When is it really ok to change your Mission?

A mission statement is the corner stone of a museum, dictating collections, programming and governance and ideally defining the essence of the museum itself. If that is so, how then can it also be a living document, subject to internal and external necessities to change? One reason to alter a mission is in preparation for re-accreditation usually as a result of a self study. The Gaston County Museum of Art and History in North Carolina run by Director Elizabeth Dampier, is currently undergoing that process. The current mission is acknowledged as being too broad. By using community focus groups along with staff and board surveys they were able to begin the process of self analysis, which will hopefully lead to a reformed, more focused, mission. That being said the essence of the mission will remain the same, what has changed is the specificity. The staff input, the community involvement even the board retreat to discuss the entire strategic plan, all demonstrate the importance of the mission to this museum. Every one on staff or on the board may not be able to recite the full paragraph mission statement, but Dampier points out that it is “the essence of the mission that becomes a part of your thought process” and in my mind, that is the value of an effective mission.

So what happens if the process of review creates a fundamental change in the essence of the mission? Some of the many accepted reasons to alter a mission statement include; reorganization or restructuring, a change in leadership, a change in governance, a shift in audience or the cultural landscape, or even pressures from the external environment. When a museum relies so heavily upon a mission statement to guide so much of its policy, where do you draw the line during a self evaluation. What if external pressures such as the economy or new leadership recommend a fundamental change in the mission? When is changing your mission ok in tough times, and when do you use your current mission to think of new and different ways to overcome the obstacle you face?

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2 Responses to When is it really ok to change your Mission?

  1. amyedrake says:

    Kate, at the beginning of your post you discuss the mission statement as a cornerstone of the museum and question its function as a living document.

    To me, The Gaston County Museum of Art and History seems to promote this idea. Utilizing the essence of the mission rather than a standard phrase allows the museum staff to actively participate in changing their interpretation of the mission. Over a broad period of time, these changes could easily give the Gaston County Museum a starting point for re-evaluating both their work and their original mission statement based on how its content has evolved.

  2. Ginny R says:

    Kate, you raise several valid questions. Because museums each function differently, there is no set formula for solving these problems. When wrestling with these issues in my head, I couldn’t help but see a museum’s mission statement as a sort of institutional constitution. At the risk of belaboring this political analogy, I think various members within the museum can essentially create an informal system of checks and balances. Issues surrounding mission statements are only debilitating if museum staff lets them be. Museums should know when changing a mission statement is taking the easy way out rather than confronting the problem. Renewal is good and can encourage positive change.

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