Emmie Kell

The conversation

Katherine McAlpine, Emmie Kell, Issue 117/01, p17, 01.01.2017
Why can't museums be more honest about their mistakes?
Dear Emmie: If “to err is human”, as the adage goes, to hide those errors is even more human. Museums are made up of people, and people don’t like making mistakes, let alone talking about them. Making mistakes is painful, and it’s not a surprise that people want to hush them up, sweep them under the rug and never look at them again. But that stomach-on-a-rollercoaster feeling you get when you forget to book a room/miss an important deadline/mistake the director for a visitor is probably the most useful prompt for not repeating that same mistake. So how can museums equip their staff to own their mistakes and talk about them?

Best wishes, Katherine

Dear Katherine: A lot of this boils down to leadership and creating a culture in which people feel comfortable to share their mistakes, so that everyone can learn from them and avoid them in the future. As Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” If the people working in museums don’t feel able to share their mistakes, then no one can learn from them. We need leaders who can foster an open and inclusive working environment, using tools such as Agile, to help people build in a constant cycle of learning, action and reflection.

Best wishes, Emmie

Dear Emmie
: I’ve never used Agile, and can imagine some resistance from already overworked museum professionals groaning at the introduction of another toolkit. However, creating a “healthy failure culture” is – somewhat counterintuitively – probably the best way to help avoid failure in future or, at the very least, to equip staff to fail more quickly and fail better next time. Leadership is obviously crucial to creating this culture, but it is important to remember that everyone can be a leader, wherever they sit in an organisation’s hierarchy. This means that you can help create this culture, one person at a time. Be brave enough to share your mistakes when you think they can help colleagues, and be supportive to those colleagues brave enough to share their mistakes with you.

Best wishes, Katherine

Dear Katherine: For that to happen, museums need to focus on getting communication right, providing lots of opportunities for teams and individuals to join up. They need to support individual professional development, but also organisational development, ensuring that people can reflect together on what went well and what didn’t. I asked the team at Cornwall Museums Partnership what makes the difference – they said it’s about focusing on success, so there is a positive momentum, meaning it’s easier to talk about the occasions when things don’t work. Where things do go wrong, the organisation, not the individual, owns the failure.

Best wishes, Emmie

Dear Emmie: Focusing on success is obviously important, but focusing only on success can be damaging. I set up Museum Oops after experiencing what I’ve coined “best practice fatigue” at conferences. All these accounts of everything going right seemed so unrealistic. But Museum Oops is not about focusing on failure; it’s about finding a safe way for allowing people to share their mistakes, in a way that allows us to laugh about them (hopefully).

Best wishes, Katherine

Dear Katherine
: I like the way Ed Catmull (co-founder of Pixar) talks about mistakes in his book Creativity Inc. There is a great chapter on fear and failure. He says: “Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them ... management’s job is not to prevent risk, but to build the ability to recover.”

Best wishes, Emmie

Katherine McAlpine is the public programmes producer at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Emmie Kell is the chief executive of the Cornwall Museums Partnership


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Jonathan Gammond
Access , Wrexham County Borough Museum
06.01.2017, 16:15
Matthew Syed, the sports journalist, presented a programme on how different businesses and industries learn from their mistakes and their attitude towards failure. He compared the varying approaches of airlines and hospitals, but i expect it could be applied across the whole of the public, private and third sectors. Museum Oops sounds like a great idea - it has to be better than the pincer movement of best practice potemkin villages and powerpoint presentations.
05.01.2017, 12:21
If Ms McAlpine is so keen to generate an environment where museums and their officers come clean about faux pas, I would suggest she looks a little closer to home.

I have grabbed visual data that pinpoints many museum mistakes & one in particular that confirms her NMM employers blocked approximately 8,000 public blog comments in 2013. Quite a blunder for a national institution, who you would think might have noticed that no-one was contacting them.

I also note that Ms McAlpine’s erroneous tweet regarding the builder of the ancient monument The Queen’s House (under the guardianship of the NMM) was never acknowledged.

Yes, the concept of ‘Museum Oops’ is well founded, but it must be embraced by all and with far greater sincerity. An occasional courteous nod to individuals who identify such ‘oopses’ would also not go amiss. Of course, I would not include myself in that group because the aforementioned museum has blocked any correspondence with me “at any level”. So perhaps the public should not expect any thanks for assisting their continual improvement.