Saturday, July 30, 2005

Does the Milwaukee Public Museum deserve our support?

My opinion: Not yet. Not nearly yet. The problems there are so basic, so long standing, so deep seated, and the policy makers appear to me so clueless that support is better given to more deserving institutions. I hope that changes, because the Milwaukee Public Museum has some fine staff people and could be a great institution, but the policy for today seems to be "Keep steaming for the iceberg, but throw a third of the crew overboard."

Nothing in the recent coverage by the Milwaukee Journal sentinel suggests that anyone involved even understands what the problems are.

The crisis right now is over money , but that isn't the core of the long-standing problem.

I don't think the policy makers are stupid, I think they are so ignorant that they don't even know what questions to ask, and if by accident they do ask one, they don't know enough to know a good response from a ridiculous one.

Until MPM policy makers decide which specific areas MPM is going to be a leader in (and dispose of all collections and staff which do not further those goals) they will continue this "All things to all People, except to those who know better," and they will not deserve my support. They have a decades long track record of mediocrity masquerading to the community as A National Leader. The mediocrity is not in the curators, it is in the policies which fritter away their resources by specializing in nothing at all.

I do hope MPM decides to be great at something besides running an amusement park, but until I see real evidence that there is a goal of excellence in something- and a concomitant move to stop doing anything else- they are not going to get my support.

I started volunteering at MPM about 16 years ago, and have put in over 3000 hours total in the Anthropology, History, Photography, and Conservation sections. I have tremendous respect for many staffers there, but none for the policy makers both within the museum and on the Milwaukee County Board. A couple weeks ago I signed a codicil to my will eliminating a five-figure bequest to the museum: I am satisfied that the money would be wasted.

The local politicians involved certainly give me no confidence in their thinking. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported :
"Milwaukee County Supervisor Lynne DeBruin, who chairs a County Board committee that deals with museum issues, said...she thought it would be "a major problem" if (new MPM CEO Dan) Finley chose not to move into Milwaukee County (from adjoining Waukesha County). The museum has no residency requirement but receives more than $3 million in county tax funding a year.
What kind of fool does it take for such a consideration even to come to mind? This is not a small person: the county owns the MPM building and its collections. DeBruin is a politician with some significant power: her concern in this financial and management crisis is where the next CEO lives.

I think several things need to be done in order to have a chance of turning the Milwaukee Public Museum around. I don't think any of them will be done.

First, the museum needs to be de-politicized. Comments like DeBruin's help show why: people with no understanding of museums and whose real interest is local politics need to relinquish their power by privatizing ownership of the museum building and collections. Then let the museum swim on its own, or sink. I won't hold my breath. Nearly universal opinion is that privatizing is never going to even be discussed. Not possible. Politicians will never give up their power. Unfortunately, I think this is the core structural problem the museum faces, and since addressing it isn't possible, little worthwhile can be done.

One of the effects of county ownership of collections is the politicization of collections. In order for the museum to sell any high value objects they have to get the County Board's permission. The County Board wonders why that money shouldn't be deducted from the county's annual support, so there is precious little reason to think about actively curating a collection. Make the process tough enough and no one will bother.

Second, the policy makers need to decide what each curatorial department will be excellent in doing, and stop wasting resources pretending to do anything else. In other words, be a leader at something, rather than also rans at every thing.

A number of years ago MPM bought the Tirimbina Rain Forest in Costa Rica. Since they were in a financial crisis at the time I thought the decision rather strange, but that it might prove a good long-term action if they used Tirimbina to focus the activities of the Botany Department, and possibly the Zoology Department as well. So far as I know, such a radical idea never occurred to them. They never used Tirimbina to focus staff retention and hiring on Costa Rican rain forest research. Instead they have some good people who work in areas utterly unrelated, both in Botany and Zoology. The result: curatorial and financial resources are dispersed instead of concentrated. Prominence in nothing is also the result. With the same number of curators they could be excellent in rain forest science. Instead....frittered all away, and lack of prominence makes fund raising all the harder.

This lack of focus continues through all the curatorial departments. Good people work in areas which have nothing to do with each other. Huge History collections which have little if any relationship with each other go uncurated from one decade to the next. Stamps, guns, clocks, glass, posters, decoys, Asian Export material, you name it, they have it, and they don't curate it. The museum does not have a single curator with specialized expertise in any of the above collections. They aren't interested in having such people either, because they don't specialize.

If you think that having all of the above collections is important, ask what the museum has used them for over the last decade.

Ask: What research papers have the staff published in refereed journals on any of those collections in the last decade? What scholarly publications has the museum published about those collections in the last decade? Which outside researchers have used those collections, and where were the results published?

