Roots and Core

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Welcome. I created this online presence to share experiences and encounters that are deepening my understanding, changing my assumptions, creating new connections, and improving my practice. My goal is to contribute to the ongoing strengthening of theory and practice throughout the entire learning sector, with a special nod to those institutions I know best—museums and libraries.

Roots: My journey
When I was a little girl, I always played teacher, and I’m certain I was insufferable to those (including my younger brothers) who were unfortunate enough to be pressed into service to be my “students.”  As I grew up, my passion for teaching and learning continued, although my path led me into the out-of-school domain, beginning with a position at The Taft Museum in Cincinnati. Through my fortunate selection as a Fellow in the Museum Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, I moved to Washington, where I became aware of—and passionate about–the importance of cultural policy. Thus launched a career that has alternated between service in the federal cultural agencies and work in museums and other nonprofit organizations.

Leaving federal service in 2013 to serve as senior advisor to the international Noyce Leadership Institute, I’ve since pursued a variety of exciting projects that have enhanced my self-awareness as a leader and focused my commitments to strong and connected lifelong learning experiences, strategic partnerships and collaborations, with the principal goal of fostering positive individual and societal impact.

Core: What matters most to me today.

Learning. I continue to trumpet the belief that learning is (as the National Research Council’s Learning Sciences in Information Environments report noted) a “life-wide, lifelong, and life-deep” experience, often occurring with greater impact and meaning in the out-of-school environments of home, parks, museums, libraries, and other settings.  https://www.nap.edu/catalog/12190/learning-science-in-informal-environments-people-places-and-pursuits  At the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), I was especially proud of my leadership on two important initiatives: Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills  https://www.imls.gov/issues/national-initiatives/museums-libraries-and-21st-century-skills and Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners, https://www.imls.gov/assets/1/AssetManager/GrowingYoungMinds.pdf and I remain engaged with new and current ‘learning ecosystem’ projects.

Partnerships.
We live in a networked society, where, if we want to make a significant and sustainable impact on people’s lives, it is more important than ever to take a systems approach. That means creating effective alliances and partnerships. As a museum director, and as the first Director for Strategic Partnerships at IMLS, I worked hard to create meaningful, mission-focused partnerships that brought organizations together for a larger common good.  At IMLS, these included the Partnership for a Nation of Learners https://www.imls.gov/sites/default/files/publications/documents/pnlreport_0.pdf with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a Learning Labs partnership with the MacArthur Foundation to create effective, research-based teen spaces in museums and libraries around the country https://www.imls.gov/publications/learning-labs-libraries-and-museumstransformative-spaces-teens and two international partnerships with the Salzburg Global Seminar, one on cultural heritage https://www.imls.gov/assets/1/AssetManager/SGS_Report.pdf and the other on today’s participatory culture https://www.imls.gov/sites/default/files/publications/documents/sgsreport2012_0.pdf.

In this era when so many of our challenges—such as equitable access to a full range of learning experiences and broad faith in meaningful civic engagement—require collective attention, we can’t go it alone. We need to join forces with other entities to make a difference.

Leadership.  As I’ve moved through my career, I’ve become much more cognizant of my own leadership strengths and weaknesses as well as the key leadership traits required by this fast-changing world. (I dearly wish I had the benefits of these insights much earlier in my professional life!)  I belonged to U.S. government’s Senior Executive Service, had leadership roles at the National Endowment for the Humanities and at IMLS, and have been President and CEO of two museums. These experiences resulted in many exciting organizational accomplishments (and some painful failures) and helped me sort out the leadership “wheat” from the “chaff.”  My on-the-job leadership experience was enhanced by my work with the Noyce Leadership Institute Fellows and, my learning continues through my current faculty role in the Bank Street College of Education’s graduate program in museum leadership.  Leadership isn’t limited to the C-suite; it has to be encouraged and rewarded at all levels of an organization. And its dimensions and required skills have evolved in this networked, dynamic, and global knowledge society.

Learning, partnership, leadership and their critical importance to today’s learning organizations. These topics will be my “beat”, and I look forward to exploring them together.

Marsha Semmel