The Diary of a (soon to be) Museum Director: It begins! But where to start?


Katie Eagleton is a researcher, curator, Clore Leader and (soon to be) museum director.

Having started studying for a degree in mathematics, convinced she would be a computer programmer, she switched to studying history, and realised that museums were a place to work as well as to spend her weekends.

The first month in a new job is all about learning, and quickly. The classic version of the ‘first 90 days’ model suggests that you should spend time before starting a new job preparing for a leadership transition. With the pressures of finishing up my old job and moving (internationally) it would be optimistic to say that I had much time for this. I know plenty about museums, and from my previous jobs I have relevant experience, which is all part of why I got the job. But I’ve been bearing in mind some advice I was given in a bar in New Orleans by another new(ish) museum director, that all that knowledge and experience is situational. It might not work or be relevant in the same way for this job, with this museum, in this university, in this town, with this team, and these colleagues.

I’m comfortable processing large amounts of information, so I asked my new team to send me things to read before I started work, with the best intentions of reading and digesting them before day one. In the end, though, I skim-read some of them on the flight and arrived on my first day with much to do and learn. Since then, I’ve been reading everything I can get hold of – policies, documents, reports, schedules, briefings, old books and pamphlets, poems from a festival a few years ago, and many other things besides. At the same time, I’ve started talking to people across the university. Some of those meetings were set up by my new colleagues before I arrived, others I set up after I started work, but either way it’s fairly quiet at this time of year, so a good time to get to know people before the students arrive for the new academic year in September. I’ve asked each person in my team variations on the same two questions: what do you love about working here, and what could be better if anything were possible? Other people I’ve simply asked: how do the museums look from your point of view? How do we or could we work together?

All this information helps me understand what happened in the past, where the museums are now, where they are going, and what the plans and priorities are. It weaves together to help me form my plan for the second month and an outline of what I think the priorities will be for the first year or so. Making this assessment carefully but fairly quickly is important, because it helps me work out what to get involved in, what to leave running just as it is, what changes of plan might be needed, and where I can have the most positive impact. I’ve also been thinking about how I’ll get started with my plans, and where there might be allies and co-conspirators when I start forming plans and looking for support to get them going. I learned the hard way in a previous job that paying too little attention to how decisions are made trips up the best ideas and intentions later on, so I’ve been reading and listening between the lines for indications of that. I can read all the documents I like, but in every organisation the way things get done is a workplace-cultural wrapper around those, that it’s important quickly to understand to be an effective Director.

In an ideal world, there would be a month or two at the start where this kind of exploration and information-gathering was all that a new Director did. In reality, that’s never been the case for me when getting started in senior roles, and it’s especially unlikely here because I’m joining the museums team in the middle of a major project. Decisions have been deferred until I arrived, people want my input on forward plans, and some of these are urgent. The temptation to jump to action can be so strong, when you’re keen to make an impression in a new job – it can be tricky to decide which things can wait a little while, and which are things that genuinely need tackling right now. I’ve been creating some space by reminding myself that with each week that passes I’m more knowledgeable about the museums and the university, and so better-equipped to take decisions informed not only by intuition and experience but by a deepening understanding of my new job, of the museums and team, and of the university.

For a while, the list of questions to ask and people to meet got longer and longer. I set aside an hour at the start of each week to look at the list and prioritise, as well as time at the end of each week to write a few notes about my impressions so far. The list gradually stopped growing so fast, and allowing this planning and reflection time has also helped separate the work week from the weekend, soothing my tired brain – learning this much, this quickly, can be exhausting. Looking back at this first month, the most important thing, that helped make the structured information gathering and analysis possible, is probably something rarely talked about in all those articles and books about leadership transitions: sleep. It feels a little odd to conclude this post saying that the best way to start a new job is to take a nap, but sleeping well has helped me stay focussed and clear-headed. It also, I hope, sets a tone for the kind of leader I will be for the team, valuing work-life balance and wellbeing alongside the ambitious plans we’ll be working on together.


Read part one of this series: Looking Backwards and Forwards

Read part two of this series: The first/last three months