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A Parent By Any Other Name….Part 1

Museums have all sorts of parent organizations. State, county, and municipal groups are probably the most common, but there are many academic museums, too.

When I first moved from a private, non-profit small museum to a small museum within a university, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. My ‘boss’ was the school’s dean, not the chairperson of the board of trustees. In fact, there was no board! The dean didn’t pay much attention to me, as long as I didn’t cause too much trouble.

Never before had I enjoyed so much autonomy. For example, I never tired of watching the custodian empty my wastebasket every day, even though that’s something in every small museum director’s job description.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. I had exchanged a board for a bureaucracy. If I wasn’t completing countless employment, privacy, security, and non-disclosure forms, I was watching training videos. I soon learned how to buy acid-free materials without having the requisitions and purchase orders bouncing back. My most cherished possession was my personal university-issued credit card. As long as I didn’t abuse the privilege, I could buy stuff anywhere without any paperwork.

Unfortunately, like Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” that custodian who emptied my wastebasket began dusting the exhibits. That required a complete lockout, which in turn, had its own repercussions. Maintenance would gladly change a light bulb, as long as we did the paperwork and paid a hefty fee. I was soon doing minor maintenance and cleaning chores, as I had before.

I never thought that I’d miss my old board, but here’s the kicker: whenever I applied for outside funding, or if I wanted to participate in an outside program (e.g., MAP, CAP), I had to get a “signature representing the governing authority.” And our university’s governing authority was the Board of Regents. There were so many levels above me in the university hierarchy that I would have had to go to heaven to find them. Getting a signature from an assistant this, an associate that, or some other pooh-bah resulted in too many missed deadlines.

Academia, like a parent, can provide a loving, caring and supportive atmosphere. Likewise, recipients aren’t always aware of the source of the money. But the academic museum administrator, like the clever child, can learn how to work the system.

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