussed further below), and without succumbing to the general societal tendency to indulge excessive commercialism. And first-class historians and museum professionals must be attracted and retained in order to assure that exhibits not only have public appeal, but also are rooted in first-class scholarship.
The challenge of building and sustaining morale among museum professionals
Evident anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the Museum's professional staff are experiencing a sense of alienation or discontent. According to public statements by some, this is related, in part, to criticism of the terms of some recent gift contracts and the processes by which these were developed. Several other explanations -- ranging from budgetary pressures to vision -- also seem applicable. The Commission did not investigate and analyze the extent and causes of the morale problem. But its existence is obviously relevant as an additional challenge for management.
The challenge of managing donor relations
Managing relations with donors is a challenge for most museums. It is, in some ways, especially demanding for NMAH. The Museum not only enjoys a special place of trust that must be preserved as it seeks additional public and private resources to transform itself. But also, with the Museum's special place of trust, there is a special obligation: to strive to be fair, accurate, sensitive to American values and the diversity of American experience, and broadly representative of what informed and responsible people take to be historical truth. This obligation cannot be transferred to any external parties -- though many share a commitment to it. To attend to this obligation, the Museum must retain control of content. This is not only a matter of ultimate responsibility. There is a complex set of internal and external processes that the Museum must coordinate in order to develop exhibit concepts and translate them into first-class historical exhibitions. Such exhibitions must be satisfactorily funded, rooted in scholarship, and capable of engaging and educating a large public audience. Throughout the process of developing them, the Museum must manage donor relationships with its obligations in clear and consistent view.
This ever-present challenge has recently been complicated by press attention and professional criticism with respect to issues of donor influence upon exhibits' content. Public attention has been sustained notwithstanding the Smithsonian's firm assertion that its policies and practices retain for the Museum all ultimate decision-making and control with respect to exhibit content. (See Appendix I.)
The recent withdrawal of a major gift in the face of disagreements between the donor and the Museum has been particularly visible to the public. This may have helped restore a degree of public confidence in the Museum's attention to its responsibility for control. But in the process of moving from the gift's announcement to its withdrawal, confidence has been undermined among both scholars and donors. That confidence must be restored.
It is, however, important to note the following as points of additional perspective:
There is, finally, this additional complication for the management of the Museum:
The challenge of assigning decision-making responsibility, and aligning the interests of those upon whom implementation must depend
In the complicated current context, the challenge of deciding upon subjects and themes for exhibits -- and the related challenge of bringing a sense of coherence to the Museum -- may seem daunting. And because there is no limit to the number of possible ways to imagine ordering or re-ordering the Museum, any decision may be vulnerable to criticism for being somewhat arbitrary. But still, decisions must be made in order to bring vision and clarity to the process of renewal.
For both philosophical and practical reasons, therefore, it seems desirable
that responsibility for decision making be well defined, and that the
responsible decision maker(s) should command a sense of legitimizing authority
-- both scholarly authority and political authority.
But the Smithsonian is a large and complex organization. In looking within it, two considerations argue for placing substantive decision-making responsibility at the level of the Museum. One is the need for appropriate scholarship. The other is the need for substantial engagement in a dynamic process -- not merely a discrete one-time decision.
Decision making of the type that is required is, in fact, a complex and dynamic process that must extend over a long period. It is an iterative process, which must produce a reasonable degree of alignment both vertically and horizontally within the Smithsonian. Curators have an obviously important role to play. But curators at the Museum are, by design, organizationally divided according to areas of special competence. Therefore, the coordination of the integrative work of deriving or imposing coherence across organizational lines tends to fall to the Museum Director, along with his or her key staff. So, too, does the important challenge of managing the integration of internal and external points of view. But at the moment, although led by a very able and distinguished Acting Director, the Museum is without its official Director. That is a problem, which a nation-wide search is intended to remedy.
The search process for a new Director, therefore, is of fundamental importance in determining the effectiveness with which NMAH will meet the formidable challenges it faces. . . .