update: our museum volunteer is out of control, part 2

Remember the letter-writer who managed a museum that was saddled with a rogue volunteer who no one could control (and who was protected by the board of directors)? She wrote in with an update about a year ago, and now here’s another update.

In February, we decided to combine our two half-time positions into one full-time position. Jean (the person hired to replace the rogue volunteer) was laid off during this process, since she was one of the half-time people. The other half-time person, Jennifer, got the full-time job, because of her experience with volunteer management (the new job is volunteer management plus collections, and Jennifer also has her degree in collections management). Jean was sort of relieved, because she had been wanting to take on more hours at her other job at another museum.

Steve (the rogue volunteer) trusts Jennifer much more with the management of the collections. He announced his retirement once again in August. This one seems to have stuck more than other “retirements.” He hasn’t been coming into the museum very often, but still attends events and seems supportive, although I hear through the grapevine occasionally about negative comments he’s made about the way the organization is currently being run.

We still have collections storage at his home. In April, our Museum Assessment Program reviewer came for a two-day visit. She toured all of our collections storage, including Steve’s basement. She came away very impressed, and said that although she was initially reluctant about us storing things there, she does believe it’s one of our best storage locations and doesn’t see a reason for us to move it. (Humidity and temperature are well-controlled, everything is archivally stored and well-organized, and Steve has a clear inventory showing what belongs to the museum and what is in his personal collection.) We do have a committee forming in early 2016 to take a look at options for fully consolidated storage.

As alluded to in my other letters and comments, the board has a whole host of other problems (some of which were addressed in the MAP review). I’ve made incredible progress at moving the organization forward in the three years I’ve been here, but I’m starting to get tired of the lack of respect from the board. I’ve been looking at job postings, but a job move would require relocating my family, so it has to be the perfect job. The museum in my hometown is starting an executive director search after the start of the new year, and I’m planning to apply for that.

The person who’s been board president for 20+ years is planning to retire from the board when her term is up in 2017. So if I do decide to stick it out here, things may change for the better after that. A lot of the micromanagement and resistance to new ideas comes from her. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to plug away at things that may or may not be able to be fixed.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Adam*

    Remembering the previous letters I’m rather amazed the OP has stuck it out this long but things seem to gradually be clearing up at least a little! Hopefully your diligent work will get recognized elsewhere and you’ll be able to move on happily.

  2. Elizabeth West*

    I still think they are treading on thin ice leaving all that stuff in Steve’s basement. One wrong move pissing Steve off, or if something goes wrong at his house, and *poof!* there goes their collection. Not to mention, does his homeowner’s insurance cover it? Does the museum’s extend to this storage option?

    Bad, bad, bad, idea.

    1. AMG*

      As an admitted control freak, this post made me see red, especially the part about the huge amount of museum inventory at Steve’s house. I am so with you on this.

    2. Jerry Vandesic*

      If the museum cannot properly store and manage and insure the objects that they are have in their possession, they really don’t deserve to have them. This sounds like a very poorly managed organization that would probably be better off if they scaled back and partnered with another museum that knows how to do their job. It’s unlikely the donors understand that their donations will be making their way to Steve’s basement, and as a result there might be liability (fraud, insurance, etc.) that need to be addressed.

      1. MR*

        An organization that is being held hostage by an unpaid volunteer is indeed a poorly run organization. Nobody involved with this organization comes out looking very good.

    3. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Well, having a clear inventory is a first step towards remedying that (and I hope that both Steve and the reviewer signed a detailed list that included the condition of the items), but the next would be a contract stating that Steve doesn’t get to charge the museum for storage, how much notice they each will get if the other decides to end this arrangement, a turnaround time for Steve to provide access to items that he is storing for the museum, who is responsible for transporting the items back and forth, etc.

      I Am Now A Llama, but these would seem to be the things where one side could trip up/get tetchy with the other.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          A while back someone used IANAL in the comments, and someone made up that alternative meaning (instead of I am not a lawyer).

    4. BRR*

      Yeah, I wouldn’t call it one of the museum’s best storage locations for this reason. Or what if something happens to Steve? Do his children know what is the museum’s? Also why does it sound like only Steve has an inventory of what is in his basement?.

