Museum Missions: Looking at the Big Picture

Many sources concur that a mission is the basis for a functional and effective museum.  In order to understand the importance behind this essential planning component, a few pertinent questions must be addressed.

First…what is a mission statement?

  • A succinct sentence (or couple of sentences) that describes the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘how’ of a museum.
  • Meant to benefit the public, as it is the public who provides support.
  • Determines identity in terms of how a museum wishes to portray itself based on available resources and what can be done for the public.
  • Suggests commitment to the causes of preservation, education, and involvement.
  • A way for museums to step back and evaluate themselves.

How does mission differ from vision and values?

In last week’s class, John Carnahan quoted Peter Senge, saying “mission is abstract, vision is concrete.”  A mission is a lofty, yet usable method of guidance.  Vision is a goal which one hopes to attain through the guidelines of mission.  This includes the ability to look to the future and comprehend its implications.  Values are a series of beliefs that establish one’s behavior in using mission to reach a vision.  The values of institutions vary.

What makes a mission effective?

  • Tailoring: enumeration of specific needs and goals.
  • Awareness of limitations and what is attainable.
  • Awareness of external support.
  • Ensuring manageability.
  • Determining public perception, space, and purpose.

What are some problems with mission statements?

  • Lack of clarity.
  • Failure to mention relevance to the big picture.
  • Failure to engage with mission; used as only a formality.

What if a mission statement needs to be changed?

  • Missions evolve.  Be realistic in setting goals.
  • Recognize the difference between full-out change and tweaking.
  • Revisit the mission regularly.  Experiment with its use.
  • Consider addressing the ‘why’ before other factors.


Joan H. Baldwin and Anne W. Ackerson, The Importance of Mission in Guiding Museum Practice: Essays from the 2002 Series 3×3: Workshops for Museum and Not-for-Profit Leaders

Gail Anderson and Roxana Adams, Museum Mission Statements: Building a Distinct Identity

Gerald George and Cindy Sherrell-Leo, Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning

Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics

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2 Responses to Museum Missions: Looking at the Big Picture

  1. Bernie Gallagher says:

    I would expand your audience of the mission statement beyond “the public” and include ALL stakeholders. The mission and “identity” affects all aspects of the museum (both internal staff/functions and external forces) and everyone who comes in contact with it.

  2. Julimar says:

    Thank you for your information. Very useful posting for me.

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