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Museums at a time of drastic global change

Adam Reed Rozan,
Director, Programs & Audience Development,
National Museum of AmericanHistory

Cultural organizations have historically shied away from taking on complex social issues through their collections and the stories they tell, choosing the safer path instead. But can they still afford to take the safer path? Many are choosing not to.

In his talk, Adam Rozan will explore how cultural institutions are either preparing for or dealing with drastic, global changes. He will highlight specific examples, particularly from the corporate world, and the lessons that all organizations can glean about what’s working or not.


Several years ago, Yale Business School professor, Amy Wrzesniewski, had an idea for a question that she’s been trying to solve. She wants to understand work. Her hope was to better understand job satisfaction. She’s interested in researching entry-level jobs, the positions that are most overlooked, underpaid, and underappreciated in our society. And she wonders about hospital janitors. Her big idea is that through her research, she discovers the two kinds of janitors. The first group performs the job the way the position is advertised, that as a janitor, as a custodian. For this group, it’s about a paycheck. The second group, however, is different. They’ve transformed their work. It’s not just what they’re doing, but how they think about their work, how they talk about their work. When they do, it’s about the patients, how their work makes a difference to the doctors, the nurses, the hospital. These janitors visit with patients. They spend more time with those patients who’ve had the fewest guests. Yes, they are janitors, but they see themselves as the promoting the healing of patients, and so that’s what the work is. The healing of patients.

My career started at the Museum of Science in Boston. I sold admission tickets, worked in the museum’s theatre, and for extra hours, I picked up shifts in the coatroom. And while it’s been a long time, I can still remember some of what I did. I can vividly remember my phone interview, where the entire conversation focused on whether or not I could do the work for $8 and 50 cents an hour. Yet at no point did we really discuss working for the museum, being part of a team, what I could contribute, or the museum’s mission, just whether or not I could do the work for the amount of money that they could afford. For the museum, it was an important question. But if you’ve been to the Museum of Science, you would know that it’s an amazing museum. And while I wasn’t sure how I would make my bills work, I knew I needed a position. So, I said yes.

There’s a story from the 1600s that says that when Sir Christopher Wren was visiting the construction site of St. Paul’s Cathedral, he came upon three stonecutters. He said to the first stonecutter, “Tell me, what is it you’re doing?” And the man responded, “I’m cutting a piece of stone.” He then said the same thing to the second stonecutter. “Tell me, what is it that you’re doing?” And the man responded, “I’m earning five shillings a day for work.” And finally, to the third stonecutter, he said, “Tell me what is it you’re doing?” And the man responded, “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build a cathedral.”

You see, work can be a job, or it can be a career, or work can be a calling. A job provides you with pay, benefits. A career is still a paycheck, but you could see a path forward, a profession. But a calling, a calling is something else, something different. Once reserved for those who felt called by God to serve, a calling is service. It’s giving. It’s purpose. And I believe that many of you feel this way about museum work, or work in the arts, libraries, nonprofits, that it’s a calling. But that doing this work, living this truth day-to-day is hard. Museum work is hard. Library work is hard. Nonprofit work is hard. And consider that we spend a third of our lives working. That’s roughly 90,000 hours. And according to a recent study, 87% of the workforce today feels disengaged, or as a headline put it, 87% of us hate our jobs. That’s a lot of time, a lot of energy lost, wasted. In today’s world, a calling can become a career. A career can become a job, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Hello, and welcome to And Other Duties As Necessary. My name is Adam Reed Rozan. I’m the director of programmes and audience development at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. It is an honour to be with you. It’s a privilege. Thank you for coming.

Throughout the spring and summer of this year, reports started coming out documenting serious misconduct among the Navy Seals. The Navy Seals are a group of elite U.S. soldiers. A letter was made public in which the head of the seals, Rear Admiral Collin P. Green, called for immediate action to be taken. He said, “We have a problem that must be addressed immediately. We have failed to maintain good order and discipline, and as a result and for good reason, our culture is being questioned.” Our culture is being questioned.

And it’s not just the Navy Seals, it’s our universities, the tech sector, companies like Nike where they’ve been struggling with internal and external criticism on a wide variety of issues over the past many years including gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and ethics violations. And if you read the news like I do, you’re likely familiar with a never-ending stream of companies whose workplace cultures are broken. These headlines explore what has transgressed, article after article, study after study, like this one just released in August by SHRM, the Society of Human Resources Management, whose director was quoted in a press release as saying, “Billions of wasted dollars. Millions of miserable people. It is not a war zone, it’s the state of the American workplace.” And sadly, yes, museums are no exception. Where today, the staff of our museums are protesting, they’re forming unions, they’re suing and going public, and they’re sharing what it’s like to work in museums. And it’s not good. Bad culture costs. The cost of workplace turnover over the past five years is $223 billion.

