Sometimes a museum needs a new mission statement and sometime it doesn’t. Often, it’s hard to tell whether a mission is out-dated and inadequate or it needs to be clearer, more aligned, or expressed in a more compelling way. How does a museum tell whether it needs a new mission statement or a better mission statement? Try a mission check.
A mission check is something I do with museums as part of a planning audit or developing a planning framework. I draw from a set of exercises I use early in a strategic planning process to review, revise, and align the museum’s driving principles. These are the vision, mission, and values that together give meaningful direction about where a museum is headed and how it will act. Missions are what most people are most familiar with, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that mission statements are as robust as they might be. Common ills of a mission statement are being generic, missing an important component like the audience, or being excessively long.
Basic Mission Parts
A clear statement of the reason a museum exists, a mission statement answers four questions: What does it contribute? who does it serve? how does it deliver? and why is this important? Looking at whether and how your mission statement answers these questions is a good place to start a mission check.
Below are four mission statements. In the left-hand columns are the missions of a small art museum, a science center, a cultural and natural science museum, and a children’s museum. The right-hand column is my sort of the mission statement according to what, for whom, how, and why.
The Art Museum brings art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning. We strive to create a place where people of every background can be touched by art. We are committed to exhibitions and programs that will strengthen and sustain our community.
What: Bring art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning; (and) touch people with art
For Whom: People of every background
How: Create a place; exhibitions and programs
Why: Strengthen and sustain our community
To create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them.
What: Create a culture of learning; (and) nurture curiosity about the world around them
For Whom: People
How: Innovative environments, programs, and tools
The Museum sets the stage for lifelong learning in South Texas. Through innovative programs in history, science, and culture, strengthened by collections and facilities, the Museum enriches lives, promotes a quality life for all South Texas people and generates a legacy of knowledge.
What: Sets the stage for lifelong learning in South Texas; enriches lives, promotes a quality life and generates a legacy of knowledge
For Whom: All South Texas people
How: Innovative programs in history, science, and culture, strengthened by collections and facilities
The Children’s Museum is an essential learning resource that engages the young children of the (City) community in play and active exploration together with their parents and other adults to expand their capacity to learn.
What: An essential learning resource
For Whom: Young children of the (name) community
How: Engage in play and active exploration together with their parents and other adults
Why: Expand their capacity to learn
Sort your museum’s mission statement and talk about the following.
- How well does your mission statement cover these key areas? Typically, it’s easier to recognize some parts than others. For instance, distinctions between what and how can blur; a solid explanation for why is rare.
- How clearly does your mission statement express what it contributes? This part often deals with what a museum does such as, collect, preserve, and educate. The children’s museum mission, “An essential learning resource,” describes what the museum is. The other missions express what the museum does, or is a two-part what: “Create a culture of learning” as well as “nurture curiosity about the world around them”.
- How meaningful is the description of who your serve? Several references to the audience in the examples are generic, “people”, and “people of every background”. “Young children in (a particular) community” is more precise.
- How clear and distinctive is how your museum delivers its mission? Often this is a list subject matter areas and/or a list of exhibitions, programs, and collections. While important, these lists do little to distinguish one museum’s purpose from that of another museum.
- What does your mission express about why your museum is important? This is the hardest of the four questions. Why is often implied or buried in how. The art museum makes the connection between “touching people with art” and “strengthening and sustaining our community.”
Through this exercise, you might identify a missing or weak piece in your mission statement and a way to correct it: perhaps a clearer reference to who you want to serve, a more engaging expression of how you will deliver your mission, or a deeper version of why this is important. You might focus on how the parts could work together more forcefully or be expressed more clearly. The art museum, for instance, might explore what happens when “creating a place where people are touched by art” is how it delivers. The science center could be more explicit about why “nurturing curiosity about the world around them” matters.
Pushing and Probing
The answers to these four questions–what, who, how, and why–can seem obvious. That’s not entirely surprising since the mission has attracted people to work on its behalf; the mission is also what a museum tries to do every day. But an obvious and single answer is not enough; it needs pushing and probing to expose what’s behind it.
Strategic planner Andrea Fox Jensen will often follow up a very straightforward statement with, “This is important because….” Drilling deeper into an assertion invests beliefs and easy statements with well-earned meaning. It distinguishes between feel good intentions and efforts capable of making a difference.
This is a challenging practice, but exactly what’s needed to probe unspoken and sometimes untested assumptions and beliefs. The practice reveals where a mission is shallow; can shake loose less obvious relationships among what, who, how and why; and is likely to suggest ways to strengthen the mission. One example of the succession of statements moves form a basic statement of audience to imply why a museum matters.
- We serve all children eight and under and their families in the greater (city) area.
- This is important because… All children in this age range, regardless of background, benefit from varied cognitive, physical, social, and emotional experiences.
- This is important because… Early experiences impact later development including success in school and in jobs.
- This is important because… Children with limited experiences can benefit from varied and targeted play and learning experiences across settings, at school, home, and at the museum.
Uncovering what is worthwhile behind the initial answers sometimes requires saying what’s obvious or feels corny, like “to make a better life…” Push ahead anyway. Continue to unpack why the museum is important until you know what you do, for whom, how you do it, and why it matters. This process allows a museum to fully inhabit its mission.
What Are We Saying?
“Wordsmithing” can be an expression of frustration when mission statement work is lagging. Focusing too soon on prepositions and parallel constructions can curtail exploration of what a “culture of learning” is or what “building community” looks like. But words do matter. Try writing a mission statement without them. Clogging up a mission statement with jargon, clichés, and lackluster words puts a drag on a mission statement’s potential to express what you care about in a way that others will also care about. Revisiting the language of a mission statement strikes somewhere between the mechanics of a sentence and the power of words to make people care.
Working in a small group, revisit the words in your mission statement and look hard at what they are saying. This exercise highlights qualities in the text that relate to and reinforce a mission’s function. Use highlighter pens or colored dots to designate these qualities.
• Highlight words that express your relevance to your community.
• Highlight the 2-3 words that distinguish your museum from other museums.
• Highlight the words that represent the museum’s greatest opportunity for impact or touching many lives.
• Highlight a few key words that give crucial guidance in making strategic choices.
If one quality isn’t present, go on to the next. You can also vary this exercise by adding or substituting other qualities. Tally the group’s response for each quality. While this is not intended as a vote on wording, there’s information here. How do the highlights cluster? What words or phrases resonate strongly? Which qualities align most strongly with one another? Have other words or phrases that feel fresh or are more precise surfaced during discussions? Might they do more work than words like multidimensional, essential, innovative, or interactive?
From Mission Check to Next Steps
A mission check helps answer the broader question, “do we need a new mission statement?” Fielding one or more of these exercises might assure your museum that your current mission statement defines the museum’s deeper purpose and functions well in guiding the museum. Some times, results of these exercises will indicate areas of the mission that need strengthening. Perhaps specify who the museums serves; pull in a sharpened understanding of why the museum matters. Toss out tired words and import some compelling language. Give a chiropractic yank to forcefully engage the four parts with one another to convey what you care about that others will care about.
A mission check also helps a leader or leadership group manage the moans and groans of “What? Redoing the mission again?” (At least temporarily.) If the mission check indicates a new mission is truly needed, you have made a case for investing valuable time and energy. Some of the groundwork has been laid and, likely, pointed to a starting point somewhat further along. If you are considering a full overhaul of your mission, take a look at Missions That Matter. In any case, give the time and effort to your mission it, your museum, and community deserves.