Identity Crisis: Is Change Always a Good Thing?

After reading some literature about the importance of mission statements for museums, I got the impression that if a museum isn’t working well, its mission might have something to do with it.  Many of the mission statements of old were long, rambling things, both very specific and hopelessly generic at the same time. People are right to recommend taking a look at the mission every five years or so, not only to use it as the foundation for strategic planning but to determine whether it should be tweaked, or possibly rewritten altogether.  Your museum’s audience may have shifted since the 1930s, technology may have opened up new possibilities, or potential donors may have complained about ambiguity or antiquated notions.

However, during an interview with Dante Centauri, who has worked at many museums during his career, I received a caution: “You don’t want to change it too cavalierly.”  One should never lose sight of the fact that the mission statement is the foundation of a museum’s entire operation.  Not only does it tell others what your organization is and does, it guides the decisions of directors, boards, and individual employees.  If your collections, programs, or facilities no longer match up with the mission, it may be that the mission needs to be updated, but it may also mean that too few were using it as a reference to guide their actions.  If that’s the problem, changing the mission is only a temporary fix – the real solution is to take the mission seriously, throughout the organization.

Many museums are in the process of rethinking their mission.  I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to do so.  However, before you alter the DNA of your organization, make sure the change is necessary and beneficial.  Careful thought now can save you a great deal of confusion later on.

    This post was written by Chelsea Robertson using the following sources:

–Interview with Dante Centauri, Director of Creative Productions at the Great Lakes Science Center, September 22, 2011
National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums, from the American Association of Museums, 2008
Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook, from the International Council of Museums, 2004
The Importance of Mission in Guiding Museum Practice, edited by Joan Baldwin and Anne Ackerson, 2003


About robecr15

I am a graduate student in Museum Studies through the Cooperstown Graduate Program. I have just begun my graduate education, but I hope to learn a great deal about the skills needed in the professional museum world. As of now, my intended focus is in subsistence gardening and public programs about food.
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7 Responses to Identity Crisis: Is Change Always a Good Thing?

  1. Lisa Craig Brisson says:

    Thanks for an interesting post. I was struck by the words: ” the real solution is to take the mission seriously, throughout the organization.”
    I can think of several examples of new leadership in museums that have immediately begun to look at the mission statement as a place to craft change. Yet if the mission is not central to the institution in the first place, that change remains superficial as well.
    I would love to hear of examples, if they exist, of institutions that have first looked at how their mission statements are used BEFORE they begin to change them. It is my expectation that a well-functioning organization that goes through this process will end up with a new mission statement that is central to their efforts.

  2. Tobi Voigt says:

    I have an interesting case study to put forth:

    The Detroit Science Center recently closed its doors due to financial problems. According to today’s article, it needs $5 million to reopen. Now, I am not “in the know” as to all the decisions that led to this hardship, but based on what I know about them, I’d say it can all be boiled down to straying from mission. It is a science center that opened a mulit-million dollar exhibit design firm, constantly installs “blockbuster” exhibits that have nothing to do with science, took on Detroit’s failing children’s museum, built a multi-million dollar expansion, and started a charter middle school. And their science exhibits? Many have been around since I used to visit as a child in the 1980s.

    I don’t mean to be critical of my favorite museum from childhood, but I can’t help but think that their very expensive choices strayed too far from their mission, which after some hunting on their website, if found to be: “The mission of the Detroit Science Center is to inspire visitors to pursue and support careers in engineering, technology and science.”

    Anyway, just some food for thought. This is a timely post, because the idea of mission as a driving force for museums has been on my mind these past few weeks. Thanks for posting!

  3. robecr15 says:

    Tobi, thanks for the link…it definitely sounds like the Detroit Science Center no longer truly has a focus. I can’t help but think about all the stakeholders being let down by its inability to manage its finances. We have talked recently about the fact that some museums are incorporating fiscal responsibility into their core values – perhaps along with making more mission-driven decisions, this institution should have also placed a higher priority on using funds sustainably and responsibly.

  4. Gwen Neil says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article. The Detroit Science Center reminds me of the Petaluma Museum Association’s current situation:
    Under a new director, the museum’s focus has been on blockbuster exhibits that had nothing to do with the museum’s local history focused mission. There’s now discussion of fundraising through deaccession of the permanent collection to balance their books.

    The board amended the mission statement after the public expressed concern about straying from the mission. But for the record, I don’t know if they REALLY changed their mission statement. The mission on the PMA website is different than the original that is still filed with the state and IRS.

  5. This discussion sounds like one that could affect dozens of institutions. The question I would raise is what criteria do you use to begin the process of bringing thoughtful, purposeful change to a museum mission statement?

    • abcohen12 says:

      Chelsea, you make a great point about the importance of financial sustainability in mission planning. So I’d say one of the most important criteria is determining if your museum is in a position where it has the resources to conduct the necessary research to identify audience/community needs and desires and implement necessary changes. But what happens if making mission changes is the only way of making your institution financially sustainable in the long run?

      • robecr15 says:

        I am not advocating never changing the mission. If the mission, even when followed, is not addressing an institution’s current needs for relevance, service, and good governance (among other things), then it should be examined. A good way to go about it seems to be, as you said, looking not only at institutional goals but at community/audience needs, and trying to plan a direction and method for bringing the two together. If you don’t have the resources for thorough study because of lapses in the mission’s ability to guide people in making sound financial decisions, then that gets a little more difficult. I still think there are some things you could do though, like look at how similar organizations have changed over the years, for better or worse. I also don’t think basic communication with the community or informal surveys would cost much to do, especially if volunteers or current staff are involved in the process. It is also important to remember that institutional values and goals be changed to match a museums’ new direction or clearer focus. Not everything has to be explicitly in the mission, as long as the mission is an accurate representation of what the museum is and means to be.

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