Saturday, July 12, 2014

Polishing the Mission





There are many museum trends to watch and I certainly don’t track them all, or even most, of them. Nevertheless, I have a pretty strong sense that museum mission statements are generally getting more robust. Admittedly, this is based on an informal sample of museum mission statements. But it feels solid enough to explore it aloud.

I come across fewer mission statements that link predictable and well-worn phrases together and that could be interchanged with any number of similar museums. Fewer missions rely on simply stating that a museum “collects, preserves, and interprets” or “creates hands-on exhibits” for their audiences. Conversely, I see more attention to the serious business of describing the difference for a community a museum is marshaling its varied resources to make.  

A few possible reasons for stronger missions occur to me based on my museum planning work, professional reading, and observations. Museums are learning organizations; no doubt some have learned from the shortcomings of their latest missions or have been impressed by what a solid, hard working mission has accomplished for a peer institution. I am also guessing that museums have realized that the same type of mission that works for large corporations does not work for smaller non-profits with a learning at its core. Museum specialists like Randi Korn & Associates have focused on impact planning, often in relation to a museum’s mission. Finally, tough times can be good teachers. Navigating increasingly complex environments, often with declining resources while also demonstrating impact, has, I think, pushed museums to probe what being both nice and necessary means. This process involves clearly expressing a museum’s intention to be indispensable to its community in its mission. A harder working mission is a power tool in this effort.


Mission 101
Stated simply, a museum’s mission expresses its enduring purpose. Along with a vision that addresses the future and values that are beliefs guiding a museum’s actions, a mission centers a museum’s driving principles. This threesome gives meaningful direction to where a museum is headed, how it will act, and its intended impact. Among the driving principles, however, mission is the leader. Everything else–strategy, policy, practice, and program–directly or indirectly, is an extension of the mission.

Mission statements are aspirational about what a museum wants to accomplish, even if it will take decades; and meaningful change will take decades to accomplish. A mission statement answers what the museum does, for whom, how and why in a way that distinguishes the museum from other organizations that serve a similar audience in a similar way. These four elements–what, for whom, how, and whymust be aligned and work together powerfully, be relevant to the community, and position a museum to act.
What the museum does, expressed more in terms of a vital necessity than a list or activities.
For whom identifies who the museum must serve in order to fulfill its purpose in a meaningful way. For instance, “families of all backgrounds” designates more intentional beneficiaries than “the public.”
• How points to the meaningful change a museum believes it can help accomplish.
Why this is important relates the museum’s intended impact to community priorities

Because museums and their communities change, missions change. At its origination a museum needs to create a mission. Momentous as this step at the start of a museum’s life is–and setting a thoughtful course is momentous–this mission will be revisited and rethought multiple times. If museums are useful and relevant, they will evolve. Their missions must also evolve to reflect this change and bring greater clarity to serving the community more effectively.

Rethinking a mission is likely when a museum engages in institutional planning, applies for accreditation, or decides on mission level change: a change in the audience, being free, or expressing a clear intention to contribute to the common good. Often museums need a mission check using the context of their current reality and strategic ambitions. More of a thoughtful review and less than an overhaul, the outcome of a mission check is an affirmation or adjustment that adds or strengthens parts.   


Burnishing and Buffing
Polished wood (Colossal)
Whether a museum is shaping its mission for the first time, rethinking it for a major expansion, or revisiting it through strategic planning, polishing the mission is an important, often overlooked step. This kind of polishing is less about shine and sparkle and more about deep honing. As with any quality material–brass, stone, wood, or silver–buffing and burnishing bring out highlights, reveal important contours, capture light, and add luster. For missions too.
Polished marble chips

I’ve seen museums including the Kidspace Children’s Museum (Pasadena) polish their missions. Following a thoughtful, extended, and inclusive process of revisiting its mission during its master planning, the Museum took time for one more step. Polishing involved additional internal discussions, several informal reviews by museum colleagues and friends, and an explication of each key part of the mission statement.
In reworking its mission, Kidspace moved from a statement that expressed a broad concern with education, a generic reference to the audience, an all-purpose outcome, and a suggestion of how the change might occur. 
Our mission at Kidspace Children’s Museum is to promote education and enrich the lives of children, families, and the community through interactive experiences in science, art, and the humanities. (2012)
The Museum arrived at a mission that centered on children. It identified specific and meaningful outcomes for them, committed the Museum to serve all children, and assigned itself a concrete role in helping to accomplish this together with the community.
 “Kidspace provides opportunities for kid-driven experiences in order to build a community that nurtures all children’s potential.” (Late 2013)

By itself, this new mission elevated the Museum’s interest in impacting children’s lives with clearer direction for how it would distinguish itself from other groups. In polishing its mission, Kidspace chose to take more direct responsibility for engaging children’s potential, shifted its concern for children’s futures as joyful, active learners, and further focused on outdoor experiences–still keeping it concise. 
Kidspace nurtures the potential of all children through kid-driven outdoor experiences, inspiring them to become joyful, active learners. (Early 2014)

