I’m not a Negative Nelly, honest! I just need some time to think.

I’ve had a couple of conversations over the past few weeks that haven’t gone so well. The common theme has been someone wanting to do something new, unplanned, or otherwise out of the ordinary, and I fear that they’ve taken my reaction as being lukewarm at best, road-blocking at worst. I really don’t mean to be!

At my previous workplace, I did a DiSC profile – for those that haven’t come across it before, DiSC characterises your preferences and behaviours across four dimensions:

  • Dominance: emphasis on shaping the environment by overcoming opposition to accomplish results
  • influence: emphasis on shaping the environment by influencing or persuading others
  • Steadiness: emphasis on co-operating with others within existing circumstances to carry out the task
  • Conscientiousness: emphasis on working conscientiously within existing circumstances to ensure quality and accuracy.

People who score strongly in Dominance and influence tend to like to act quickly, get things done and influencing others. They are comfortable with risk. In contrast, people who score highly in Steadiness and Conscientiousness like to take their time and consider all the options before acting. They don’t like risk so their thinking is framed by how to control it.

The ever-insightful Paul Bowers described high DI people as Diaz, and high C people as Cody. He wrote:

Diaz is biased to action, to get on with it, make radical change. Cody is motivated to keep everything steady. Diaz is starting fires; Cody is fireproofing everything.

So when I did my DiSC profile, I found that I was strongest in Conscientiousness and Steadiness (I’m a big old Cody!). On a good day this makes me calm, considerate, loyal, and systematic in my approach. However, I’m not comfortable with new variables entering the equation, particularly if I don’t have the time to think through all the possibilities and impacts. I hate making decisions on the spot. I’m not someone who trusts my gut. This nervousness can be interpreted as resistance, when what is really going through my head is:

  • what problems might we encounter doing [X], and how might we work around them? (This is “how” thinking, not “no” thinking)
  • who needs to be consulted, and will feel angry or upset if a decision is made without them?
  • how will [X] be interpreted by others, and will it seem rational and defensible? Will I inadvertently be setting a problematic precedent?
  • what if I say yes now and I find out something later that means it simply can’t happen? I’ll be going back on my word and I hate letting people down.

Notice in the definitions above, that both Steadiness and Conscientiousness refer to within existing circumstances. As much as I admire (and envy) the bold types who can say Yes to that crazy idea today and figure out how to do it later, I naturally tend towards colouring within the lines.

I wish I were more adventurious, and I like working with “Diaz” types (if I trust them). They give me the gentle push I need, and I help them by being the person who does all the systematic thinking and analysis needed to make the crazy idea actually work.

In the meantime, I’m working on how I can manage myself in the moment that a new idea comes up so I don’t come across as inadvertently negative.

Tips about mentoring

Over the last couple of years I’ve participated in a couple of formal mentoring programs, have introduced a couple of staff and colleagues to prospective mentors/mentees, and have several great colleagues who have been excellent sounding boards for me (and I hope they agree I’ve returned the favour).

From my experience, the great benefit of a mentor is that it’s someone who you can discuss issues and challenges in the workplace confidentially. As they are not an immediate colleague, manager or direct report they can be impartial. A good mentor will hold a mirror up to you, challenge you to think about things in new ways, and offer reassurance in response to crises of confidence and bouts of impostor syndrome.

Your mentor need not be from the same industry as you, although I found a mentor from the museums/cultural sector was a much better fit for me than a previous mentor who was from a general business background.

Here are a few more things I’ve learned:

Even CEOs have mentors

I had assumed that you only have a mentor when you are in the early stages of your career, or are eyeing the next rung up on the ladder. But it turns out I was wrong. No matter how far you’ve progressed in your career, it can still help to have a mentor. In fact, I can imagine that CEOs would particularly benefit from having someone out of their organization to confide in: it can be lonely at the top.

Mentors aren’t necessarily more experienced than you

Yes most mentor-mentee relationships will work like that, but reverse mentoring can also be beneficial, particularly as a way for a more senior leader to increase their technological savvy, or to better understand how they can foster diversity in the workplace.

Peer mentoring, where the mentor and mentee are similar in career stage, can also be useful. In this case who is the mentor and who is the mentee could be blurry, or it can change over time.

