Museum Sector in Crisis: Systemic Governance Challenges

from Michelle Willard and Lorraine Bell, Mighty Museum

In partnership with the British Columbia Museums Association, and funded by the Vancouver Foundation, Mighty Museum completed a study examining systemic governance challenges in small to medium museums in B.C.

Read the full report here:

Executive Summary:

In this study we conducted twenty in-depth, confidential interviews with the paid leadership staff of small to medium non-profit museums in B.C. Although we refer to all as ‘executive directors’ or ‘EDs’, their formal titles varied, including ‘corporate director’, ‘head curator’ and ‘manager’. Unlike larger institutions, the EDs of these institutions often had multiple roles and responsibilities, including curation, public programming, fund-development and facilities management. Several were the only paid staff member. We asked the participants about the challenges and opportunities they experienced with governance and the board/ED relationship in these institutions. Drawing from their on-the-job experiences, the EDs discussed some very concerning issues, and also had valuable input for tools and strategies to improve and even transform governance in B.C.’s small to medium non-profit museums.

Challenges experienced by the participants included poor compensation and working conditions; a lack of defined roles and responsibilities between board and management, leading to micromanagement and unmanageable workloads; boards disconnected from the ED’s professional and community museum work; and cases of bullying and harassment. Participants also discussed how governance issues, such as lack of diverse representation, created barriers to critical and decolonizing approaches to contemporary museum work.

Participants reported feelings of isolation, and limited opportunities for professional development, yet found limited or no recourse for their concerns. Many reported workplace stress and feeling ‘burned out’, and in some cases reported taking stress-leaves and/or leaving their positions or the sector.

The ubiquity of these themes amongst the participants indicates a sector wide, systemic crisis. Yet some participants reported satisfactory governance, which they attributed to evolving organizational practices. Whether their experiences were positive or negative, all participants contributed ideas to improve governance. These included mandatory and accessible board training in both governance and museums; reconsidering board structure and succession; limiting board terms and board size; implementing responsibility matrixes and job descriptions for both volunteers and paid staff; seeking external help with mediation and strategic planning; and linking funding to demonstrated governance capacity. Participants also offered ideas to transform governance such as changing from hierarchical to collaborative approaches and including both staff and community in key decision making, strategizing and structures of accountability.

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