Monday, February 6, 2012

Mission Accomplished?

How often does your museum staff think about your mission?  You know, that thing that says, "the mission of x is to do y?"  In the past month, I've visited one museum that totally missed the opportunity to clearly share its mission, talked about mission with a group of small history museum staff and volunteers, and co-written a new mission statement for the Pickle Project.  Each of those situations made me really think about why missions matter--and how we can delve deeper into them.
The missed opportunity was at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.  When we arrived,  we paid admission and then were asked to gather at a desk in the lobby to wait for a staff member to provide an orientation.  Okay, fair enough.  We stand around,  other groups of visitors stand around,  we wait for a visitor to come out of the bathroom and have a staff member say, "oh, you're back!" which is sort of a strange way to start a visit.  Thus gathered, we're led down the ramp to the lower level.  Ah, I think, here's where we'll hear about what tolerance means, or what the museum hopes to do, or what its mission is. Nope!  We hear that one exhibit is to the left, one to the right, bathrooms upstairs.  After the visit, I went back to the museum's website.  It says that the museum is dedicated to challenging visitors to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts and confront all forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world today.  Why would you not introduce/reinforce/engage visitors with that powerful idea when they enter your museum?  A totally missed opportunity at a place where I expected much more.

At a StEPs-CT training in Connecticut,  I asked participants to introduce themselves to the group with their organization's mission statement. Out of the group of 25,  I'd say easily half were virtually identical.  "Collect, preserve, educate..."   "history of x town,  Connecticut, the nation"   "collect real and personal property" and the long list of activities including historic markers, publications, exhibits, presenting, educating, taking care of historic buildings.  Only one or two mentioned the audience in ways other than the phrase, "the general public."  The next day, we had a great discussion about those mission statements--about why they're important and not just boiler plate--a discussion greatly helped along by AASLH's StEPs program and its benchmarking checklist.   When your mission is the frame for your work, or the sieve through which all your activities must pass, it just makes sense to have a mission that really matters--and to make sure that everyone knows what it is.

Some time ago, Dorothy Chen-Courtin provided workshop participants with a useful way to think about mission--one I've continued to share with others.   She encouraged us to keep asking why or so what?  Why do you collect things?  Because no one else does.  So what?  Because they're disappearing.  So what?  The goal is to push, push, push until you really figure out the why--the meaning;  who it's for;  and what your lasting impact will be. In writing this post I looked at many, many museum mission statements thanks to Google.  And I've come to think that "appreciate the history of..." is just not enough.  I can appreciate all kinds of things without wanting to make any effort to go any deeper.  Is appreciate in your mission statement?  Can you make a case for why?  And if your organization has a hard time attracting donors or community interest--could it be that your mission just doesn't inspire passion or commitment?
Where are some good models for mission statements?  Here's some I particularly like (and thanks to Anne Ackerson of Leading by Design for sharing many of these).
  • The National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, chronicles key episodes of the American civil rights movement and the legacy of this movement to inspire participation in civil and human rights efforts globally, through our collections, exhibitions, and educational programs.
  • The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center¹s mission is to preserve and interpret Harriet Beecher Stowe¹s Hartford home and the Center¹s historic collections, create a forum for vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire individuals to embrace and emulate her commitment to social justice by effecting positive change.
  • Through its preservation, research and interpretive initiatives, Historic Cherry Hill focuses on one Albany family’s search for order and stability in response to personal and social change, encouraging the public to establish an emotional connection and critical distance in order to gain perspective on their own history and lives.
  • The mission of the Minnesota Historical Society is to foster among people an awareness of Minnesota history so that they may draw strength and perspective from the past and find purpose for the future.
  • The Brooklyn Historical Society connects the past to the present and makes the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant and meaningful for today's diverse communities, and for generations to come.
  • In writing mission and vision statements, The Historical Society of Woodstock drew inspiration from that community's rich and varied artistic traditions:
    The Historical Society of Woodstock will be the common thread that brings together the rich and colorful tapestry that is Woodstock. The society then provides a more detailed mission:
    The Historical Society of Woodstock shapes our future through a shared understanding of our past.  We accomplish this by:
    .   Creating engaging programs for all ages
    .   Collecting and caring for our history
    .   Encouraging and undertaking research and documentation of our history
    .   Making it possible for all of us to share in our history
  • The Pacific Science Center has what seems like a sparely worded mission: ...inspires a lifelong interest in science, math and technology by engaging diverse communities through interactive and innovative exhibits and programs.  But that mission is accompanied by a passionate vision statement:   
    We envision communities where children and adults are inspired by science, understand its basic principles and bring their scientific curiosity and knowledge to bear in the world.  
From an outside view, all of these mission statements share several common elements.  They are passionate.  They don't view education as a one-way street.  And, I'm guessing, each was the subject of intense discussion and debate during their development.  Go back to that science center statement:
  •  Bringing curiousity and knowledge to bear in the world.   
A passionate statement of the work of any museum. Heard any good mission statements lately? 

Why by markheybo , Questions by Gurdonark both on Flickr.
Museum of Tolerance parking garage and stickers.


Maggie Abbott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maggie Abbott said...

I really enjoyed this post and I'll definitely pay more attention to the language used in mission statements from now on.

Bob Beatty said...

I was quite proud of my old museum's (the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center) mission statement: We honor the past, explore the present, to shape the future.

Proud of it for a variety of reasons BTW:
1) It's pure simplicity. It didn't take a lot to remember it but it was powerful

2) It was created out of a very stakeholder-based and -led strategic planning process. Stakeholders TOLD us what our mission should be and it boiled down to that.

3) It was bold, in a way, and certainly differed from the old "collect, preserve, interpret" mindset you mention here.

Like you Linda, I wish we'd all do more with our mission statements. I would've plastered that thing all over the museum and asked regularly if folks thought we met that mission. I think we often overlook the importance (and potential impact) of the statement itself.

Linda said...

Maggie--thanks for reading. Bob--I think you've made great points--missions should be re-memorable (if that's a word)--but the idea of lots of input in its creation and then actually USING it to measure our work by asking our communities how we're doing. Wonder how many places really do that?

Allison said...

What these mission statements seem to have in common is that they envision what goes on at their museum affecting the world outside it. They all want to "inspire" action or "foster" knowledge and involvement. It's a lofty goal, but a great one.