But what is culture? We talk about it all the time. Culture describes the characteristics, the personality of your organisation. It’s the behaviour of your staff and colleagues. It’s the tone of the emails and the attitude and the conversations. It’s the real description of your workplace. And culture matters. It’s the reason that you either look forward to going to work, or like 25% of the workforce, dreads going to work every day. Or like 80% of Americans who are unhappy at work right now. It’s the 71%, in fact, 71%, three-fourths of the audience right here actively looking for new work at this given moment. It’s the 25% of the workforce who says that work is the number one cause of death, sorry, cause of stress in their lives. But Stanford University professor, however, Jeffrey Pfeffer says that workplace stress is the number five cause of death in the U.S.

Let’s look at these numbers a little differently, shall we? A soccer team is made up of 11 players. So now, let’s imagine a team in which 3 of the 11 players dread showing up for practise every day. 9 of the 11 players hate being on the team. 8 of the 11 players are actively looking to join another team. 3 of the 11 players feel that being on the team is the number one cause of stress in their lives. And for those players, being on the team could potentially kill them. The good news, if there is such thing as good news, is that I round it up. I round it up. But still, these numbers are hard to cope with. Our soccer team is in real trouble.

Friends, I need you to feel uncomfortable about this. This is supposed to be upsetting. It’s supposed to be upsetting. That’s the point. You’re not supposed to like these stats. This is supposed to be upsetting. You see, our industry is in crisis, and our industry is in crisis. I think of this as being expected to drive at speeds of a 100, 110, 120 miles per hour and then building the engine in your car at the same time. Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of Airbnb describes it as “jumping off a cliff and assembling the aeroplane on the way down.” And it’s easy to become accustomed to living and working in chaos. To be successful, you have to dig into it, to lean into it, and accept that this is normal, that this is the reality of all of our organisations.

In a recent survey of CEOs, 65% shared that they had experienced at least one crisis in the last three years. 50% experienced two or more, and 15%, 15% experienced five or more crises in the last three years. For many of us, this is our reality. We’d go to work, leave work, and in between, we moved back and forth, like river rafters moving from the calm, predictable waters to the rough, chaotic waters. The calm waters represent when life is calm. Work is planned, routine. To the rougher waters, finally, the whitewater, whitewater being the disruptive changes that upends our lives and our work, and whitewater can be caused from internal or external factors. Whitewater is exhausting. It’s chaotic, and it’s dangerous. But importantly, whitewater can be managed. Seasoned river rafters learn how to read the river. They’re not just adjusting to the rapids. They plan for them. They practise for them. They practise for when the waters are calm and they practise for when the waters are rough, so that they know how to perform when times are calm, and for when times are rough.

Like the river rafters, we are not responsible for the waves, the disruptions. We are not responsible for that. What we are responsible for is ourselves and our actions. This is about you. It’s about me. It’s about us, what we can change and what we are responsible for. The challenge is knowing the difference. This famous prayer written in 1941 by Rheinhold Niebuhr, popularised by alcoholics, gets it right. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Acceptance, courage, wisdom.

Our museums are sick. Our museums are sick. We have to be able to talk about this. We have to be able to see this. If we’re going to help our museums, we have to be able to talk about it. And it’s okay to do so. Our museums are sick, as are many companies, industries, and fields. The question is, why? Why? What’s the illness? I don’t know. I wish I did, but I do have a few ideas, and it starts with a film about the origins of McDonald’s. That’s right, the fast food franchise. Let me set the stage for you.

B.J. Novak’s character is Harry Sonneborn. Michael Keaton is playing Ray Kroc, the two pioneers of McDonald’s. Sonneborn has just overheard a frustrated Kroc getting turned down for a business loan, as the young McDonald’s is an unsuccessful company and they’re out of money. In the next scene, Sonneborn is invited back to review the financial ledgers, which he has just done. And now comes to the part that is important for us today. Sonneborn says to Kroc, “You don’t seem to realise what business you’re in. You don’t seem to realise what business you’re in. You’re not in the burger business, you’re in the real estate business.” You’re not in the burger business, you’re in the real estate business. You would think that Kroc would know what business he’s in. In fact, you would think that we would know, right? That we would know what business we’re in, that you would know what business you’re in. How would you answer that question? How would I? Let me give you something to think about while you’re pondering that question.