Is a mentor what you really need? Or is it a coach or a sponsor?

Unlike professional coaches, who usually work with you for a short time period in order to help you build a particular skill, mentors are a more general sounding board and source of advice. Sponsors are a more senior person who will advocate for you in getting new opportunities. It may be more difficult to be fully honest and vulnerable in front of a sponsor. This infographic helps summarise the difference between the three. But the lines between mentor, coach and sponsor are blurry; there are no hard and fast rules. The main thing is to be clear about what you’re trying to get out of the relationship.

Build a common understanding early – and if you can’t then move on

As well as you being clear about what you want to get out of the mentoring relationship, make sure you and your mentor/mentee are on the same page about this. Are you looking for personal development, or more general business advice? It can be frustrating if you feel that you and your mentor are speaking at cross purposes.

And it might be that you and your mentor/mentee don’t quite click, for all sorts of reasons. If this happens, it’s best for everyone if you acknowledge that you’re not seeing eye to eye, and politely move on. Don’t be discouraged from trying again if your first attempt doesn’t work out.

Mentors can be for a reason, a season, or a lifetime

Most formal mentoring programs I’ve encountered run for a period of 6-12 months. The end of the program may mean the end of the relationship, and mentor and mentee bid each other farewell. However, a formal program might just be the beginning of something that lasts for an entire career. Or it might ebb and flow over time.

Don’t be shy in seeking out a mentor

Formal mentoring programs are a great way to get introduced to a mentor if you don’t know where to start: you get matched with a person who has put their hand up to be a mentor, saving you having to search/research a suitable mentor and then having to approach them cold. But don’t let fear of rejection prevent you from asking someone to be a mentor: mentors often say they get as much out of the relationship as the mentee, and most prospective mentors will probably be delighted to be asked. If you do ask someone to be your mentor, remember the following:

  • It’s up to the mentee to drive the relationship, frequency of meeting, and so on.
  • Be prepared to listen and act on your mentor’s advice. Reflect on constructive criticism.
  • Don’t take it personally if someone declines to be your mentor. It could be that they are simply too busy. Also, don’t rule out the possibility that the prospective mentor has their own sense of impostor syndrome, and can’t imagine they could possibly be of use to you!


Postscript: I am one of the 2017-2018 cohort of an Executive Mentoring Program sponsored by the Council of Australasian Museum Directors, and facilitated by McCarthy Mentoring.


Words of wisdom for a new role

Last week was my final week at the South Australian Museum. I have recently accepted the position of Assistant Director, Content and Innovation at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and start next week.

While I take a few days to regroup and plan to (partially) relocate my life to Darwin, I thought I’d ask my Twitter and LinkedIn networks for any words of wisdom or recommended reading for a person starting in a new role. Here is a selection of the thoughtful, insightful comments that came back:

My LinkedIn network also recommended some great reading and resources:

{You can either follow the comment thread or below is a summary of some of the suggested resources}

Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt (coincidentally I’m in the middle of reading this)

The First 90 Days by Michael D Watkins

Manager Tools podcast

Gung Ho and One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard

Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller (which is referred to in one of the articles I linked to in my previous blog post)

. . . plus several others.

This should be enough reading and general inspiration to get me started . . .




MGA Conference 2018 – Agents of Change

The theme of the 2018 Museums Galleries Australia conference was agents of change – and the delegates and line up of speakers delivered on that promise. Whether it was theme of change, the fact that MGA now has an active emerging professionals network, or just that I’m getting older, I really noticed the presence of younger museum professionals who were willing to speak up and challenge the status quo: both in the conference sessions and the parallel twitter discussions.

A recurring theme was consideration of who is absent: from our institutions, from our leadership teams, from our collections and exhibition content? Where are (to name a few): The queer voices? The voice of people living with illness or disability? The voices of First Nations and people of colour? Are we really doing enough to address these absences or are we simply paying lip service? What do we do to keep institutional focus on addressing absence, when it isn’t captured in the dollars-and-numbers-through-the-door KPIs that we are expected to meet?

