Swaps, residencies, and sabbaticals: Part Two

In my first post on this topic, I talked a little about some of the inspirations for wanting to consider ways to go out and get new skills, and to bring in new skills. In this post, I want to look at two models and propose an idea for a platform to encourage museum staff exhanges. Details on it may follow in a later post. But before we get into the nuts and bolts of models, let’s take a moment to consider the big picture and why staff exchanges, reisdencies, and sabbaticals are important things.

from Flickr user _SID_ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Purpose of staff exchanges
The purpose of a staff exchange is provide an educational experience for both the travelling staff and the host museums’ staff. First and foremost it’s professional development, not a perk or a junket. In the models I propose below they deliver that development by providing opportunities for staff to work at other museums on projects that are relevant to their work at their home museum. Travelling staff gain new insights into how other museums approach their work. If the museums are in different countries, the international aspect gives participants an additional cultural immersion than they wouldn’t have in another museum in their county. It is an opportunity to work on familiar topics in unfamiliar settings and reflect on how different museums approach the same problems. Host museum staff broaden their experience by working with staff from other museums. And both staff and museums strengthen and broaden their ties to the larger museum community through these exchanges.

The direct exchange model
This model is pretty old-school and envisions a pair of museums that each agree to host staff from the other. In the Boston-London example, a length of stay of about six to eight weeks seemed to work well. I would propose that the museums take turns hosting, so there is never more than one person in transit at any time. Finding a mutually convenient time for two institutions to give up a staff member would probably be difficult. An asynchronous exchange would provide the greatest flexibility to the museum sending a staff member to pick the least disruptive time for the institution. I would also propose that the museums select administrators at their institution who would not only designate which staff were eligible to apply, but also could propose specific skill sets or expertise they needed for a project, so that the exchanged staff person could be of the highest value to the hosting organization.

In considering this model and in conversations with colleagues, one point has come up repeatedly. These kinds of unfocused initiatives tend to only survive as long as the people who initiated them remain at the museums. To do a general staff exchange, you need to have champions. When they move on, the relationship tends to wither. Maybe that’s OK. Not every initiative needs to last forever. A way to address this concern would be to shape the entire program around some larger common strategic goal of interest to both partners. One way to look at either of the models proposed above would be as a part of an educational initiative or content area of interest, like climate change, or sustainable engineering, or making, which each partner was already developing projects for. Exchanged staff could work on projects at the other museum that could directly inform their work back home, and each museum would benefit from the cross-fertilization.

The distributed peer-directed platform
Staff exchanges between two similar institutions are obviously valuable professional development experiences, but they have limitations. Finding the right partner being the foremost, and then getting the institutional buy-in to commit to a multi-year project that will undoubtedly cause disruption to the normal operating of the museum. There is merit to looking further afield for models and Web 2.0 platforms like Craigslist have definite potential to maximize the potential reach of the program without requiring a large baked-in bureaucracy to administer the program. The U.S. and UK governments havesponsored exchange programs in the past that have broad reach. They also require program officers, vetting protocols and elaborate application processes, all of which cost money. What if one were to envision an exchange program as a skills marketplace for member museums, where interested staff (after receiving institutional permission) could post their skills and the other museums could select staff that met their needs. Think of it as a very specialized version of Craiglist, where users could browse institutions looking for staff and staff looking for institutions. Instead of women and men, you’d have museums and staff. This model should require far less overhead and place most of the burden on the staff seeking an exchange opportunity. The platform becomes a bazaar, where we hawk our wares, and hunt for just the right kind of person.

This model would be more of a departure for the field, and more of a challenge, but it also has the advantage of being more inclusive, more cost-effective over time, and more staff-directed. For whoever hosts the platform, it also becomes a demonstration of their intention to take the lead in transforming how to think creatively about what museums can and should do to better serve our audiences.

In the next post, I’ll dig a little deeper into what such a platform might look like. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on exchanges. Plausible? kooky? Sustainable? Would any museum participate?

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3 responses to “Swaps, residencies, and sabbaticals: Part Two

  1. Shannon Harris

    First, I like the idea of swaps and exchanges more than I can say.This sort of system seems like it would lend itself beautifully to the development of staff who don’t traditionally have opportunities to travel for research (i.e. designers and fabricators and educational programmers). It seems that using craigslist would be a good way to prototype, almost. It would only take one institution willing to start an exchange- that institution would post, and find another person/institution willing to try as well. It would also allow the two individuals who wanted to be exchanged to work out logistics with their respective institutions (leave, pay, reimbursement, whatever), which basically eliminates the burden of creating some sort of standard administration. In my experience, a lot of museums would like to provide more opportunities for professional development for their staff, but hands are tied due to budget cuts. What you’re proposing would require some risk-taking in terms of shaking up the status quo, but possibly wouldn’t cost any more money (especially if the swapping institutions were in the same city, and didn’t require temporary housing of any kind). It would require individuals wiling to ask their administration to support them in something new, but museums are good at having those kind of people on staff 🙂
    Thank you for the posts! I look forward to more on this topic..

    • Hi Shannon,

      Thanks for the comments! I agree that broadening the field of potential exchangees as much as possible is a must. I also like your notion of starting in a city with a critical mass of museums. Taking the moving/traveling piece out of the equation would lower the bar enormously and help that crucial first round of museums focus on getting the exchange part right. I’m gonna totally use that bit!

  2. Do you know about the Share London scheme? It’s an online notice board where museums and individuals working in London museums can post ‘offers’ and ‘needs’ of skills and resources. Mind you, there’s only four items listed at the moment… You can find the list here: http://www.londonmuseumsgroup.org/share-london/share-listings/ (you have to register to see the listings, but that’s free). London Museums Group, which hosts the scheme, also has mediated longer-term skills sharing between museums – there’s an article on that here: http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2012/aug/09/swap-shop-museums-skill-sharing .

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