For those collections which have seen some research and publication, what do outside scholars think of that publication? Was it accurate? Useful? Important? Fluff?

The gun and stamp and decoy collections combined are likely worth at least three million dollars, and may be worth several times that. These are community resources and the community has a right to demand an accounting of how they are used. Guess what: They aren't used. The policy makers have no idea why they should have them, beyond that they already do have them.

If the museum policy makers decided, for example, that the History Section should specialize in glass, they could sell the stamps, guns, and decoys, and use the proceeds to endow the glass collection. With three million in a specialized endowment, they could attract a a serious glass specialist to curate the collection. Think of what the glass collection could be like after a decade of a specialist spending the income from three million dollars on acquisitions. MPM would be known for something, and that would make it a lot easier to raise money.

Instead, they are not known for stamps, not known for guns, not known for decoys, and not known for glass. They are not known for clocks, not known for posters, and not known for Asian Export material, yet they have millions of dollars of the community's assets tied up. Why is this good for the community?

I am a collector (not of glass) and collectors do not long support institutions which do not give a damn about their own existing collections. If MPM cared about its history collections it would have specialists in those areas. It doesn't, and that is not the curators' fault. It is the fault of the policy makers who apparently don't know enough about their own jobs to understand that they have major policy problems. Until they do understand that, they won't move to correct the problems they don't even see.

A bit over a decade ago a senior staff person on the Exhibits Committee and I were having a conversation about exhibits, and I commented that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a policy of aiming every exhibit at three audiences: the general public- who walk in with no specialized knowledge or interest-, the interested public- primarily collectors-, and scholars. I was told that as far as MPM was concerned, the interested public didn't count.

I was floored. Who did this person think was ponying up $100,000,000 for the Milwaukee Art Museum's addition across town? Scholars? The uninterested public? I, as a decoy collector, was and still am part of that very interested public so airily dismissed. So far as the Milwaukee Public Museum is concerned, I am part of the only segment of the public which doesn't count: people who are seriously interested in the things which the museum collects.

If excellence at something is the proper goal, the Milwaukee Public Museum is a goal free institution, and that has been the case for decades.

Until the museum is controlled by policy makers who choose specific areas of expertise for each department and stop those departments from doing anything else, until they take the step of deaccessioning all of the collections which do not further those specific goals -and put the proceeds to endowing the goals they will pursue- and until all of the curators work only on furthering those goals, the Milwaukee Public Museum will not get my support.

It makes me sad that after 16 years of seeing what fine staff and collection resources the museum wastes that I doubt that I will ever write them back into my will. It is a shame that politicians and vision-free board members and senior administrators keep a potentially major institution down. It ought to be great. It can become great. But I don't think the people at the top have a clue about what the problems are, much less the solutions.

UPDATE: Bruce Murphy at Milwaukee Magazine has some interesting comments on the financial meltdown at the museum. While I consider this a separate issue, it does seem to speak to the cluelessness of the board.

I do want to be clear tho: The issues of policy, purpose, vision, and pursuit of excellence at something specific which I wrote about are not simply the result of the current board members. These are issues which appear to have been left unaddressed for decades.

UPDATE II: Please feel free to comment, either anonymously or signed, by clikking on the "Comments" icon below.

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Anonymous mc said...

Hey tom,

you might have added that mpm used to have experts in some of these areas but decided they were expendable.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005 at 3:06:00 PM HST  
Blogger TTB said...

That's true: MPM did have some excellent ppl, as it still does. Some have either left of their own accord and not been replaced or more recently have been dumped on short notice.

As I see it, part of the problem is less that MPM has never had experts in a given area as that they have refused to make a commitment to any given area, and then used that commitment to guide hiring and collections over the long term.

As new directors/CEOs have come along, each has brought personal enthusiasms which sent the museum off on some new course. Those new courses were not necessarily bad in themselves, but were a part of the lack of disciplined direction which is the fault of the board.

MPM simply does not have the resources to have multiple departments which are each excellent in multiple areas. That simply is the financial reality and quite unlikely to change.

Given that, wouldn't it be better to choose an area for long-term pursuit of excellence and stop pretending with the others? Doing so would free significant resources which could be used for improvement.

I suspect that there are any number of areas which might appropriately be chosen: there is no single right one. My point is that MPM ought to choose one of them for each department and stop frittering away resources on the others. Be excellent at something!

Tuesday, August 2, 2005 at 4:05:00 PM HST  
Anonymous Robert M Lehmkuhl said...

Please submit the entire article to the Journal-Sentiel for OP-ed page publication. No Cuts.

Robert M Lehmkuhl
Co-Sponsor of MPM Programs

Wednesday, September 7, 2005 at 11:48:00 AM HST  

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