Diane Lees, museum director

 21 March 2011

Diane Lees is the Director-General of the Imperial War Museum. Before that, she was the director of the V&A Museum of Childhood. She spoke about her diverse working days, exhibition ideas, and leadership challenges.

Diane Lees is the Director-General of the Imperial War Museum.
Diane Lees is the Director-General of the Imperial War Museum.

Getting the job at the Imperial War Museum

"It was an interesting recruitment process, because I actually ruled myself out of the job. I thought they wouldn't look at me because I'd not managed an organisation that was multi-site and was quite as big as this one, so I kind of stepped back.

“And the Director-General Sir Robert Crawford actually said to me that I should put my hat in the ring and have a go, which was hugely encouraging of him, and he didn't have to do that. But I was still quite shocked when they actually gave me the job.

"The honour in it is that you're doing something that's relevant to people as well as having the status of working for a national museum that has a global reach. But also there's a huge amount of honour in being responsible for such a respected brand, and I remember that every day."

Getting into cultural heritage

"I'm a second-generation museum curator, which means actually it was not an option. My mother used to take me to work when she worked at Stockport Museum as an education officer.

"Lots of our exhibition ideas come from individuals within the team. We encourage that."

“From being eight years old I never wanted to do anything else, so it's in the family blood, really. I can't imagine being fit for anything else, really. It suits my values and suits the way I think about communication and education. So it feels like home.

"There isn't an average working day and I think that's characteristic of the spread of the organisation. It can be some of the most fantastic things like an airshow day at Duxford where the Spitfires are flying over, or an American air day when helicopters are landing and the American Air Force are invading Cambridgeshire, which is great.

“Or it can be a normal day today: business, financial, accounts-based, staffing issues etc. Or it's our relationship with government or military. It has a huge range. I certainly think as a museum curator, I didn't expect to have a job that had such a range of diversity."

Responsibilities and challenges of running a museum

I couldn't do my job unless I had a really strong senior management team, and the directors of the branches plus our corporate directors, and they're all incredibly talented people.

“The thing about having them is actually you don't have to do a lot in that sense. You agree what the priorities are, the targets are set, and then it's their responsibility to deliver. Then it becomes a question of pushing or pulling or troubleshooting or, which I prefer to do, the praising bit, which says 'Well done, it's achieved and it's fantastic.'

“So although it's a massive responsibility, I couldn't do it without having that strong team that are actually doing the delivery.

"I think there are always challenges where we're facing the public sector cuts that are facing us. I think it's keeping everybody with you more than anything else. Because we're a very diverse employer, we have people with lots of different desires and wishes and you can't really please everybody.

“We're going through a massive change process because we're building to the centenary of the First World War, which for us is a huge thing.

“I think keeping everybody moving forward despite all this stuff that's going on with budgets is probably the biggest challenge. Keeping everybody motivated and assuring them as far as possible that they're not going to be out of work."

Inspiration for museum exhibitions

"Lots of our exhibition ideas come from individuals within the team. We're encouraging that more, actually. Some of them are very, very specific and we have to be careful about making sure there's an audience for them.

“Some of them, like the Ministry of Food, came about from a resurgence in people having conversations about home-grown, going a little bit anti-consumer and going 'Well what was it like during the war?' You couldn't automatically go out and buy clothes or food, etc.

"So some of them are a direct response to what's going off in society, and some of them are just ideas from experts within the collections who go 'This is a really great story.'

"But some of the exhibitions are difficult. So if you look at the Holocaust exhibition which is now coming up to ten years old, there is a suggested age restriction of not allowing under-14s.

"Our Crimes Against Humanity gallery, which has some pretty powerful filmmaking, is the same, but we do allow parents to make the decision. We do have to think about the appropriateness of what we do."

Supporting the cultural heritage sector

"I'm no longer the vice-chair of the Association of Independent Museums and I've had to step down from the Story Museum, because it related much more to being the director of the Museum of Childhood than it does the Imperial War Museum.

"You're doing something that's relevant to people, as well as having the status of working for a national museum that has a global reach."

“With this job you get a lot of trusteeships anyway, so there's a balance to how much time you can spend outside the museum.

"But I've always believed that lots of people throughout my career have shared a huge amount of their time, their advice and their guidance. I think it's my job to do the same where I can.

“If I can help people not make the same mistakes that I've made, or if I can help somebody up the ladder in the same way that I was helped up the ladder, then I think that's the right thing to do. I think it's one of the great characteristics of working in our sector: that spirit of generosity is huge.

“I really firmly believe it's part of my job to give back in that way. I don't want to sound like some charitable gift aid kind of thing, but it really is about supporting the future of the sector."

Developing yourself as a leader

"I get very concerned about all the conversations about leadership being about being at the top of a big organisation. Actually leadership is a characteristic that you can demonstrate anywhere in an organisation.

“Also I admire those people who don't take the next step up, because actually they believe very firmly in what they're doing where they are. So my advice would be to be true to yourself, because we all have things going off in our personal lives. We have families, we all have a whole raft of things that influence the decisions we make.

“I wouldn't want anybody to feel like there's this expectation that you've not achieved anything if you're not sitting at the top of a big organisation, because I think that's self-defeating."

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