What Museum Directors Can Learn From Game of Thrones

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game of thronesI’m usually the first to groan, occasionally quite loudly, when museum leaders tap into popular culture to gratuitously make their own points, especially when using the most tenuous of connections to justify otherwise unrelated programming in the name of increasing visibility.  And what possibly could the fictional, pseudo-medieval realm of Westeros, currently being fought over in its fourth season on HBO, have to teach museum directors?

After all, some of the series’ hallmarks—rampant nudity, murder, profanity, sex, and even incest (and all that in just the first episode)—tend to have very little to do with presenting the past to our modern guests, other than, of course, that it reflects the operative imperative of human nature that informs our work: people are messy, which is what makes telling their stories, and telling them well, such a terribly compelling endeavor.

I think it’s because people are messy—yesterday and today—that a terrific member of my Board of Trustees recommended that I watch Game of Thrones, which I had previously avoided like it would release some sort of intellectual Black Death on me.  In the first place, what museum director, especially one trying to both get a historic site on its feet and manage a strategic planning process, has the time?  It’s quite enough for me to spend my moments sorting out the administrative spider webs of programming, interpretation, donor relations, marketing, media outreach, Board interactions, collections management, staff hiring, and the occasional bat in the archives (well, maybe we don’t all have to deal with the bat), without adding to it the job of trying to identify the rightful heir to the most uncomfortable looking chair in any kingdom, real or not.  However, fate—in the form of an unpleasant, although temporary illness (not the Black Death, but it didn’t feel far from it at the time)—intervened and recently confined me to my bed, leaving me to discover the glory that is On Demand television.

So there I was, with my Trustee’s advice ringing in my head and every single episode of Game of Thrones in front of me.  My judgment being a bit blinkered at the time by hefty doses of whatever my doctor gave me, I just went for it and watch them all.  One could say that I’m pretty much up to speed about the goings on in the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, so much so that I’m not ashamed to admit that one of the happiest moments in my life might just be the plot twist at the end of the second episode of the current season, when perhaps the most infuriatingly vile little sot in any fictional world got precisely what he deserved.  It ranks right up there in my heart with Aaron Burr’s very real killing of Alexander Hamilton, but that’s for another blog post.

In any case, having now had some time to think on the utility of all those hours spend in Westeros, it occurred to me that I might save some time for my fellow New York museum directors by pointing out a couple of the lessons that various Lannisters, Starks, Tyrells, Targaryens, wildlings, and others taught me.

1.     “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

Ygritte’s consistent admonition is something we should all keep in mind.  While we, like Jon Snow, might know ourselves quite well, and have plenty of doctorates and other credentials behind us to show others that we know lots of really cool things, nothing adequately prepares one to run a museum or historic site.  Even the smoothest functioning organization requires a director to fulfill roles, deal with people, and otherwise address issues (did I mention the archives bat?) that none of us are entirely prepared to manage.  So for those of us who enter these realms thinking that we know everything we need to know, just to have to figure out the best way to immediately remove three feet of snow from the roof of a 300-year-old stone house, the sooner we realize that we know nothing and can start learning, the better off we’re going to be.  Of course, Ygritte ends up putting three arrows in the back of Jon Snow but, like I said, people are messy.

2.     “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

Ned Stark’s statement of ultimate leadership by example is well taken.  Being a museum director in a competitive market, often with scarce resources, and during uncertain economic times, demands that we regularly engage in some pretty unpleasant work.  Museums are not social clubs and running them is not a popularity contest.  As the principal stewards of our donors’ investment of money, our volunteers’ investment of time, and our guests’ investment of their trust, we have to make tough calls almost on a daily basis, from staff decisions to money matters.  But if there are hard truths to be told, or bad news to be delivered, whether to our Boards or to our employees, we need to be the ones to do it rather than dispatch others to do it for us or, even worse, postpone them in the hope that they might go away (they don’t).

3.     “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.”

Littlefinger’s paean to opportunism should, for us, point more clearly to the opportunities presented when one recognizes the internal issues that have been holding our museums back from achieving their potential.  It might initially be tremendously frustrating to find, say, improperly catalogued collections or enormous gaps in donor data, but in that seeming chaos lies a tremendous opportunity for us to be grateful that we are in a position to do something about it, and take steps that will serve our institutions over the long term.

4.     “Stick ‘em with the pointy end.”