An article I came across recently is a good read about the dangers of measuring performance by metrics alone:

Contrary to commonsense belief, attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking. The intelligence analysts who ultimately located Osama bin Laden worked on the problem for years. If measured at any point, the productivity of those analysts would have been zero. Month after month, their failure rate was 100 per cent, until they achieved success. From the perspective of the superiors, allowing the analysts to work on the project for years involved a high degree of risk: the investment in time might not pan out. Yet really great achievements often depend on such risks.

One of the keynote speakers was Kaywin Feldman, the Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President of Art, and author of the recent article Museum leadership in a time of crisis. This article was shared and quoted repeatedly in my social media feeds in the lead up to the conference. One of my favourites was:

When people ask me to pick out the skills most needed by museum directors today, they expect to hear ‘fundraising’. Instead, I say ‘agility, closely followed by bravery’. The days have passed of primarily preserving and perpetuating an institution – of a ‘keep on keepin’ on’ attitude – and the status quo is actually the riskiest place to be.

This idea of the need for bravery, and that keeping on doing the things we’re doing is no longer going to cut it, was another theme that recurred throughout the conference. To paraphrase one of the speakers, we tend to give more weight to the risks of change, and not enough attention to the opportunities (or the risks of doing nothing). The things that make our current Boards, traditional audiences and other current stakeholders comfortable may be the very things that are making those absent voices uncomfortable (and so absent). This reminded me of the ‘doors’ analogy Nina Simon used in the Art of Relevance – the traditional ways in have worked just fine for the people who are already there, and those people can take some convincing that  new routes in might be needed (and they might not always be comfortable with what comes in).

Some other links from the conference that are worth catching:

Twitter recap: Tuesday 5 June

Twitter recap: Wednesday 6 June

Twitter recap: Thursday 7 June

Ten things for my museum colleagues working in digital – Seb Chan

Audience first: exhibition and experience – Paul Bowers and Beth Hise

Curating your online presence – workshop I presented (and which has given me the impetus to resurrect this blog)

I’m sure there’s plenty more I’ve forgotten to mention, and others who might have seen it in a different light. I’d appreciate you addressing my oversights in the comments.

Back on the blogging horse

Hello! It’s been a while . . . 

After nearly three years of neglect, I thought I should dust off this old blog as a prelude to the workshop I’m running next month for the Emerging Professionals Network of Museums Galleries Australia.

A couple of months ago I was invited to put together this workshop on “Curating your online presence” – how to use blogging, and social media to build a professional profile and develop your career. So, the complete absence of activity on this blog was feeling a little embarrassing to say the least!

Over the course of the afternoon, I’ll be going through how I’ve used LinkedIn, Twitter and blogging as networking and professional development tools. I’ll also be talking about the difficulties of sustaining a blog over several years, speaking from my own personal experience. Blogging as a student or even as a freelancer is one thing, but doing it when you’re a senior manager is another ball game entirely (at least for me).

The past three years at South Australian Museum have sometimes been a steep learning curve – I’ve learned a lot about myself, teams, how to be a better manager and leader, and the challenges of keeping an eye on the bigger picture when you’ve got myriad day-to-day issues popping up. Some of this has been a very personal journey that I won’t share here. But maybe, just maybe, the invitation to run this workshop will be the kick I need to come back to the blog just a tad more often.

Silence. . .

Wow – nearly three months have passed since I last wrote a post. I knew it had been a while, but not quite *that* long. The longest silence ever. And this in the same year when I pledged to write 50 posts before 2015 was out. Well, that worked out well then, didn’t it??

To be fair to myself, when I made that pledge back in January I had no idea I’d be returning to full-time employment. And I didn’t predict the impact that would have on my ability (or inclination) to blog.

When I started blogging back in mid 2010, I was freelancing part-time while I worked out what I wanted to do next. Those of you who have been paying attention knew what happened – I went on to do a PhD. Both as a freelancer and PhD student, my time was more flexible, and blogging didn’t necessarily feel like an extracurricular activity that I had to fit around a “day job”. Plus, not being tied to a particular institution made me feel freer to share publicly what I was doing and thinking. Although it’s totally a matter of self-censorship, rather than anything my employer has said to me on the matter, the fact remains that blogging about the day job feels a bit too personal. I can’t easily anonymise my experiences by saying “a client of mine” or using other distancing rhetorical devices.