This is the Blockbuster video store today in Bend, Oregon. It’s the last Blockbuster video store in the world. It’s more of a novelty than anything else. Yet, it had its peak. In 2004, there was 9,000 Blockbuster stores worldwide, with 84,000 employees. And there’s a story from 2000 in which Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, arranges a meeting with John Antioco, the CEO of Blockbuster. Hasting’s idea is to sell Netflix to Blockbuster for $50 million. Remember, this is 2000. Netflix is not a powerhouse, it’s an online DVD rental store, with a small but growing membership base. Well, the story goes that the CEO of Blockbuster said no. “No, you’re a very small niche business.” And the rest is history for Blockbuster, but not for Netflix.

What’s sad is that Blockbuster survived the switch from VHS to DVDs, but it couldn’t envision a future without its stores. Whereas Netflix didn’t just survive the switch from mailing DVDs to streaming, it planned for it. As early as 1999, Hastings talking about moving away from DVDs to streaming. Yet it doesn’t happen until 2007, eight years later. And I share this, in case you’re wondering, I share this because I don’t think we know what business we’re in. I don’t think we know what business we’re in. And what’s worse, our museums aren’t interested in changing and they’re not willing to change. They’re not interested, and they’re not willing to change.

Our missions should be helping us. Our missions should be giving us direction. They should be telling us what to do, and they’re not. And the reason that they’re not is that we have mission all wrong. Let me explain. Mission is what you do to accomplish your purpose. Mission is what you do to accomplish your purpose. So, what’s purpose? Purpose is why your museum exists, and answers the question why, why your museum has to exist. And mission’s what you do to accomplish your purpose. It defines and describes the things that your museum will do in order to accomplish its purpose. So, how do you know then what’s right for your museum? How do you make decisions? Well, think back to when we were talking about the whitewater river rafters, and I shared an example of the whitewater river rafters with you. Every member of the boat has to be rowing in the same direction, with the same goals, and the same purpose. Your organization’s kind of like that. It needs to row in the same direction with the same goals and the same purpose.

So, how do you do that? First, ask yourself what’s right for your audiences, your customers. And this makes sense, as the first of seven guidelines published by the International Audience Engagement Network is that museums exist to engage audiences. For emphasis, I’m going to say it one more time. Museums exist to engage audiences. Friends, that’s what this is all about. That’s why we’re here, for our audiences. That’s why our museums are in business. Second, ask yourself, what’s right for your museum? Third and finally, what’s right for the staff of your museum? Asking and answering these questions is how your museum makes decisions.

Every year, Fortune Magazine produces a list of the hundred best companies to work for. Maybe you’ve seen a sign promoting one of the winners when you went to The Container Store, perhaps. Or when you stayed at a Hilton hotel. Chose The Container Store and Hilton hotels are certified great places to work organisations. That means that these two companies and thousands of others across the U.S. and the world, participating in an annual assessment, review, and benchmarking process. These companies not just have cultures that they’re proud of, and that their staffs are also proud of, but they want us, their customers and their visitors to know of their exceptional policies, hiring procedures, staff diversity, and overall pride. They want us to know that the certified great places to work organisations. Of the 7,000 companies worldwide that are certified, which include roughly 1,700 in the U.S., only one museum has applied, passed the 65% or higher staff approval rating, and is now a certified great places to work organisation.

You’ve likely have heard that there’s an estimated 55,000 museums in the world. Yes? So, of the 55,000 museums in the world that exists, only one museum is participating in this process. Over the past couple of months, I had the chance to speak with Jim Van Buckove a couple of times. He’s the director of organisational culture at The Henry Ford. That’s the museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Jim’s been at The Henry Ford for almost 40 years. I asked Jim about how and why the Henry Ford got involved in the great places to work 13 years ago and has continued to recertify every year for the past 13 years. Which he said was, it’s simple. “It’s simple: At the Henry Ford, we want to be the best, so that means that we have to have the best staff, so that our audiences can have the best experiences. The best staff equals the best experiences. So why wouldn’t we do this?”

At the beginning of our time together, I shared the research with you about hospital janitors. If you remember, the second group of janitors completely transformed their positions, take on new and different tasks. These new tasks provided more meaning and job satisfaction for the janitors. But what’s important is that the janitors are still doing the work. They’re still getting the job done, but now they have more meaning. It’s called job crafting. When you think about your work, your position, what are those extra things that you do that provide you more meaning, more satisfaction? Job crafting is one of those special ingredients that turns a janitor into a healer.

I’d like to share one final story with you. It’s one of my favourites. It’s a story of purpose. When President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA’s Cape Canaveral Centre in Florida, he was touring one of the facilities, and he noticed a hospital janitor. And while touring the facility, noticed the janitor. And while touring the facility, he noticed him. And he walked over and introduced himself to the janitor, and said to the man, “Tell me, what is it that you do for NASA?” And the janitor responded, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” Thank you very much.

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