Jon Snow’s advice to his half-sister about swordplay is a nice reminder about priorities.  As I mentioned, our guests invest a great deal in us by trusting us to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about our sites and the people who made them special.  So we owe it to our guests to be bold and forthright in telling those stories, all of them, good and bad, comfortable and provocative, and tell them in ways that project emotion at least as much as they present information.  We should also be clear about what we don’t know and why we’ve made the interpretive choices that guide the experience we’ve created for them.  At Historic Huguenot Street, where we’re getting back to basics in a number of ways, our core mission is to preserve the legacy of the Huguenots who fled France for one reason and one reason alone: other people were trying to kill them because of the things they believed.  Here, in the Hudson Valley, they found a remarkable sort of toleration that was more or less invented by the Dutch, with whom the Huguenots then interconnected to create a rich, multicultural society.  The fact that a community existed here at all was driven solely by the Huguenots’ search for freedom and what they discovered in that search, which was tolerance.  Many of their compatriots were not so fortunate.  That’s a pretty powerful pointy end, and we want our guests to be prodded by it, to think about the stories surrounding what made it so, and why those stories still matter today.

5.     “Is this meant to be your shield, Lord Stark?  A piece of paper?”

Cersei Lannister taunted Ned with these questions as she ripped into pieces a statement of his authority, just words on parchment. Unintentionally echoing Tennyson’s rumination that “authority forgets a dying king,” it reminds those of us whose work depends on understanding and interpreting the past that we should not consider ourselves bound by it.  We should properly lead, and not rely on a piece of paper or a title to automatically grant us the authority to do what we need to do.  Moreover, it also means that old and traditional ways, especially those that might have become part of our institutions’ lore, might work in a stable environment, but I think such times are long past for museums.  Leadership means that we must be agile and innovative, willing to try new approaches, techniques, and systems, so that our Trustees, donors, and other stakeholders can develop confidence in our ability to always improve our internal processes and refresh our guests’ engagement with us to keep them coming back.

6.     “Winter is coming.”

You knew that this statement, the motto of the House of Stark and the single most frequently uttered three words in the series, had to be on the list somewhere.  However dire the implications of it for Westeros, it need not be quite so dark a warning for us.  Rather, it is a challenge to museum directors to always strive for, and then adhere to, the solid fundamentals that will sustain us regardless of what lies ahead for our sites and the people connected with them.  No one can adequately plan for economic downturns and major weather events, but we can lay the firmest of foundations under our institutions in terms of sustainable funding, best practices in interpretation and historic resource preservation, professional management, effective leadership, and continuous connections to our audiences and stakeholders.

However redolent Game of Thrones might be of medieval English and Scottish history, it is not real life.  But that does not mean, like the best fiction, it can’t convey effective truths that are applicable in our own museum realms.

Game of Thrones Map courtesy Game of Thrones Wiki.

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Taylor Stoermer

About Taylor Stoermer

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Taylor was educated at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia where he earned his PhD in American History. Taylor’s scholarly work focuses on the interaction of political economics and political culture in the 18th-century Atlantic world. A public history consultant for museums and historic sites, he appears regularly in print, on the radio, on television, in public lectures, and in social media to comment on the people and ideas of American history and their modern relevance. Currently he is an adviser to C-SPAN for history content, a regular contributor to the Journal of the American Revolution. He was formerly the director of strategy, development, and historic interpretation at Historic Huguenot Street, the chief historian of Colonial Williamsburg, an invited scholar at Brown and Cambridge universities, and has held fellowships at Brown, Yale, the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and the Huntington Library, among others.

2 thoughts on “What Museum Directors Can Learn From Game of Thrones

  1. J F Sefcik

    As a retired museum professional and a director for 17 years, you hit the nail right on the head! I easily relate to everything you wrote although I’ve never seen the program you mention. Anyone with aspirations for a museum career or anybody already in the field contemplating the move up to senior management would gain a great deal from reading this piece, considering it carefully, and saving it for future reference. The life and work of a museum director is both challenging and rewarding but one had better be ready, willing, and able to tackle just about anything. I experienced a damaging fire, a major theft, internecine politics, severe budget cuts, and staff shortages during my tenure as director but also built new facilities, rehabbed others, reorganized support groups, overcame a host of collection managements issues, managed real estate, etc. and enjoyed myself tremendously in the process.
    I suspect Taylor Stoermer is destined for bigger and better things. And no, we are not related nor have I ever met the man but I look forward to doing so.

  2. B. Wilkinson-Fletcher

    Excellent article. I have only been an Executive Director for ten years, and have experienced just about everything in this piece, including the bats! The first point, that “You Know Nothing, John Snow” is particularly valid. I speak to MA students periodically, and this is one of the first and most important points of my discussion. Students (especially young ones) typically graduate thinking they know everything. In truth, they know nothing. No graduate program in the world can prepare you to deal with the politics of a Board of Directors, the personalities involved with employees, volunteers, donors and supporters, and the weird and outdated collections management system that was in place when I arrived. And who knew that I needed to know about such things as security systems, programming an hvac system, the correct trees, bushes and plants for a Victorian home, how to deal with 18 inches of ice in a roof valley four floors up, etc. And that’s just the stuff that comes easily to mind!


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