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At a Wisconsin Museum, Employees Feel Like Family

Imagine a home with 50,000 visitors.

July 28, 2000
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The Wustum Museum of Fine Arts didn’t start out as a museum at all. For its first eighty-five years, the Italianate farmhouse in Racine, Wisconsin, served as a private home. It wasn't until 1941 that the house was converted into gallery space.

Yet even now, there's a family feel among the people who work there. The kitchen serves as the nerve center, bring-your-dog-to-work day happens much more often than once a year, and every birthday prompts a celebration. The eight people who work there have even been known to call it "home."

Talk about validation. Wustum Museum's small group of staffers has 50,000 opportunities to see that their work makes a difference.

The fact is, they just don't have time for formality and rules and protocol. The museum has six to eight exhibitions each year and a permanent collection and active education programs for children and adults. Nearly 50,000 people pass through each year.

The flexibility has allowed each staffer to find a niche. For Pat Kardas, it's marketing and communications. But she's quick to point out that she and her colleagues are constantly stepping back to look at the big picture. Weekly meetings help. They use the time to evaluate exhibits and sessions, to plan new ones, to figure out who does what as the week unfolds, and simply to touch base. It's a lot like a healthy conversation around the dining room table.

With such a workload, what keeps them going? For Kardas, it's all about reaching people. "We'll have visitors who come in and say, 'Wow, this exhibit is incredible!' Or we'll be working with children, watching them get so excited about creativity. We can see the joy on their faces." Talk about validation. Wustum Museum's small group of staffers has 50,000 opportunities to see that their work makes a difference.

According to museum director Bruce Pepich, the family of employees is now facing a tough question: How can their workplace remain flexible if the number of exhibits, visitors, and program participants continues its upward trend?

They're taking a few measured steps, evaluating each as they go -- simple stuff like using written agendas at their meetings. What's clear is that this family won't let bureaucracy move in anytime soon.

From the book "22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace."

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