Michael Day

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Chief Executive of Historic Royal Palaces, UK

‘Agile’ – a future leadership model for museums?  (PowerPoint)

‘Agile’ – a future leadership model for museums? (Paper)


In this fast-changing world, old models of organisations and leadership may no longer work.  New ways of working are becoming commonplace world-wide as digital technology and its wider social impact changes the way the world works.  Museums are not immune: they face profound and ever more rapid changes.  To survive and thrive, they will need to develop organisation cultures able to operate effectively in this new world.  All the evidence that to reach that state, successful organisations need great leaders.

The idea of the Agile Museum – the theme for this conference – borrows a philosophy pioneered in the software industry a decade ago, which has become increasingly prevalent as a project management methodology.   Agile principles are also now beginning to be applied to emerging thinking on what ‘good leadership’ means.

However, it is also true that museums and heritage organisations have some distinctive qualities that distinguish them from other sorts of organisations.  Museums have uniquely long time horizons back and forward, which they have  to balance with being relevant and having impact in fast-changing contemporary society.  Other ambiguities are also created, for example, in the tensions between guardianship and access, and between creating wide public benefit with a business mindset.

With the conference agenda defining current challenges in the operating context, this keynote address will examine the extent to which agile leadership will be vital for museums in the future, and also how its principles might need to be adapted.  I will consider how ‘agile’ fits with my own personal leadership practice – developed through direct experience, reflection, teaching and learning over a career of leading and managing museums and heritage organisations over the last thirty years.

In a working environment with much choice, I will look at what successful leaders do – where the balance of effort should be applied; and how they do it – the behaviours that are associated with effective leadership.  I will then consider how this translates into building an effective organisation culture, so that everyone is working together in the same way towards a common purpose.  Finally, I will draw on examples of the change process that I have led at Historic Royal Palaces and the application of this approach to our 2014 project – Poppies at the Tower of London – which had a global impact.


Michael Day joined Historic Royal Palaces as Chief Executive in 2003 from the Jersey Heritage Trust, where he held the post of Director since 1987. He started his career as a curator with the Norfolk Museums Service in 1974 before moving in 1983 to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

Michael attended the Getty Leadership Institute in Berkeley, California in 1993. He was on the faculty of the UEA Museum Leadership Programme from 1994-2011, co-directed the Nordic Museum Leadership Programme in Denmark from 2001-08 and has taught on the Clore Cultural Leadership Programme since 2007. He has lectured and spoken at conferences around the world on cultural leadership, and historic site management and interpretation.

He is chair of the Battersea Arts Centre, and formerly a trustee of the Alnwick Garden Trust and board member of the UK’s Cultural Leadership Programme.

Michael was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Kingston University in 2010 for his work in the heritage and museums sector. He received the Museums+Heritage 2015 Award for Outstanding Individual Contribution and was appointed Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in the New Year Honours List.


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