      1. Anonsie*

        I also wondered, but realistically I think this is so common that it’s sort of a fudged accepted practice as long as conditions and records appear in order.

    5. Anna*

      I’m more concerned with something happening to the house than to Steve freaking out and causing mayhem. Steve may be a control freak and have a hard time separating himself, but he does seem to have a lot of respect for the items he’s storing if he’s catalogued them so carefully. Anytime you spread out a collection you run the risk of losing track for any number of reasons, especially in a private home for a collection for a museum.

  3. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Regardless of the circumstances, storing stuff in Steve’s basement presents a zillion other challenges.  What about insurance?  What about theft?  Is the museum expect to reimburse Steve for this storage facility?  What about if Steve wants to go sell stuff because he wants cash?  What are the potential lawsuits?

    It’s great that that there’s a temperature control and an inventory, but I fail to see how any of the benefits Steve provides aren’t readily available in a more appropriate business venue that requires payment and a formal user agreement.

    1. JoJo*

      Or Steve drops dead and his heirs clean out the basement and sell the inventory before the museum can act. That could lead to an ugly, expensive lawsuit taking years to resolve.

      All I can see are potential problems. Time to move the collection to a proper storage facility under the museum’s control.

        1. the_scientist*

          Yeah, I mean I guess it’s good that there’s an inventory and that temperature and humidity are controlled, but I mentioned on the previous thread that my grandfather’s (uncontested, liquid assets only) estate took 6 full months to get through probate. It sounds like Steve doesn’t have any immediate family or heirs since he’s leaving his estate to the museum, but if Steve dies or falls ill and distant family or even friends get into his house and steal and/or sell museum items, GOOD LUCK with getting those back, even if there’s an inventory, and even if there’s a will. It’ll take years, it’ll be expensive, and it might be impossible if the stuff’s been sold on any kind of black or grey market. Not to mention that it’s still unclear what sort of insurance Steve has for those items in the event of a flood, fire, break-in or other natural disaster. All of this is frankly giving me hives.

          1. Shannon*

            I’ve known people who had unscrupulous relatives clean out the dead person’s house while they were at the funeral.

            1. the gold digger*

              They must have had good stuff! Although – I am shocked that the glass octopus that lights up from within – with several colors, I might add – was not taken in the Great Stuff Grab of ’15.

              (The only things my husband and I took were the Ziplocs, the tinfoil, and the can of crabmeat. If Sly and Doris were still alive, they would undoubtedly complain for years that I had eaten the crabmeat, the way they complained for years that my sister in law ate all the pickled herring.)

              1. Shannon*

                I hope you smiled as you ate that crab meat, knowing just how much it would have driven them crazy.

              2. Sarahnova*

                I hope you know that I totally picture your husband as Primus from Stardust, only less murderous.

      1. Hornswoggler*

        And what about flooding? I don’t know whether the area is prone to flooding but these days you can’t really know. And it need not be weather-related – it could be e.g. a burst water main in the street outside.

        I’ve always been wary of storing damageable things in basements since friends of mine who lived in Brisbane left stuff in their basement while they travelled for six months. While they were away, the unprecedentedly massive floods of 2011 happened. Loads of their possessions including irreplaceable photos etc were lost.

    2. Grad Student*

      This made me wonder about public accessibility if the collection lives in the rogue volunteer’s home. He decides who shall and who shall not examine the objects in the collection..?

  4. bearing*

    It almost makes me wonder if it would be worthwhile to formalize the arrangement with Steve as a contractor receiving a nominal fee to store the materials.

    1. Naomi*

      Yeah, if Steve signs a contract formalizing the arrangement, that should give the museum leverage to ensure he can’t hold their property hostage to his personal whims (plus a clear legal recourse if he tries anything of the sort). And that would also be an opportunity to address what should happen in the event of Steve’s death.

  5. Observer*

    I’m glad that things are better, and I’m sorry that you are still having issues with the board. But, as you said, it’s not terribly surprising, given what you described. I hope you get a better job with a Board the understands the need to treat the ED with respect. When I went back and re-read the bit about your board excluding you from the meetings with Steve, my hair pretty much stood on end. So, so not ok.

