BLOG: Museum Leadership and the Need For Ethical Behavior

On Nov 19 of this year, the news media in Columbus, GA announced that MG (ret) Jerry White, the visionary force behind the National Infantry Museum, would be resigning from his post as President and Chairman of the National Infantry Foundation, which owns and operates the building.  According to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, “’Fifteen years ago I said when I heard a soldier tell his mom and dad they built this museum for me, I will consider my mission accomplished,’ White said. ‘I heard that last week.'”

But I knew there was more to the story.  More than a week earlier, I had come into possession of a court document outlining a civil complaint against White, the USO, and a local hotel where the USO is headquartered, for wrongful termination.  The complaint was filed by a “Jane Doe,” and reading the document, I knew exactly who she was.  The shocking part of the complaint was the fact that she alleges sexual harassment and assault by Gen. White in somewhat graphic detail. 

Now, I didn’t seek out court documents, nor were they handed to me by someone with malicious intent.  Every once in a while, I browse a website called “Courthouse News,” which showcases interesting cases from around the country, along with court documents.  I tend to use it quite a bit looking for patent infringement cases in the film industry.  On this particular day, I found a small paragraph about Gen. White sitting in the side corner of the page.  Pressing the paper icon brought me to the entire complaint, scanned from the courthouse original.  As the local Columbus media is now reporting on the case, I have decided to make my thoughts on the matter public.

I have the highest regard for Gen. White.  He accomplished what many would think impossible – the creation of a 195,000 square foot, $96 million museum honoring the ARMY Infantry.  It is a remarkable institution, beautiful throughout, with state-of-the-art exhibition halls rivaling those of the world’s finest museums.  In my entire time working there, I had only one issue with Gen. White.  I was dissatisfied with the approach he took to marketing the museum as a whole.  I come from non-profit institutions where marketing is an integral part of the operation.  I felt it was lacking during my time there.

Jane Doe was terminated from the USO and the adjoining hotel, both of which she ran.  The Infantry Foundation, however, is not listed as a defendant, which I find interesting as she also worked extensively for the Foundation as part of Gen. White’s marketing team.  I cannot comment on the personal relationship between the two, as everything I know is simply conjecture and hearsay.  I do know that the relationship between them has caused bad blood amongst others.  One individual, who was removed from her post as Director of the Columbus USO last year and replaced by Jane Doe, and who now runs what seems like an unbiased news clearinghouse on the net, commented on the Ledger’s online version of their article about the case, “What about the months and years you spent pursuing the General Jane Doe? What a liar!”

Unethical behavior by executive leadership of any institution creates a hostile work environment.  Even the false implications of impropriety can lead to strained relationships among staff.  Non-profit museums have an obligation to hold themselves and their management to higher ethical standards.  For over a hundred years, museum Presidents and Executive Directors have been asked to step down from their positions, most often for “fiscal irresponsibility.”  The most prominent recent case of a an executive of a GSCA member institution stepping down in such controversy was in 2006 when Max Ary of the Kansas Cosmosphere was sentenced to three years in jail for stealing NASA artifacts and reselling them for his personal benefit.

The AAM’s Code of Ethics sums it best: “Museums in the United States are grounded in the tradition of public service. They are organized as public trusts, holding their collections and information as a benefit for those they were established to serve. Members of their governing authority, employees, and volunteers are committed to the interests of these beneficiaries. The law provides the basic framework for museum operations. As nonprofit institutions, museums comply with applicable local, state, and federal laws and international conventions, as well as with the specific legal standards governing trust responsibilities. But legal standards are a minimum. Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability, they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically.”

It is my hope that the existing museum staff, under the strong leadership of Executive Director Ben Williams and Executive VP Greg Camp, along with Gen. White’s replacement, will maintain the highest professional ethics and remember that the National Infantry Museum exists solely for one purpose – as a trusted space for the public to come and honor the soldiers that in past, present, and future, defend our freedoms.

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