In celebration of Women’s Month, the Creative Feel team spoke to Sandi Mackenzie, Director of the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, about her role and her experience of being a woman in such a typically ‘male’ environment.
Creative Feel: As a female museum director, both professionally and personally, what challenges have you had to deal with in order to become successful in your field?
Sandi Mackenzie: I am not certain I was ever meant to be employed at the then South African Museum of Military History, as everyone who interviewed me was completely motherless drunk, after a day spent celebrating the opening of an exhibition. My first sight of any employee was a young gentleman trying to negotiate the steps in the Dan Pienaar Gun Park. He asked me, crossed eyed and slurring, how many stairs he was about to walk down. (He is today the model of proprietary and one of the most responsible and loyal colleagues I have ever had.)
When I arrived for my first day of work no one knew who I was or why I was there. On my introduction to a male member of staff, he said: ‘Oh no, not a woman. You’ll be so useless to us in this environment.’
Although I had been a senior manager in Advances Department at the banking group I worked for, on arrival I was appointed as a junior curator. This was like being a gaffer on a film production. I typed, answered the phone, painted guns, sewed labels onto uniforms, made tea, worked as a cashier at the entrance to the museum and worked as security in the museum’s shop when schools arrived. This, from financially assessing balance sheets, income and expenditure statements, interviewing and advising clients on businesses, investments, corporate and consumer requirements, drawing up financial plans for building projects and valuating houses and property, plant and equipment for bond and hire purchase purposes. I had been on an accelerated training programme within the bank and within a few years had reached Executive Management at the age of 28 years.
In that first period at the museum, I learnt humility. I learnt to keep quiet because I knew nothing about the subject I was suddenly immersed in and military rank and file remained a clouded mystery to me. I remember just being almost permanently confused.
Then I failed my probationary period of 6 months and was given another year’s probation.
I had been unable to tell the Deputy Director what the difference was between a spiked gun and a breech explosion on a gun. This was the first time in my life my work had been held to question and I was devastated. After the usual crying and gnashing of teeth, I pulled myself together and decided that I would beat this failure and that I would one day make it to the top position in the museum.
I spent time thinking about what it was that I had as an employee that could benefit the organisation. What I knew I didn’t have was knowledge of the subject material, an Honours Degree in History, specialisation in any specific war or battle and the position of a curator with a collection.
I did have one overwhelming advantage over everyone else. I could speed read and speed type. From that day (until today), I set about reading one biography and one book on military history a week. I achieved my honours cum laude. Personally, I sacrificed a great many of my friends who could not understand the earnestness with which I now approached work. I attended few social occasions. But I knew what I wanted for my life and that nothing was going to stop me achieving my goals.