    I’m also not terribly surprised that Jean’s resignation helped a bit. While it’s clear that the fundamental problem was the board, and that Steve’s behavior was out of line, I also got a sense that Jean was not the easiest person to deal with. I could be wrong but your description sounded like she is rather rigid and not respectful of others experience. I don’t mean that she should have necessarily agreed with everything he did, far from it. But it sounds a bit like she sees this as being The One Right Way, and anything else or anyone who sees it differently is Wrong , regardless of the experience.

  6. Meg Murry*

    Not sure if you can influence this (or if you can put a bug in the ear of a future MAP reviewer so it can be an “official” recommendation from someone other than you) but would it also help to put in place some kind of term limits or rotation for the board positions (like president), so that you don’t get stuck with someone as president for 20 years that no one is willing to say “thanks but I think you should move on”? One of the more functional boards I am involved with has a rotation of President, 1st VP, 2nd VP – so barring disaster the 1st VP would be President next year and the 2nd VP would be after that person. Even if it just becomes the same few people rotating through the president/VP roles, it still helps – and you can still have “at large” members who aren’t president, etc, so you don’t need to kick a current president off the board, just out of that seat.

    Another group I’m involved in put in 10 year term limits about 15 years ago, and it’s amazing what a difference it makes to be able to have someone have to take some time off (they are 10 year consecutive limits – you can be re-elected back after taking time away) and having some fresh blood and fresh ideas step in slowly.

    1. BRR*

      This might be a great time to introduce term limits. They seem so board 101 to me. You can always keep good board members around with emeritus status or serving in some other volunteer capacity while having a procedural way to cut dead weight.

    2. stillLAH*

      Yes! Term limits! I’m the staff liaison to a board-like group at my org and with our president stepping down, we’re finally being allowed to introduce Bylaws (!!!! So many rants about how this group has been allowed to operate without Bylaws) and term-limits. Transition is a perfect excuse to lay down new rules. (Plus, term limits mean your board and president are staying fresh, engaged, and bring new people to your organization because new blood has new social circles.)

    3. Hornswoggler*

      I agree, term limits are good practice. Ten years sounds like a lot though! I worked at a charity where we didn’t have term limits in place, but I got them introduced. We had three-year terms, and you could be re-elected once, so a maximum of six years. I think we had a thing where you could either get re-co-opted or something (in case retaining the departing board member was essential, e.g. was an expert in something we really needed at the time), or could get back on after one or two years off.

  7. Michelle*

    I work in a museum and when I saw the original story and update, I forwarded the links to our Director of Curatorial Services, Curator and Executive Director. They were absolutely horrified. I have forwarded the link to this update and am anxiously awaiting their responses.

    I can’t imagine any of that happening here. Our DoCS, Curator and ED are very strict, especially in regards to our collection. They would have slayed Steve and left his blood on the floor as a warning to others! (They are super nice people, but you DON’T mess with the collection or take anything home to be stored.

    1. Anna*

      Slayed him like the gold hoarding dragon he is! No idea why but I can not stop laughing at the mental picture of Smaug Steve.

    2. Anonsie*

      Right? For all three of the Steve posts so far, I have clenched so hard I’m pretty sure parts of me are now made of diamond.

  8. Sara*

    This is the first I’ve heard of this story, but sadly, it sounds so familiar. Ask pretty much any museum person anywhere about their experience with volunteers, particularly docents, and you’re likely to get something similar. Or boards, for that matter. There are good ones out there, but oh so many bad ones too.

  9. BadPlanning*

    My guess is that the museum can’t afford to store this chunk of the collection anywhere else. Which makes the museum’s budget a little on the iffy side. They have a potentially large cost that they’re getting for “free.” What if Steve suddenly has to move into assisted living and needs to sell the house (or worse as mentioned). Is there budget to suddenly store the things in Steve’s house?

    Anyway, I’m glad Steve has backed off and apparently keeps the collections in good standing. Good luck, OP!