In getting to a crisper and more powerful mission statement which will serve it well in shaping strategic platforms, developing policies and practices, guiding discussions, and informing resource allocation Kidspace also:
• Strengthened and aligned the big ideas which shape its work
• Developed deeper understandings and shared appreciation
• Prepared for the next steps

Strengthening and aligning the big ideas. Big ideas must also be strong, durable ideas that are well aligned. The right-big ideas are ones that demand that a museum push beyond its current capabilities and aspirations in areas it has experience, expertise, and assets and consistently excels. In the territory where a museum has significant potential to deliver value and where its community has priorities, a museum will find a productive tension that advances it on multiple fronts.

During intense discussions of missions, forceful ideas can fly up and hijack dialogue, silencing new ideas and dismissing areas where a museum has long-term interests. While compelling ideas are important, they should also be challenged with question such as: Are these the right ideas? Why? Are they us? How do we know? Do we have a recognized track record? Do we have credibility in this area? Do solid ideas stand behind our bold language?

For Kidspace, kid-driven experiences emerges as a big idea. It is roomy and serves as a container for a set of related ambitious ideas around being child-centered, recognizing children’s competence, allowing them to act on choices, inviting children to explore their talents and interests, and encouraging them to leave their mark. Kid-driven experiences also distinguishes the Museum from other organizations serving this audience.

A mission statement is stronger when one big idea engages firmly and clearly with another big idea and connects parts of the mission: what, for whom, how, and why. Nurturing all children's potential connects to kid-driven experiences in several important ways. It further distinguishes the Museum’s kid-driven experiences, grounds them in long-term value in children’s lives, and emphasizes a commitment to all children regardless of background.

Developing deeper understandings and a shared appreciation. Whatever its mission, a museum’s fundamental challenge is practicing its mission and realizing it everyday. To meet that constant challenge, a mission’s meaning must be clear among its key internal stakeholders–staff and board–whether they have lots of history with the museum or are new to the organization.

Understanding the mission’s deep meaning comes from knowing not only its words, but also their sense, significance, and shades. After a mission has been composed, unpacking its language and parts thoughtfully and collaboratively builds agreement around what the museum does, for whom, why, and how. Explicating the ideas and language of the mission develops a shared appreciation for the words that have been chosen and an understanding about those that have been omitted. Time taken to make the mission transparent helps everyone internalize it, find ways to inhabit it through their role at the museum, believe in the mission, and practice it everyday.

Some of this exploration and discussion occurs through internal reviews by committees throughout the process, listening to new perspectives from across the entire museum or from museum friends, and thinking about how to present the mission statement. It is also an opportunity to highlight connections to a museum’s past, articulate its relevance to its community, and include language or supporting ideas not included in the mission statement proper. In recording its process and completing its master plan document, Kidspace expanded on four elements in its mission statement.
-        Nurture the potential of all children
-        Kid-driven experiences
-        Inspire joyful active learning
-        Relate to the community

A back-up document valuable for staff and board orientation, background for grants, and selection criteria for initiatives and projects, these write-ups can be updated with evolving insights and current examples. 

Preparing the museum for the next steps. A museum’s mission is a platform for all it does, how it organizes for work, who it hires, and how it engages with the community. Implications of a solid mission cascade across the museum, from revising documents in order to reflect the new mission; to prioritizing programs, activities, and partnerships; to considering new impacts and measures.

Inevitably, a museum must align its mission with its work. If the previous mission statement focused on tasks such as collecting, preserving, interpreting, the museum is likely to be organized for work and results around these tasks. The same task-oriented organizational structure, teams, and working groups–as familiar and comfortable as it is–will hamper the museum when it adopts a new audience-centered mission.

Polishing the mission assists in probing the opportunities and challenges a museum will face in wholeheartedly living its mission. Kidspace must challenge itself to probe deeply what children’s potential means and to present authentic  kid-driven experiences. It must become practiced in making subtle but meaningful distinctions among experiences that truly are kid-driven and those that are superficially so. It will also need to be prepared to advocate for kid-driven experiences in the face of adults discomfort with mess, risk, and failure.

Polished petrified wood (Photo: Fox Marble)
Growing internal capacity is essential to making any progress towards a new mission. Does this museum have the capacity to be a crossroad of culture and everyday life? to connect artists and individuals? to strengthen the bonds of community? Polishing the mission is an opportunity for a museum to recognize the critical areas in which it must build internal capacity by investing in staff, building new systems, and developing new practices.


Every museum has a mission statement and virtually all have received thoughtful input and discussion from people who believe in the museum’s purpose. Few missions, however, receive the full and final polish they deserve, a buffing and burnishing that illuminates the work ahead, and transforms the museum into a gem.


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