Every five or so years, museums engage in strategic planning, intentionally considering their future and its possibilities. A key step is a review of the vision, mission, and values– the driving principles that together give meaningful direction about where the museum is headed and how it will act. Typically some or all of these driving principles are affirmed, updated, or re-crafted.
A cruise through strategic plans and museum websites suggests that museums take their mission statements and values seriously and their vision statements less so. Mission statements may be long or short, compelling or generic; values are formatted in many ways. Both, however, are declared while vision statements are often absent.
Vision statements tend to group into three clusters. There is the vision statement that is an image of the future a museum seeks to create. Following a model used in business, it is internally focused. These often soar with aspirations such as “world class,” “leading edge,” or “a national model.” A typical example is:
“A recognized destination for fine art (or history or science) exhibitions that enrich the quality of life for residents and visitors to our region and as a leader in the area art (or science or history) programming for children and adults.”
Other visions are a statement of purpose. Decidedly practical, they define why the museum was created, its functions (i.e. collection, preservation, research, exhibition, interpretation), the geographical area to be served, and the subject area and time period to be covered. Sampling these vision statements suggests they are more typical in Canada and among larger public institutions. Finally, a vision sometimes folds in with the mission and a single statement covers both.
Most museums make do with vision statements that don’t really carry their weight. I understand why. First, crafting vision and mission statements is hard work; getting a significant number of board and staff to forge the shared understanding for a vision requires time, preparation, listening and skilled facilitation. Second, two approaches to a vision–what a museum will become and its purpose–deal with what is near and known, the museum; they miss the dynamic changing world and the unknown future.
I have to admit that these two approaches have been less than inspiring for me as well whether reading them or facilitating their development.
So I was hopeful when Andrea Fox Jensen, one of my strategic planning partners, mentioned how to re-vision vision statements. The approach projects a museum’s vision out to its community rather than into itself. Looking outward, the vision focuses on the positive change a museum hopes and believes is possible for the community it serves. Its vision of change engages with a specific aspect of a better future that matches the museum’s interests, perhaps a stronger community, increased social cohesion, greater civic engagement, or improved quality of life.
A few examples of museums and a change organization illustrate how this outward orientation plays out and in varied ways.
Pacific Science Center: We envision communities where children and adults are inspired by science, understand its basic principles and bring their scientific curiosity and understanding to bear in the world.
The Family Museum: We envision a community that is increasingly vibrant, engaged, and resilient because it recognizes and develops the potential of children.
The Grand Rapids Museum of Art: To Build Community Strength and Enhance the Quality of Life through Art.
The Harwood Institute: We see a world where people have shared and converging pathways to realize their own potential to make a difference, and where they join together to build a common future.
A community-oriented vision statement unlocks valuable energy that strengthens a museum. An outward perspective points to where a museum can contribute to the change it envisions. This allows a museum to aim its mission on how it intends to use its assets and resources to help people be their best selves, enjoy better lives, or make their community stronger. A mission that characterizes a museum’s usefulness, who it will serve to benefit the community, and the distinctive way it will accomplish this is a robust tool for facing the future.
This approach returns the vision statement to the driving principles and adds muscle to the mission. It shifts attention and discussion outward, away from specific activities and toward audience and community needs. I have seen this approach bring needed clarity and new energy to a museum’s efforts to know its community. Questions arose about the museum's knowledge of the community’s challenges and promises and how it could develop deep understanding of the entire community. New methods evolved for learning more and applying that knowledge to making internal decisions and working with external partners. In turn, it invigorated community engagement shifting it from a solely programmatic approach.
After several decades of strategic planning in and with museums, I heartily welcome an externally oriented vision statement. It incorporates the community context in which museums operate and reminds us that museums are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Externally oriented vision statements concentrate a museum’s attention on where its work needs to be done for the public good. This approach aligns with the exhortation of museum scholar and theorist Stephen Weil that, “In everything museums do, they must remember the cornerstone on which the whole enterprise rests - to make a difference in people’s lives.”