Furthermore, I’ve found that entering a management role (and a newly created role at that), with all the meetings to attend, staff to manage, policies to develop and strategies to implement that such a role entails, has been very absorbing: temporally, cognitively, emotionally. Frankly, at the end of the week, Netflix has been a much more attractive prospect than spending the weekend reading the literature and blogging.

This doesn’t mean I’m hanging up my blogging spurs just yet. Maybe once I get a bit more settled in the role, my mojo might come back. Maybe I’ll keep the blog posts for reporting on conferences or places I visit on my travels. Or when the inclination to return to the literature comes back. We’ll see. . . .

Digesting ‘Food for Curious Minds’

Compared to Interpret Europe, which, with around 100 delegates was quite intimate in scale, the 1100-delegate ECSITE conference was a bit of a shock to the system – magnified by the fact I’d barely had time to decompress from one conference before leaping into the next.


I used to be a regular at ECSITE, but this was my first time since the 2007 conference in Lisbon. It was also the first time that I had been a presenter.

The conference website has storify summaries, presentation slides and other info, which I’ve bookmarked to come back to at a future date (after the conference I took a well-earned holiday in Venice, hence the delay in writing this wrap-up post). But for now, here are a few of my first quick impressions, more about the delegate experience than the conference content per se:

  • Lots of delegates means LOTS of parallel sessions (up to 10). This can lead to both choice paralysis and session envy. It also got me pondering the psychology behind having lots of (too much?) choice – does it mean you’re less satisfied with the session you *do* choose, because you’re haunted by the prospect of the session you *didn’t* choose being AMAZING? I’m not sure how the organisers can get around such a conundrum in such a large conference, but I think it’s definitely a factor in how delegates perceive their experience.
  • With so many sessions happening at once, it could be very easy to get confused about what was happening where. Keeping true to the theme of the conference, the organisers named each room after a well-known Italian food. This signage was reinforced on the stairs, in the lift, and on floor graphics throughout the MUSE conference venue.

Directional signage on the stairs, saying what room's on what floor.
Directional signage on the stairs, saying what room’s on what floor.

  • Organisers made clear what measures they had taken to make the conference as sustainable as possible (using biodegradable cups and cutlery for the breaks was the most obvious). They also invited creative participation through the “Sustainability is our favourite ingredient – what’s yours?” chalkboard wall lining an underpass linking the two main conference venues.

Chalk board that delegates progressively added to and decorated over the course of the conference.
Chalk board that delegates progressively added to and decorated over the course of the conference.

  • Because by this stage of the trip my energy levels were flagging a bit, I kept a low profile during the evening events, attending only one and even then leaving quite early as I was presenting in the 9am slot the following morning.
  • The session in question (link to slides here) was quite well-received, and we had several people staying back afterwards to talk more about our work.
  • I also presented a poster on my PhD research during the Project Showcase session. However, this felt a little tacked on to the side of the Trade Show which was happening during every break. Delegates who were not playing close attention to the programme may not have even realised it was happening. I didn’t see that many people browsing the posters, anyway. But a friend came by and captured this snap:

Poster presentation at ECSITE 2015 (photo by @elinoroberts)

  • Most of the sessions I attended were ones relating to Natural History Museums (since I’m now working in one), Visitor Research, or Mobile Technology. There have been some interesting developments in advancing a research agenda for Natural History Museums in Europe, and collaborations between museums and university researchers more generally. With respect to Mobile Technology, I got the sense that there is still quite a gap between what tech companies are selling and what is practically possible on the exhibition floor, at least at the sort of price point museums are usually working at. But more on that later, once I’ve digested my notes and my thoughts.

Back to the office tomorrow!

Musing on Interpret Europe

It will take me a while to fully digest the last few days. A conference with a theme of “sensitive heritage, sensitive interpretation“, and that includes field trips to sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, is hardly going to be lightweight stuff. A lot of us frequently found ourselves in a reflective mood, and it was interesting to share thoughts and feelings with other delegates, often coming from very different perspectives (in the order of 30 countries were represented). The conference was small enough (around 100 delegates) that you had a chance to meet more or less everyone, however briefly, and this reinforced the sense of us all having a shared experience.

