Sunday 4 June 2017


It’s always a pleasure and an inspiration reading Nina Simon’s posts. But the ones I’ve always liked the most were those where she shares her learnings from being in a position of responsibility, such as Year One as a Museum Director… Survived! or her latest Why We Moved the Abbott Square Opening -  A Mistake, a Tough Call and a Pivot.

We’re all too used to museum directors – or other people with a responsibility to lead in our field – available to discuss happy endings. Rarely the process, never the failures. Even when they feel compelled to comment on actions and situations that receive negative criticism, there always seems to be a way of getting around the whole thing, finding justifications, concentrating on irrelevant details, offering alternative truths. Anything that can take our attention away from what should essentially be discussed. Anything but a clear “It’s true, we were wrong about this, we’re here to discuss it.”

Nina Simon’s latest post inevitably reminded me of the recent re-inauguration of the National Coach Museum. For those not familiar with this case, this national museum was hastily inaugurated by the Portuguese government in 2015, as a new building and a warehouse for the collection of coaches, since its museography was not yet ready. Still, it was called a “museum” and it charged as a “museum”, while the absence of museography was presented as a minor detail by the then Secretary of State for Culture. In a year of general election, the museum had to open no matter what.

The museography finally being ready, the National Coach Museum was re-inaugurated last month. The term “re-inaugurated” was used both with or without irony by journalists, museum professionals and citizens alike. And yet, some people in a position of responsibility willingly entered a game of words, objected to the use of the term “re-inauguration” and informed us that this was “just” the official presentation of the project of museography. As a citizen, and as a museum professional, I felt upset and deeply offended. In this environment of “anything goes”, there are people with responsibilities who easily sacrifice their self-respect and make the terrible mistake of undervaluing and disrespecting other people’s intelligence.

The case of the National Coach Museum is not unique in Portugal. In that same year of 2015, the Museu do Aljube (a municipal museum telling the story of the resistance against the dictatorship) opened before its completion, because it “had to” open on the 25th of April, the day of the revolution. What differentiates this case is that people who visited in the weeks following the inauguration were informed by the staff that there was no entrance fee as the museum was not yet ready – which doesn't make it more acceptable, but it does make it slightly more honest. Another “false” inauguration was that of MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, in October 2016, which made people queue for hours only to come out saying “That’s it?!” (read the post MAAT, a generator of expectations).

Going back to Nina Simon’s post regarding the postponing of the Abbott Square opening, two statements particularly resonated with me:

Ten days ago, we called it all off. Why? The reason is simple: we weren’t ready.

Clear, direct, honest. Nina Simon did not look for excuses, did not try to embellish the facts, much less looked for alternative facts. Things were not going according to plan and tough decisions had to be made. And they were made.

Further down, another big lesson Nina Simon gives us:

“I am so grateful to our staff, board, and community for supporting this change. I made the mistake, and they made the solution work. Our staff did an amazing job communicating the change with press, members, and partners - even shifting a huge cover story that went to print just hours after we made the change. Our team clearly, quickly told everyone about the change, and we emphasized that we were postponing so we could offer members the best experience possible. People were understanding about the delay and excited about the opening to come. And I went back to sleeping at night... while spending my days working hard to make the project live up to our community's biggest dreams.”

What I see in Nina Sinom is a true museum leader. One that acknowledges her mistakes, is honest with herself and others, acts respectfully towards both her team and the community, serves most and above all the museum’s mission. And what she gets in return is precisely their respect and support. She didn’t look for excuses, she didn’t blame anyone else, she didn’t try to fool anyone with small lies or alternative stories. She made herself publicly accountable and shared her learnings with all of us, her colleagues. Abbott Square will eventually open and it will be a great celebration for everyone. It will also be a great example of museum leadership. I hope it will duly resonate in our corner of the world.

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