Museum Management and Leadership: Challenges and Solutions November 23-25 2019, History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan, Armenia

In November 2019, the British Museum’s International Training Programme was delighted to help support a workshop on museum management and leadership in Yerevan, Armenia.  Below, Hayk Mkrtchyan, Janet Vitmayer and Iain Watson tell us more about the programme and their experiences.

Hayk Mkrtchyan

‘As important tools for professional development, workshops, training programmes and exchanges are essential for organisations, especially in developing countries. Thus, professional development has always been regarded as one of the top priorities for the Armenian government in last 3 decades, especially in heritage and culture.

In order to strengthen the managerial and leadership skills of specialists in different sectors of the cultural sector from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport in Armenia, and based on our country’s development strategy 2017-2022, we decided to request a special training/workshop on Management and Leadership for professionals from heritage and museums. The implementation of the training became possible through a collaboration with the Association of Museum Workers and Friends of Armenia.

The British Museum’s International Training Programme (ITP) and USAID, funded and implemented by the Smithsonian Institution ‘My Armenia’ project, were important international partners of the workshop as two leading organisations in museum and heritage management.

The British Museum’s ITP played an important role in the selection of two leading experts in museum and heritage management and leadership and through our ITP connections, Iain Watson, Director of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and Janet Vitmayer, an independent cultural expert (previously Chief Executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, London) were invited to lead the workshop. The ‘My Armenia’ project played an important role in inviting regional museums in Armenia to be a part of this important initiative.

The workshop aimed to show best practice in museum and heritage management in the UK with the possibility of domestication and implementation in Armenia. The workshop was attended by 35 museum and heritage specialists from small house museums to large national museums. From this number more than 20 specialists were first time attendees with most of the participants being museum managers.

We hope that in the near future workshop participants will be able to implement gained knowledge, support each other in new challenges and find workable solutions. According to questionnaires completed after the workshop, it was an important platform not only for understanding current issues in museum management, providing key tools for becoming successful cultural leaders and instigating important steps of organisational management but also for creating professional networks with Armenian colleagues as well as experts from abroad.’

Hayk Mkrtchyan (Armenia, ITP Fellow 2014 and Senior Fellow 2017)
Assistant to the Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport
Director, Association of Museum Workers and Friends

Iain Watson

‘Although I trained as a teacher and have spoken in many places on many different subjects, I had never co-run an intensive 3-day Leadership Training Programme before!  I have to say that, in Armenia, Janet and I had the most fantastic time.  It was a great chance to share some of my experience and thoughts about running complex cultural organisations with a really interesting group of colleagues from very diverse museums across Armenia.

I had structured my programme around 4 set piece lectures:

  • Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums: an Example of Change
  • Management and Planning
  • Leading the Museum of the Future
  • Leadership Theory 

Working alongside the lectures that Janet delivered we planned a series of interactive activities – both exercises which people could take away and fill in reflectively and activities to do together as part of our 3-day programme.  The feedback from participants suggested they got a lot from the interactive activities and judging by the discussion that went on they particularly enjoyed creating their ‘Leadership Shield’ (drawing a shield which summed up their strength as leaders) and responding to quotes about leadership from different political and cultural leaders and philosophers. 

Never having been to Armenia before I knew little about museums or the cultural infrastructure in the country and am very grateful to Armenian colleagues for sharing information with me in advance and for being so free in talking about their institutions when we were in Armenia.  It was no surprise that many of the issues that Armenian museums face are the same as museums in the UK: funding, staffing, audiences, new technology, physical access. We also talked about some of the ‘big issues’, issues where all museums need to have a say, and, in particular, climate change.

On the course we had experienced and new leaders as well as museum studies lecturers and everyone shared their knowledge and experience generously. It was also a pleasure to meet the Deputy Culture Minister who clearly has a passion for the portfolio which she holds and is a big supporter of Armenia’s museums.