The conference had a good balance of theoretical and practical sessions, so I’m left with much to ponder as well as things I’m keen to try out once I get home. Although there were plenty of long days, most days had the format of a morning keynote, parallel sessions before lunch, and then a field trip running into the evening. This offered a welcome change of pace that helped counter the “session fatigue” you can get when spending whole days in seminar rooms.

Some quick take aways, which I hope to expand upon in future blog posts:

  • James Carter and Patrick Lehnes’ session on Interpretive Philosophy: interpretation can be seen to have a foot in both the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Both have their benefits and pitfalls. But I find this an interesting framework for thinking about the different sides of a controversial heritage topic.
  • Nicole Deufel’s research on “preferred readings” and the interesting differences revealed between English and German visitors to site related to their respective national histories.
  • Visitor journey mapping as a way of conceptualising all facets of the visitor experience in a holistic way (workshop by Jane Beattie and Chuck Lennox)
  • The transition from “history” to “memory”. This was a common thread throughout several sessions, but it crystallised for me during Roger White’s session on interpreting industrial heritage. Similarly to how I’ve described before, it struck me how there is a qualitative difference between heritage related to the recent past (i.e. within a generation of the people who actually lived through it) and that related to more distant times. More recent heritage also seems to be the more sensitive, controversial or contentious. It also presents interpretive and management challenges when a site’s story makes the transition from a “memory” era (within the last 75-125 years typically), to a “history” era (the past as a foreign country).
  • High quality, atmospheric exhibition design at both the John Paul II birthplace museum and the Schindler Factory Museum.
  • Finally, Eva Sandberg’s reminder that controversy is an opportunity: if a topic is controversial, it means it’s relevant, and that people care about it. Controversial and relevant trumps bland and boring.

Now it’s time to head off to Trento for ECSITE 2015. . . .

The Gaze of the Other

Keynote address by Dr Andrzej Leder, Polish philosopher and essayist, at the Interpret Europe conference in Krakow, Poland, 7th June 2015 [1].

Consider the following: an Israeli husband and wife, aged 57 and 60, are arrested at Balice Airport, Krakow, accused of removing objects (spoons and other small domestic items) from Auschwitz and attempting to take them out of the country. The maximum penalty for such a crime under Polish law is 10 years’ imprisonment.

A spokesperson for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum considers this a “crime of a special dimension” – such objects are the only things that remain of the 1 million plus people who faced annihilation at the death camp. Removal of these remnants represents a further annihilation.

The couple plead guilty and are fined. They apologise and return home. Once back in Israel, however, the couple are less repentant. While they regret any hurt their actions may have caused Holocaust survivors, they maintain that they did not really ‘steal’ anything. The objects concerned had been recently unearthed by weather, sitting in the ground. Their motivation for removing the objects was to ‘save’ them by turning them over to the custodianship of the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel.

The couple and the Museum spokesperson thus have competing moral frameworks, or “social imaginaries” to use Leder’s term. They may well know and understand each other’s perspectives on an intellectual level, but they choose to ignore or otherwise fail to acknowledge the aspects that challenge their own moral framework.

The couple would have known that Auschwitz-Birkenau is a museum site, and you can’t just take objects from museums whenever you please. However, many Holocaust survivors do not recognise Auschwitz’s legitimacy as a trustee of Holocaust memory. They consider the only true trustee with the moral authority to act in this role to be Yad Vashem.

Similarly, the Museum would have known that the couple, being Israelis of late middle age, would very likely have had direct connections to Holocaust survivors and that their intent was preservation, not destruction. Nonetheless, how can Auschwitz be properly managed and maintained if every visitor with a link to a Holocaust survivor is entitled to treat the place as their own property?

In its response to the incident, the Museum management emphasised the significance of Auschwitz as a grave site, for which they are ultimately responsible. In Polish tradition, the guardian of a grave has a right to speak for the dead. Delegitimising the right of Poles to take this guardianship role is seen as the first step down the road as casting the Polish people as bystanders, complicit in the Holocaust.

In post-war Europe, there were many competing different narratives and social imaginaries at play. There are the perpetrators and victims, those who were complicit (Vichy France and Quisling Norway for instance), and many questions about whether others did enough to stop or prevent what happened. With the lowering of the Iron Curtain, there are further narratives in the West that served to cast Eastern Europeans as the ‘bad guys’.

