Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Really? Questioning Mission Again?

Guest Post  Jason Illari is Grants Administrator at the Fire Museum of Maryland.  But he's also active in local historical societies and the Small Museum Association.  In this guest post,  he takes on the issue of mission and historic houses.  We both look forward to hearing your thoughts on this evergreen, but always important, issue.  Comment away!
"If we did not have a house, would we still have a mission?"  I know I am not the first to bring up the subject of mission in historic house museums,  but I've puzzled over this query and a curious response to that question given to me during a historic house consultancy.   It's taken me some time to formulate my thoughts about the question and why it matters. 

A dear friend and colleague met me for lunch one day to discuss the future of the house in question.  To provide some context, the organization was facing some serious challenges and we were brainstorming about mission, future plans, interpretation, etc. The colleague commented on the last of preventative maintenance afford the structure and then sincerely, lightheartedly but tellingly remarked, "well, I guess if something serious were to happen to the house, we would just eventually fold the organization and move on." 

In other words, I understood my colleague's statement to mean that the organization's mission was so intricately tied to the structure that without the original house the organization would become obsolete.  I assure readers that this colleague had no ill will fir the organization--on the contrary--they were one of the home's chief proponents.  I hemmed and hawed over the comment like any good museum professional would.  Yet, dare I say that after years of contemplation, I have begun to understand why the comment was made.  At its core, my colleague's observation speaks volumes about how stewards of  historic house museums relate to mission and also how a community views an organization charged with caring for these structures.
If mission is an institution's metaphorical pulse or heartbeat,  then I believe it must be lovingly monitored, studied and occasionally revived within the body of an institution.  I think about what doctors and nurses do every time I step into their office. Like some dull mantra, the first thing I hear is, "Time to check your pulse Mr. Illari."   I have found that asking one simple question:  "If we did not have a house would we still have a mission?"  to community members, board members, staff and volunteers and visitors is an effective way to stimulate conversation about the meaning and importance of mission.  Another thought-provoking exercise, albeit an awkward one, is to read out loud the mission statement multiple times, interspersing it with similar mission statements to drive home a particular point, like redundancy or uniqueness.   Then sit in silence for a minutes, a few days or even a few weeks before talking about it.  Meditation is not a dirty word and a period of reflection may be really useful and drive thoughtful conversations forward.  Maybe someone will say,  "why didn't I think of that?"  and help create meaningful change.

In my opinion, the reason to monitor mission and ask these tough questions is not to abruptly change an instititon's course with every fad or whim, but to ensure that the overall vitality of an organization is maintained through sustainable relevancy.  If we are constantly questioning why an organization seems lifeless, decade after decade, maybe a thorough examination of mission is in order and a change is long overdue.  To me, sustainable relevancy means striving to cultivate a mission that is designed to foster long-term relvancy based on trends, future studies, community input and other social sciences while always keeping in mind the mandate to preserve, collect and interpret.  Yes, we are in the business of caring for things that matter!
Museum thinkers have been mulling over these ideas almost ad nauseum, but we should remind ourselves that it's OK and even essential to meditate on the effectiveness of our missions and question their relevancy.  What makes them timeless or transcendent?  What about them articulates a desire for positive action or lift up a neighborhood or community of interest?  Are we really using or leveraging our mission when we ask for support?  Are we trying to over-complicate our mission and be something we're not?  Maybe our one, true purpose is to tell the story of footstools, but maybe our mission might also articulate the desire to inspire genuine laughter to uplift weary hearts and minds while telling the footstool story.

Where we run into trouble I think, is by trying so hard to find the perfect answer to the historic house "riddle"  that we lose sight of the importance of asking more creative questions. I think this is especially true for many historic house museums that are desperately trying to find their place in a world that, quite frankly, is over-saturated by houses with run-of-the-mill missions, patina-ed with uniqueness, in the same way, that the house's unprovenanced furniture carries the same dull patina.

As historic house museums become increasingly involved with the American Alliance of Museums Continuum of Excellence and their call to examine core documents, including mission--I would like to offer that staff and boards can freely use the questions above to stimulate conversation about mission.  Jot down the answers and I'm willing to admit that new ideas about mission will emerge.  Oftentimes the answers we seek are hidden in the questions we ask.  So what questions have you asked lately?

Linda's written insightfully about mission here at the Uncataloged Museum over the years--and it's certainly worth revisiting them.

Abandoned building via Flickr user takomabibelot
Footstool and dog,  Library of Congress
Pulse taking from The Welcome Collection

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