When museums are run like Downtown Abbey…

After spending hours of research watching and rewatching Downton Abbey (and over a decade of research working in museum), I can’t help but see uncanny similarities between museum organization structures and the hit PBS show.

The Abbey

The museum, like the manor, is more than a structure, and frankly is more than the collections it houses.  Museums are promises of the past, the future, and the never-ending continuity between the two.  Just as an aristocratic home is really a monument to the title and the culture of aristocracy, a museum is a living monument to the mission.  Ideally the museum will be able to brook any missteps by the Director.

The Upstairs

Lord Grantham/ Director

Lord Grantham is a man who knows what he says matters and as such can say very little.  As the Lord, his role is about making sure he doesn’t wreck everything, and if it ain’t broke…  Basically his tact is benevolence.   Many museum directors take this tact. They hope to lead by listening to their deputy directors to the letter.  Their goal is to make changes that don’t destroy the institution.  And like Lord Grantham who appears to spend his days hunting or in the library (and away from the basic running of the house), Directors often turn their attention away from the day to day of the museum.

The Dowager Countess/ President of the Board

The Dowager Countess has the freedom to say what she wants. This is because while intimately connected to the affairs of Downton, she is actually she is just on the edge.  The President of the Board is on the edge of the life of the museum, mostly  experiencing the high-life and only understanding its “downstairs” through financial reports and the like.  Violet would dream of having the power to change affairs at Downton the way that the President of the Board at a museum can.

Lady Grantham/ Deputy Director of Development or Advancement

Cora is the source of dollars for the grand household, no doubt the result of her father’s robber barren ways.  The Deputy Director of Advancement, like Cora, spends his days at luncheons and dinners with the wealthy and powerful in town.  Both have their position for their proximity to power.  Cora was no one in English society until she married a lord.  The Development director raises fund on behalf of the director (and the museum), his proximity serving as his ticket.  Cora was considered marriageable solely because of her incredible solvency.  Similarly, the Development director got his job because of his perceived ability to bring in the dollars.  And, of course, just as Cora’s fund are really because of the labor of a whole army of poor, nearly indentured American factory workers, the Deputy Director has an force of unnamed development slogs behind him.

Lady Mary/ Chief Curator (or Deputy Director of Collections)

Lady Mary is her father’s favorite for her beauty and intelligence.  She is Lord Grantham’s best chance for a strong marital alliance. The Chief curator has risen to his position, hopefully, due to some level of scholarly prowess.  But, unlike other curators, he must have other charms (and aspirations) that drew him out of scholarly  pursuits and into administration.  The Chief Curator probably knows the museum’s core competency (be it art or natural sciences) even better than the director.  But, like Lady Mary who was groomed as a Crawley to be the wife of a lord in another house, the Chief Curator could easily be snatched away (and all of the funding to groom and improve his managerial efforts will be lost with him.)

Lady Edith/ Deputy Director of Administration or Finance

Lady Edith is the middle daughter, basically tolerated by her parents and family.  Unlike the Deputy director of Advancement that raises funds, the Administration just uses them. Clearly their role is important (the lights must go on), but like Lady Edith, there is not exactly much to write about.

Lady Sibyl/ Deputy Director of Education and Outreach

Lady Sibyl is a dreamer.  She hopes of another future.  In institutions where Education and Outreach are at the cabinet level, this is a person who reminds the institution of their most philanthropic ideals.  Like Nurse Crawley, who gave up her gowns to mix with soldiers, this is the person at the cabinet level who is most likely to mix with regular patrons on a daily basis. Many institutions place Education and Outreach as a non-cabinet level position.  In this case, Education becomes Cousin Isobel—a nutcase do-gooder seen as out of step with others in the family.

The Downstairs

The vast majority of occupants on a country estate were the workers, just as the museum is most compromised of employees.  Like Downton Abbey, the upstairs of museums is a small group of individuals whose choices and actions impact the large group of individuals belowstairs that actually do the work.

At Downton, below stairs has its own hierarchy with the butler, housekeeper and cook at the head.  These three roles have a great deal of responsibility and visibility.  Unlike the most of the other workers, these three figures  move below and above stairs mixing with the workers and the aristocratic family.    At the museum, Division Directors, the tier below Deputy Directors, are at the top of the workers hierarchy.

The Butler Carson/ Chief Registrar/ Director of Programming/ and Director of Administration

The Butler is responsible for much of the running of the household from organizing hunting parties to counting the bottles of wine.  In museums, there are multiple directors who manage this.  The day to day running of the museum falls under administration, but the core collection of the museum (and its raison d’etreP) falls under the chief registrar.

Housemaid #4 and Footman #7

The rest of the museum staff.  Museums are run by hundreds of people from guards to cleaners to ticket sellers.  These are people who are often not asked about the running of the museum, despite their intimate knowledge of its mechanisms.

Thomas/ O’Brien

A museum is lucky if they have only 2 villains!  In some interview, a Downton actor mentioned that for the below house staff, the gossip about the family was their chief soap opera.  In museums gossip about layoffs and the choices of the Deputy Directors is some of the greatest currency around.  This often fuels impressive acts of malice and underhandedness.  After all, when there are so few resources, conniving and bullying can become rampant.

Why are museums run in this way?

Obviously, this is not every museum.  Some museums strive to run their organizations in a flatter organization structure.  But many large museums are highly hierarchical.  First, top-down structures like Downton are infinitely appealing to those in power. After all, the structure is clear and uncomplicated.  The Lord (and Lady) makes a choice and it occurs.  Think about the confusion at Downtown Abbey when Isobel and Lady Grantham were attempting to run the house together.

But in many ways, museums are like the English aristocracy at beginning of the 20th century, hard-pressed to change. Unlike corporations who see innovation as a means of increasing profits, museums continue to get money from donors.  There is no impetus to change.

Just as prior to the industrial revolution, a job in service was a great proposition. Museum work holds its own promise—a mission-driven profession.  As Lady Mary said about butlers, museum professionals are two a penny, many of them touting a PhD. Any below house museum employee frustrated with their penury and servitude can be replaced easily.

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