Reactions to “Ballooning Expectations”

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Cross-promotions of the 2 most recent blog posts Ballooning Expectations” & “Background on Problematic Standards” have generated commentaries on other social media platforms.  Also see the comments provided on the previous 13 & 30 November posts.

For example, American Association for State & Local History Senior Program Manager, Cherie Cook (2019), commented on my November 30 post assertion: “In my view, setting & promoting standards that are undifferentiated according to size of staff & extent of other available resources for “all” magnitudes of institutions is ostrich-like ‘head in the sand’ behaviour.” The following is just an excerpt:

When AASLH set out to create the StEPs program in 2005 (with grant funding from IMLS) we were tasked with creating a standards program for small- to mid-sized museums, historical societies, historic sites, etc. Volunteers from across the country and from organization of all sizes went to work on several project committees.

Very soon it became clear to us that a plan to create standards for small organizations – or as some people called it – “accreditation lite” was the wrong path. . . (Cook 2019).

If my assertion above is a “wrong path,” it should be noted here that Ms. Cook (2019) reports the AASLH approach in my view wisely includes the following: “We created Basic, Good, and Better performance indicators that guide small organizations through the StEPs program (StEPs uses the same national standards as AAM)” [emphasis added]. In essence, this is exactly what I propose by recommending differentiated or graduated levels of standards to accommodate the human & other resources available to small institutions.

See the full discussion including my reply to it at https://www.aam-us.org/professional-networks/small-museum-administrators-committee/ (accessed 14 December 2019).

On another platform, the Small Museum Administrators Committee – American Alliance of Museums [accessible by SMAC members via Facebook] from 3 & 4 December https://www.aam-us.org/professional-networks/small-museum-administrators-committee/ according to a SMAC member with whom I am in contact, includes responses such as:

1) I will read this after I finish my huge task list. [Followed by 2 laughing emojis that don’t cut & paste]

2) Such great timing. I am being bombarded more and more with “why don’t you do x?” “Why aren’t you doing anything with x community?” “When are you going to do x?” “When will x be finished?” “Why is x taking so long?” “Why aren’t you open more hours?” “Why aren’t you open on weekends?”

The answer I’ve been giving is:

This is a small museum and it has one employee. That means I have to make difficult decisions about how to use our time and where I can be. I can’t be everywhere and I can’t do everything. So I am where I can be and do I want I can do. That has to be enough for now” [emphasis added].

In response to this last excerpt, I can only quote Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, ”exactamundo!”

I believe that stakeholders “all” too often expect museum workers to “manage by the ‘next’ bright idea”! In effect, this expects us to drop the last “bright idea” before it is fully consolidated, & try something else altogether—all this “ad infinitum.” Years ago, one of the participants in my solving task saturation museum conference session very wisely pointed to the strategic plan as the best defence mechanism for dealing with the vast number of new unresourced expectations with which museum practitioners are “bombarded.” An appropriate response to all the “incoming” expectations might be, ‘OK. Let’s consider that one for inclusion in the “next” strategic plan.’

Another discussion appeared on the American Association for State & Local History SmallMuseums Digest in response to my post on that listserve promoting my 30 November “Ballooning Expectations” post.  Sadly, today, 14 December 2019, access has been eliminated by Yahoo. In this light, I cut & paste below the full text from the listserve [AASLH-SmallMuseums] Digest e-mail received on 9 December 2019. I have consolidated the formatting of the e-mail & place my related comments in-line with [bolded square brackets].

2a Re: Ballooning Expectations for Small Museums?

Mon Dec 9, 2019 12:28 pm (PST) . Posted by: “Cherie Cook” cook_aaslh

No doubt, more advocacy and education is needed for people in our field and beyond to understand the challenges small museums and sites face every day. At AASLH we believe small is mighty and we value small history organizations and the contributions they make to their communities.

AASLH sought IMLS funding in 2004 to create the StEPs program (Standards & Excellence Program for Historical Organizations) because of calls from the field for an entry level assessment program that would meet the needs not only of organizations that do not feel ready for accreditation, but for those that may choose to never pursue that path. I often tell people, “Organizations can be in StEPs for two years, ten years, or even longer – and it’s OK.” That small and mid-sized organizations can work incrementally to achieve standards and integrate that work into day-to-day tasks is important. [This is an appropriate approach as long as “all” stakeholders scrupulously avoid expectations that “all” small museums “mightily” can “do everything” large museums do & attain every last one of the StEPs.] Examples of what can be achieved when using a program like StEPs can be found in blog posts about the McHenry County and Essex historical societies.

From talking with numerous participants, I think one of the most valuable outcomes of a program like StEPs is that it offers a way to educate board/governing authority members about standards and how a museum is supposed to operate; also, the governing authority’s role and responsibilities in that operation. [I trust that AASLH also pays some significant attention to informing boards about the HR overload, stress, & burnout crisis in our field & stresses the institution’s responsibility to “protect” its workforce on the same level of importance as its collections.]

It’s common in the museum field and other professions to think of standards as punitive demands that create more work, but I strongly believe standards can be used as a tool to benefit an organization in a variety of ways, including:

    1. As I mentioned above, educating governing authority members about their role and responsibilities [I trust AASLH also educates them about the above problematic working conditions generated by unresourced expectations.];
    2. Justification for needs and improvements that paid/unpaid staff believe are needed. For example, StEPs includes the following self-assessment question and performance indicators related to salaries and wages (as part of the standard, “The governing authority, staff, and volunteers have a clear and shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities):

StEPs self-assessment question: If the institution has paid staff, are wages and benefits at levels comparable to other related professions in the community?

Basic performance indicator: Staff are paid on time and at the level promised.

Good performance indicator: The institution researches comparable positions, wages, and benefits, including health, retirement, and vacation, and offers accordingly.

Better performance indicators: The institution offers a competitive employee compensation package. The institution periodically reviews its compensation package.

[We are in the process of updating the StEPs workbook so if anyone has recommended revisions for the above performance indicators, please let me know. (square brackets in original)]

    1. As a structure to help an organization focus and prioritize its work;
    2. Justification for decisions that may not be popular and that may end long held practices or policies that conflict with national standards or best practices;
    3. For strategic planning so board and paid/unpaid staff can create a plan that is meaningful [I trust that AASLH also places stress on strategic plan REALISM relative to the human & other resources actually available to accomplish goals & necessary action plans.];
    4. As supporting evidence for funding requests, fundraising campaigns, etc.

Cherie Cook, Senior Program Manager, AASLH, 2021 21st Ave S., Suite 320, Nashville, TN 37212.  573.893.5164  cook@aaslh.org          www.aaslh.org

Ms. Cook’s statements are well taken as long as “the challenges small museums and sites [as well as their workers] face every day” form a foundation for—and are not ignored by—the StEPs programme.

Thanks for thinking about “all” this.

Reference Cited:

Cook, Cherie.  2019. “3. RE: Inflated Expectations for Small Museums.” Museum Junction Open Forum (American Alliance of Museums) posted 10 December at https://community.aam-us.org/communities/community-home/digestviewer/viewthread?MessageKey=6348198c-b327-4ef2-a1bd-370f6d35da13&CommunityKey=d34b2dfb-4151-4629-a59a-553d0ae428d9&tab=digestviewer&UserKey=050cf598-1052-44fc-a610-3925137c0542&sKey=415e89fa9e0e4a4b873a#bm76152856-112f-44b2-842d-d71223c4a7f8 (accessed 14 December 2019).