All of these different social imaginaries create Us and Them moral frameworks. Such comfortable certainties deny ambiguities, and ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ are) are always the ‘good guys’ in our own moral frameworks. Such positions undermine empathy. We cannot accept what the Other says, even if we understand it on an intellectual level, because to do so would undermine the social imaginaries/moral frameworks of our world.

Resolving this requires what Leder calls a “Kantian imperative of empathy”. This means being ready to face inner tension between your own moral position and that of another. It also means being willing to look at yourself through the eyes of the other – and endure that gaze. Knowledge alone is not enough.


[1] The official session title was Imperative of Empathy – the Kantian pre-condition for any kind of European future. This summary has been hastily pulled together based on my notes taken during the session and without benefit of having a copy of Dr Leder’s slides (I’ll post a link to them if they become available). Any errors or misrepresentations are mine.

Exhibiting Evolution in 3D

While in the Netherlands recently, I took a day trip to Leiden to visit the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. I didn’t know a lot about it before I arrived, and it was much bigger than I expected – particularly since it looks pretty modest upon arrival. For some reason, the entrance is via a historic building that includes the shop, cafe and storage lockers, with entrance to the main centre (a large modern building spanning some 6 floors) via a long enclosed pedestrian bridge across a highway. This brings you to the second level of the main building, with the path upstairs looking the most inviting.

Arrival point to the main exhibitions.
Arrival point to the main exhibitions.

This upstairs gallery, Nature’s Theatre, is an impressively comprehensive overview of biodiversity, encompassing not just animals but also plants and fungi (and a few microbes here and there as well) – areas that often get overlooked in favour of more animal-centric displays.

Birds display. I liked how many of the birds were shown in flight, in contrast to the flightless birds that were anchored to the plinth.
Birds display. I liked how many of the birds were shown in flight, in contrast to the flightless birds that were anchored to the plinth.

A walk through the plant kingdom.
A walk through the plant kingdom.

There was a lot more to this exhibition’s layout than first met the eye. On the floor of the plants picture above, you may notice a couple of greenish yellow lights set within metal discs. At first these didn’t really mean a lot to me, with their seemingly haphazard positioning and labelling only in Dutch. Their significance only dawned on me after visiting the Primeval Parade, on the level below.

An early section of the Primeval Parade.
An early section of the Primeval Parade (note the lit-up structures set into the ceiling- they’re important later).

This exhibition follows a spiral path through the earliest stages of Earth’s history, the formation of life and the world’s earliest fossils through to the era of the dinosaurs and concluding with extinct species from the last Ice Age.

A view into the Primeval Parade.
A view into the Primeval Parade.

While in this exhibition, I’d noticed a rather dense array of tree-like structures set into the ceiling. They appeared to be linked to a central spiral structure that lit up periodically. I never did quite figure out how that worked (whether it was triggered by visitor use or followed a predetermined cycle), but it gradually dawned on me that the central spiral represented an evolutionary timeline, and the tree-like branches were different evolutionary lineages.

The central spiral exhibit.
The central spiral exhibit.

Some of the tree branches terminated in white discs with a genus(?) name on it, as you can see in the picture above. Others went through the ceiling and into the floor of the Nature’s Theatre exhibition above . . . becoming those greenish floor lights! Thus the layout of Nature’s Theatre was driven by the evolutionary history of each lineage, as outlined in the Primeval Parade exhibition below.

Once the penny dropped and I knew what was going on, this added a whole new meaning to the layout of each exhibition space. I spent a lot more time looking around and across the two floors than I would have otherwise. The arrangement of these two floors is one of the most complex and clever bits of 3D spatial communication I’ve seen. And I was impressed – as a scientist. But as a visitor researcher, I have some questions/caveats. How clever is too clever? Do visitors generally grasp what’s going on? (It might be more obvious to Dutch speakers, as Dutch labelling is more extensive than English, understandably enough.) How much does it matter if they don’t? What difference does it make if the main target audience is schools rather than general visitors, and the layout is used as a teaching tool?

Either way, I’m glad I had a chance to see it on an opportunistic day-trip to Leiden.