Honoring Excellence in the Field: An Interview with James Tharp

By Lauren Valone

James Tharp, Trustee, Telluride Historical Museum, former President of the Museum of Moab, and former Western Museums Association (WMA) Board Member, received the 2014 Director’s Chair Award. He is a passionate board member, always eager to learn more of the museum field, and has been involved with WMA for many years.

Aldona Jonaitis, Director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North and former WMA Board Member, described Jim’s contributions to WMA:

Jim is remarkably passionate about things being done right; this is coupled with strong opinions about what's right and what's wrong. He is a genuinely dedicated, caring person who did what some thought not possible. What a treasure. By ensuring the health of WMA, James has helped every museum in this region. For this service to the entire museum community, he is so very deserving of the WMA Director's Chair.


In this interview, Jim shares his thoughts about leadership within and the future of museums.

What do you think your greatest accomplishment in the museum field has been?

I spent 6 years at the executive level helping WMA develop a sustainable model that could further its invaluable support to the Museums in the West. I believe in WMA’s value and am oh so proud to see it continue to grow and be of service to the museum community.

What does it mean to be a leader within a museum?

Leadership in any organization requires people of passion committed to shared goals. Beyond setting direction at the Executive or Governance level, leaders constantly identify and remove barriers from all who may contribute to the ultimate institutional goals.

From your perspective, what are some tips for museum professionals working with boards or other governing bodies?

Being working partners is an overused phrase. But, partnership is all that works. Too often staff believes that Boards should raise the money, give the praise and get out of the way. While these are important tasks, Board members often have technical expertise that can be tapped and exploited. Using every resource available is really the smartest thing to do. Partnering with your governing bodies in the generative phases of your work will help to build stronger board members who will work harder to raise money, be better ambassadors for your institutions and actually may have some good ideas.

What do you think is the most pressing issue that museums are facing today and in the future?

The watchword for Museums in the 21st Century has been relevance. While much work has been done, this will be a continuing need. Building and embracing new audiences and communities will assure relevance. Being a repository that preserves and protects our cultural and scientific patrimony is only the first job. Finding new tools and technologies that open our collections and archives to the widest net of “visitors” will ensure that we can continue to be places, physical or virtual, of learning and questioning.

Additionally, I believe it is going to become increasingly hard for small, medium and niche museums to stand out in a crowded field of entertainment and educational opportunities. There will be further need to partner with other institutions outside the museum world and not try to always compete head-to-head.

Do you have any other lasting advice for museum professionals?

Enriching your own life through the learning and sharing opportunities provided by WMA will make you a better museum professional, a more valuable person in the pool of applicants for the next job, and help you build a network of relationships that will last a lifetime.

The WMA is currently accepting nominations for the 2015 Director’s Chair Award. The Director’s Chair Award is designed to showcase and acknowledge outstanding achievements in the museum profession. The Award is presented annually to an individual who has had a significant and lasting impact on museum practices and/or the museum profession in the Western Region. Please note that nominees can be working in any discipline.

To submit a nomination for the Director’s Chair Award, please fill out a Nomination Form and submit a letter outlining the nominee’s qualifications and how they meet the above criteria. The letter must include specific examples as to how the nominee meets some or all of the above criteria. The Award nomination deadline is July 15, 2015. Please send all nominations to the Review Committee at proposals@westmuse.org



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