Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History


(II. A Challenging Context—NMAH 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:

  • It is almost inescapable -- and not unreasonable -- that donors have views about the use of their gifts. This is not new. It is at least as old as museums. It has lately become fashionable for some donors to make grants highly conditional, and to provide "hands-on" attention to management. This style of philanthropy presents special challenges for institutions that pride themselves on their independent integrity.
  • Both public sector and private sector donors are capable of attempting to impose views that, in some cases, may not be fairly representative or academically responsible. On the other hand, donors may have the ability to provide valuable conceptual contributions (in addition to financial contributions). The Museum does not have a monopoly on good ideas. What the Museum does have is a responsibility to assure that the content of its exhibits meet certain standards of scholarship, quality, and integrity.
  • In the context of scarce resources -- that is, for the foreseeable future -- the artful management of relations with both public and private donors will remain a demanding challenge.
  • Although some find fault with recent management of Museum-donor relations, most of the Museum's major problems -- visible today -- antedate the gifts that have been the subject of recent press attention. So, while the artful management of donor relations is and will remain an important challenge, meeting it -- however well -- will not suffice as a means to address the Museum's need for what it has termed "transformation."

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.

Some may tend to look outside the Smithsonian for decisions. The Congress, for example, may seem natural as a legitimizing political authority for a national museum. But the Congress is only partly responsible for NMAH funding. And, on the whole, it has been appropriately disinclined to get into matters of exhibit content. The NMAH Board may seem another reasonable candidate. But while it engages in program review, it has been focused on issues of finance, technology, and governance more than content. As currently composed, its members are more expert in the former than the latter. In any case, it is strictly advisory. Few would suggest that private donors (or, for that matter, voluntary commissions) are appropriately representative. So, by both default and good reason, the conclusion emerges that, in some sense, "the Smithsonian" itself should decide.

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. . . .

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