  10. S.I. Newhouse*

    I’m absolutely wowed by this OP. I think any other reasonable person would have thrown her hands up and given up long ago. Instead, she continues to try to plug away at problems she can and can’t solve with what sounds like ZERO support. I’m really crossing my fingers that the hometown directorship comes through for her.

    As someone with training as an archivist, I’m just dumbfounded that the museum reviewer found the arrangement of keeping collections in Steve’s basement OK. For all the reasons mentioned by other commenters, this is so, so, so not okay. The skeptical part of me kind of wonders if the museum reviewer is somehow in cahoots with Steve. In any event OP, all the best of luck to you.

    1. Charityb*

      Either that, or it’s a subtle indictment of the way the other museum storage facilities are. If they think Steve’s weird little dragon hoard is one of their better sites, that doesn’t say much for everything else. I think the board is so unwilling to make changes that they’ve allowed things to deteriorate to the point where Steve isn’t even their biggest challenge any more. I’m in awe of the OP for hanging in there for so long though; she’s like Hercules and Sisyphus rolled into one.

  11. Paloma Pigeon*

    Hear you on the obstructionist board. God, it’s exhausting. Good for you for focusing on the positive and implementing positive changes in spite of it.

  12. AnotherAlison*

    Urgh, Steve and the board again. On one hand, I definitely get the OP’s frustration. These are the cascading small things that make for job dissatisfaction, for sure.

    OTOH, the bar seems low for “out of control” behavior for museum volunteers. . .how do we classify A Night at the Museum scenario if this is out of control? (Watched Walter Mitty yesterday, so Ben Stiller movies are top-of-mind right now, lol).

  13. MuseumHero*

    As a museum professional the original post and updates hit very close to home. Volunteers like this can be extremely difficult to handling when you have little to no back up. Now, he has a HUGE amount of power over the organization, and I am really surprised the MAP person didn’t have a problem with this set up.

    Best practices for museums are not keeping things you cannot take care of or store properly (I recommend the OP review their collections policy because this should absolutely be clearly stated as a reason to deaccession objects).

    OP, I can see so much bad coming from this situation including a huge blow to your museums reputation if other museums in your area find out how you are storing objects like this. And I can only imagine how a donor would feel if they found out something they gave to your museum was being kept at a volunteers house.

    Bottom line is it is in the best interest of your museum to put an end to this and get everything back on site. I would suggest you start a large scale deaccessioning project. This would open up space in your main collection area and reduce what the volunteer has in his possession. Then you can move what is left to the main collection area on site.

  14. Charityb*

    This Steve fellow has supervillain origin story written all over him. If the OP had actually dislodged him from this post, she would have regretted it. It would have ended with him shouting about how, ‘the fools couldn’t recognize his genius’ and how he’d ‘make them all PAY!!’ The next day he would be menacing the museums of the world from aboard his flying doomsday battleship.

    Now I’m imagining the pulp comic cover. It’ll probably be called something like, “THE INDECENT DOCENT ” or the “NIGHTMARE AT THE MUSEUM” or “HISTORICAL OR HISTORI-KILLER!!”

    Really, it’s best for the OP to hopefully move on to the job in her hometown. This kind of thing rarely ends well; she doesn’t have enough support at the top and it sounds worryingly as if Steve’s basement is a better museum than the actual museum at this point.

  15. deathstar*

    I’m surprised the Museum reviewers are okay with the arrangements to have the collection still at Steve’s basement. The way to make this slightly more alright is to formalise a loan document that clearly states what belongs
    to the museum, though the museum should have their own inventory and not rely on Steve’s.

    And Volunteer management PLUS Collections management in a job!? Wow….

    1. Bethany*

      I was thinking the same thing! Volunteer and collections management in one position? Yikes.

  16. Serin*

    I wonder: if the great people’s revolution had actually occurred, and work had been liberated from the fell hand of commerce, would everything be run the way nonprofits are run now?

    (I say this as a person who fondly remembers the days when she believed in anarchism, before she took a job next to a four-way stop and watched how people governed themselves in practice.)

    1. Blurgle*

      No lie, the most abusive work atmosphere I’ve ever heard of bar none is at a little retail store run by anarchists who are huge fans of participatory economics.

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