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History Museum begins search for new president

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Missouri History Museum dates back to 1866, but as it begins the task of finding a new president to succeed Robert Archibald, a lot of the focus will be on the past few months.

Since Archibald’s resignation late last year, following a drumbeat of negative news about his compensation and a questionable land purchase by the museum, the de facto leader of the museum has been John Roberts, who heads its board of trustees. But one of his priorities has been moving forward on a search process of finding a new president and chief executive.

A search committee chaired by trustee Donna Wilkinson and made up of trustees, Zoo-Museum District subdistrict commissioners and three outsiders – Henry Givens, James Buford and Marylen Mann – met for the first time Monday to outline the steps needed to hire a new president and lay out the qualities he or she will need.

And though they didn’t refer often to the recent bad news that ended up with Archibald’s departure – with $566,000 in unused vacation time and a $270,000, six-month consulting contract – it clearly was on their minds.

Wilkinson noted that she had been involved in a similar search for a new leader for the Science Center, also an institution in the ZMD, and it “had had its share of negative publicity when it started its search. But that didn’t deter candidates.”

Emphasizing that the museum is committed to a search process that is “open, inclusive and transparent,” Wilkinson said the committee would send out requests to search firms to get involved, perhaps by the end of the week.

She said she hoped to have responses back from interested firms in two weeks, then the committee could winnow the list down and invite representatives from the finalists in for interviews. Wilkinson said the list of firms invited to submit proposals would not be made public.

Once the search firm is chosen, she said, she expects that it will settle on a list of one to three candidates for the job of president. At the same time, the executive compensation committee, made up of trustees and subdistrict commissioners, would be putting together a package that the search committee and search firm could use to guide its process.

In the end, Wilkinson said, both the trustees and the subdistrict commissioners would approve the final selection.

“We are doing all the legwork,” she said. “We’re the first step.”

To start things off, committee members discussed a list of attributes and experience the new president would be expected to have.

The ideal candidate, they said, would be a visionary, a leader, a communicator, a collaborator, a manager and an innovator who would be able to work within the public-private framework in which the museum operates.

He or she would bring to the job experience as an executive and as a museum official, with an advanced degree in history or a museum-related subject. The new president should also have a track record of sound fiscal management, played a strong role in fund raising, worked effectively with governing and advisory boards, managed the process of attracting grant money, been involved in educational outreach and be experienced in information technology.

Where would the museum find someone with all those skills?

Trustee George H. Walker suggested that Archibald himself may be able to help because of his long experience in the field; his consulting contract calls on him to provide just such expertise. “He must know this industry pretty well,” Walker said.

Wilkinson noted that “this world is relatively small. Everybody will know everybody else.”

Citing the museum’s recent attendance figures, Mann said that “we should be very attractive” to qualified candidates, despite the recent negative publicity.

Trustee William Rusnack suggested two possible avenues from which the next president could come.

“Are we going to be looking for the leader of a smaller institution,” he asked, “or the No. 2 person at a larger institution?”

Buford suggested that search firms may need to be pushed to be aggressive in seeking out the best candidate, and Wilkinson agreed.

“Everyone thinks this is a process that works by rote,“ she said. “It doesn’t.”

And even when the right person is identified, she added, that candidate isn’t necessarily going to be available.

"They may feel like they are locked in where they are,” she said, but added:
“Then an institution like this comes along, and all of a sudden they’re not locked in.”

And, Wilkinson concluded, not all searches are successful the first time around.

“These searches tend to take a long time,” she said. “They may give you a list of candidates, and you look at it and tell them, dig deeper.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.