Taking over a museum service in the midst of a global pandemic is no mean feat. But in the past few months, there have been some significant changes at leadership level among England’s civic museums and galleries.
In October, Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah became the joint chief executives of Birmingham Museums Trust, one of only a few examples of job sharing at the top level of the sector. Wajid and Mensah have joined what remains a small cohort of people of colour to reach leadership level in UK museums, although their partnership is a hopeful sign that things may be changing.
Around the same time, Hedley Swain was appointed as the first chief executive of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, following the retirement of the organisation’s longstanding head, Janita Bagshawe, who spearheaded the formerly council-run museum service’s transfer to a trust.
At Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam), Iain Watson retired at the end of March after 11 years as director. He is being replaced by Keith Merrin, who has been the chief executive of Sunderland Culture since 2017, a role he combined with being director of the National Glass Centre.
Meanwhile in November, the sector mourned the death of John Roles, who had been head of Leeds Museums & Galleries since 2004. David Hopes has taken over as his successor.
The incoming wave of museum directors will be facing a world that could not have been anticipated in any leadership training module.
“My first day was the start of the second national lockdown in England, so we were thrown straight into crisis management,” says Swain. Taking the helm at an organisation during the pandemic – and one that has just transformed its business and governance model – has not been easy.
It’s about understanding that everyone is different – that stress and anxiety feel very different for different people – and just trying to support them.
“As a leader, you want the opportunity to meet people, share experiences and build relationships, and that’s been hard so far. I have had the opportunity to visit some sites and meet some people face to face, and that was so rich – it makes you realise what you are missing with everyone else,” he says.
Swain says the qualities of good management, such as listening, communication and consistency, become more important in a crisis. But the experience has also brought new insight into what thoughtful and rounded leadership should look like.
“It’s about understanding that everyone is different – that stress and anxiety feel very different for different people – and just trying to support them,” he says. “It makes you more conscious of trying to look after people.”
Relishing the challenge
In spite of the issues, Swain is relishing the challenge of taking over a newly minted trust after years of overseeing similar transfers in his role as the director of museums at Arts Council England.
“That was one of the things that attracted me to the job,” he says. “Having worked with other trusts, I know what things are important: being on top of the finances and having a close relationship with the local authority, but also understanding there are things to adapt to in order to become more business-like.”
Job sharing in a leadership role
“To use a sporting analogy, job sharing is akin to the Le Mans 24-hour motor race, which takes two great people to compete together, unlike Formula 1, which pits them against each other. Sara is a great talent and I’m learning lots from her. Having two heads is better than one.
We can bounce ideas off each other and make better decisions. Also, we can be in two places at once!”
Zak Mensah, joint chief executive, Birmingham Museums Trust
“Over my career, I’ve seen a tragic waste of talent because too often institutions that appoint a person of colour to senior leadership roles with an expectation of changing the organisation and delivering on its diversity and inclusion agenda, have not changed the culture of the organisation, putting the leader under intolerable pressure. The more senior you are, the more likely you are to be the ‘only person
of colour in the room’. By job-sharing with a fellow person of colour, we minimise that pressure on ourselves.”
Sara Wajid, joint chief executive, Birmingham Museums Trust
The pandemic has not altered the trust’s long-term vision and operating model, says Swain: “Everything will just take a bit longer and we’ll have to be a bit more patient.”
He does see the pandemic bringing significant changes to some areas of museum work. Outdoor spaces are starting to be seen as almost another venue in themselves, says Swain, and approaches to using digital technology are evolving.
“There was a mad rush to turn everything digital – some of it was bonkers – and then digital fatigue set in,” he says. “Now it’s more mature and we’re beginning to see some interesting stuff that uses digital in a more sophisticated way.”
Difficult times can bring out the best in people, and that has certainly been the case in the museum sector during Covid-19, says Swain. “It does feel tough at the moment but it also feels satisfying. There’s a challenge and we’re all in it together.”
Stepping down after more than 25 years at an institution brings its own perspective. Watson, who worked at Twam for two decades – plus a seven-year stint in the 1980s – retired in March, a milestone that has put him in a reflective mood.
“You can read 100 books on leadership and you think you will have a good idea of what’s involved, but it is very different,” he says. “There is still great support and you can share some of the burden, but once you’re in that role, you’re singled out. When it comes to things such as budget, you’re going to have to make those decisions and take responsibility for them, as you’re the conduit between the organisation and the board and stakeholders.”
The sector is changing and it is less lonely at the top than it once was. Watson believes in empowering people and using everyone in the organisation’s skills.
“Most people have recognised that heroic leadership generally fails,” he says. “It is about humble leadership and the importance of those interpersonal relationships.”
Rather than merely surviving the current crisis, Watson hopes that civic museums will be able to thrive after the pandemic. “It has been a press of the pause button. There are some things we’ve realised we were doing well and don’t need to change. Other things we always wanted to change but never had the chance to. And there are some things that will have to change.”
What qualities does a leader need in a crisis?
Uncertain times require people-centred leadership. It is how you connect with others and have that empathy – listening to people, being collaborative and flexible, but also decisive. Emotional intelligence from a leader is important. You’ve got to show that you’re human. It chimes very much with the sector becoming more audience focused and community focused, valuing difference and perspective.
Jo Jones, head of arts and museums, Leicester City Council
Watson says Covid-19 has fundamentally shifted the work model, which will bring challenges and opportunities for his successor. He sees an opportunity for museums in place-making and reviving the towns and cities whose high streets have been devastated by the pandemic.
“I’m not sure about retail coming back,” he says. “There will be even more made of the social function. It will be important to have that relationship with the local authority, to look at its priorities and ask whether you have the resources to support that. Museums will still have a universal offer, but they will need to develop more targeted offers aligned with service priorities.”
The next generation of leaders will also need to be digitally literate and adaptable, he says. But their key quality should be an awareness of the importance of diversity, which Watson believes will be crucial to the success of museums.
“It’s about recognising that our understanding of the world has changed massively over the past 20 or 30 years,” he says. “People want to see themselves represented in the museum at every level.”