Saturday, September 26, 2009

Could Frank Oppenheimer Get Hired To Run A Museum Today?

One tiny, but striking, section of K.C. Cole's biography of Frank Oppenheimer (the founder of The Exploratorium) entitled something incredibly wonderful happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up  is the section that quotes F. Van Kasper, the former chairman of The Exploratorium's board: 

Frank couldn't get hired to run the Exploratorium today, Van told me.  "Frank couldn't get hired to run any museum today."  And because the job of director was now seen mainly as a matter of fundraising, "he wouldn't want to be hired either."

If that doesn't sum up the current state of science centers (and perhaps all modern museums, at least in the U.S. with its execrable governmental funding structure toward cultural institutions) I don't know what does.

Part of the reason the quote about Frank Oppenheimer struck me so much is that I've been thinking about a panel I'll be part of at the upcoming ASTC Conference called "Are Science Centers Missing The Science?"   One of the thoughts I keep circling back to as I prepare my talk is the willingness of many museum directors to bring any "dog and pony show" to their institution, no matter how tangentially related to their mission, in the hopes of raising funds.

The museum field needs more passionate (and even eccentric) leaders like Frank Oppenheimer.  But the museum field also needs more funding, widely distributed to all types and sizes of museums, to allow more diverse leadership styles (and by extension, more diverse museum offerings) the space to flourish.

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  1. Paul

    Great post, as ever! I'm really interested in the different facets of leadership in the science centre context. If you take the analogy from the arts world, Frank Oppenheimer was effectively the Exploratorium's first Artistic Director. Most science centre leaders today are, at least in part, executive directors. If an opera company or a theatre can distinguish between these roles, why do we find it so hard? Maybe we shoudl be seeking out the artistic directors from science centres and leave the CEO's to concetrate on the business?

    Andy Lloyd

  2. Interesting comment Andy.

    I personally have mixed feelings about the success of the CEO/AD combination.

    Usually the notion of "sharing" power doesn't seem to work well in practice.

    (In the same section of K.C. Cole's biography it mentions that the notion of just such a "power split" was suggested to Frank Oppenheimer and he summarily rejected it.)

  3. The CEO/AD combination totally depends on the individuals. There are successes and failures made of all the variations - equal status, artistic subordinate to executive, executive subordinate to artistic or everything tied up in one person. (For what it's worth, I think the executive subordiate to artistic is probably best, if you have the right people). I think the deeper problem in our sector may be that we don't even see the issue, which is why your post is so useful!