Of all the places I have been to in the world nowhere have people been as proud of and as committed to their national story as the people of Armenia. Perhaps because of the troubled history of the country, heritage has become a focal point for national identity. Armenia’s museums reflect this particularly through a significant range of birthplace museums celebrating the lives of Armenians who have contributed significantly to the country.

I’d like to thank the British Museum and the Armenian Culture Ministry for facilitating my visit. I hope that some of the experiences I shared were helpful to participants. Armenia museums are well connected, in particular though the ICOM network and I hope that they continue to use these opportunities to develop and thrive.’

Iain Watson, Director of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

Janet Vitmayer

‘What a lot we saw in just 5 days!  Our Armenian colleagues are so enthusiastic, hardworking and welcoming. Alongside the programme, Iain and I ran we got to see some fantastic museums galleries and historic sites. I quickly learnt that engagement and education programmes there were top rate and there were also some really good uses of digital to enhance the experience in several of the places we visited.

Immediately evident in Yerevan is the importance of sculpture and how it permeates of the city with mother Armenia high up on the hill, looking out over the city. There are some really great works both Armenian and from around the world in Yerevan. The wonderful Cafesjian Centre for the Arts, extraordinary in its scale and architecture but equally impressive in its engagement programmes, exhibitions, reading areas and shop.  We saw an exhibition of artworks from the diaspora community about to open, wonderfully curated and moving and met the curator just back from training in Kings College London. This leads me to say how amazing it was to learn how outward looking and connected many of our Armenian colleagues are, drawing on expertise and experience from around the world in such an energetic and intelligent way.

I was surprised by how many ‘house museums’ there were, telling the story of individual artists, writers, architects, musicians reflecting the importance these key figures have in Armenian culture. One not to miss, the Hovhannes Tumanyan Museum, was so engaging using personal memorabilia, the entire contents of his flat from Tbilisi, a lovely animation for children of his life and digitally conjured up figures from the past.  Impressive!

We had a fascinating tour of the Museum of Russian Art from its Director and ITP Fellow 2014, Marine Mkrtchyan, with a chance to meet up with ITP colleagues and hear about developments and partnerships. We attended a private view of the wonderful colourful works of Martiros Saryan (it would be great to see a show of his work in London!). Afterwards, we visited the Matenadaran, housing ancient and medieval manuscripts and the history of the beautiful and distinctive Armenian alphabet dating back to 405AD. The conservation studio is amazing and watching the careful work done on recovering ancient manuscripts uplifting.

On our final day, Hayk, (known, I think, to everyone in the ITP network!) took us to the extraordinary monastery of Geghard, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and to the Hellenistic temple at Garni, only a short drive from Yerevan but another world. 

For the workshop, a guiding principle for me is that people always learn and gain as much from the other participants as from the presenters. I particularly wanted to introduce a technique I learnt with my ‘Women Leaders in Museums Network’ (WLMN) – ‘Thinking Pairs’. I hoped that if participants found it a good and useful experience it was something they could easily replicate whenever they met up or at other sessions. Based on research and work on the importance of listening and asking ‘open questions’ in successful leadership and management, it basically requires one person to listen without interruption for a set period, helping the other only if they get stuck with an open question such as ‘is there anything else you could do?’ Then swapping roles. The participants practiced and absolutely got the technique and were able to use it really well by the end, leaving me feeling that it was a lovely legacy.

Many of the participants on our programme were from the regions and hearing about the great work they are doing just makes a return trip to Armenia to experience the different landscapes, sites and museums in the regions a must.  Such a difficult history, such positive and hard-working people and so welcoming.  It felt like Armenia was on the brink of a step change and that its museums, galleries and historic sites were such a positive part of this.  The opportunities for responsible tourism and development are immense. I must add that the food in Armenia is delicious, I particularly lover Gata, a sweet bread, and we ate so much of everything. I would encourage you all to visit.

I wish all our colleagues in Armenia a great future – they truly deserve it.’

Janet Vitmayer, Independent cultural expert (previously Chief Executive of Horniman Museum and Gardens, London)