Posts Tagged ‘mission statement’

25th Anniversary ButterflyLately I have been thinking about how intentional practice seeped into my consciousness. “Seeped” feels like the right verb for a concept that is still evolving and taking shape, admittedly at a slow but steady pace, gently nudging me along. I believe that almost all ideas are influenced by others’ ideas. At the time I was coming upon intentional practice, I had been conducting evaluations for many years, reading Stephen Weil’s and others’ articles and books, witnessing changes in how museums were behaving in response to outside pressures, and wondering why evaluation seemed to have seemingly little effect on museum practice. In this case, when I say “museum practice,” I actually mean the whole museum rather than an individual museum program or exhibition. The glass wasn’t completely half empty, but I was bothered by a few practices I was witnessing.

About 15 years ago I started to feel disturbed by the dangerous game that some museums were playing—ones that were so focused on bolstering attendance that they were hosting exhibitions just to bring in high volumes of visitors, regardless of whether the exhibitions reflected their core mission or purpose. For example, why would a history museum host Body Worlds other than to enjoy an uptick in visitor numbers? Or, why would an art museum host exhibitions featuring impressionism year after year? Perhaps the local community demanded that their museums host these exhibitions, but it is more likely that the museums were thinking about numbers—as in visitors and in dollars and cents. (Apparently this kind of thing is still present, as indicated by this week’s New York Times article about MoMA and its director where the reporter notes “. . . there have been complaints from veteran patrons that the museum has grown too fast and lost much of its soul in courting the crowd.”( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/21/arts/momas-expansion-and-director-draw-critics.html?src=me&_r=0) Loss of soul well describes what I was witnessing and thinking a decade and a half ago.) Ideas about intentional practice were emerging (although I didn’t know it at the time), and I eventually wrote an article titled “Self Portrait: Know Thy Self then Serve your Public” that Museum News published. I make the point museums need to know and articulate their core values, assets (intellectual and otherwise), and passions so they can exude continuously them if visitors are to have personally meaningful experiences.

 

Know Thyself, from the Temple of Apollo

Know Thyself, from the Temple of Apollo

Around the same time I was starting to realize that the evaluation field was focused almost entirely on studying individual projects (exhibitions and programs) and it had not explored the effect of the whole museum experience. I observed that evaluation was conceived of and conducted in much the same way museums were managed—each department did its own thing and sometimes individuals did their own thing—without considering other parts of the museum or other colleagues. I recognized that evaluation, as a practice, was benefiting particular programs and exhibitions and even individuals, but I wondered if evaluation could be a more holistic endeavor organizationally, so it could benefit the whole museum. I thought about what might be missing from the practice of evaluation and in the ways museums were doing their work and quietly started to think about developing evaluative strategies that could more adequately serve the whole museum. I also wanted museums to regain focus on their soul and core purpose and I wanted to be able to study the difference museums were making in people’s lives. However, I learned through my evaluation practice that without a statement of intent, I really couldn’t study anything at all. I believe that museums must state their intentions—not just so evaluators can determine whether they have achieved them—but articulating intentions is an excellent planning strategy for museum practitioners; it keeps them focused on their desired end result, which helps them make decisions accordingly. After all this thinking I felt like I had arrived at a new place and passion; I wanted to develop strategies to help evaluators and museums approach their work more collaboratively, holistically, and intentionally.

My belief in the value of intentionality was steadfast, resulting from conducting museum evaluations—program by program, exhibition by exhibition—for over twenty years. I was transferring what I learned from exhibition and program evaluations—successful programs and exhibitions emerge from work that is focused on a core idea, deliberate in exemplifying that core idea, articulate in describing that core idea, and designing components that support the core idea. I also learned that if a museum does not have passion for the core idea, their work will be substandard, and visitors will know the difference. I believed in what I had learned—enough so that I wanted to apply the ideas to a larger entity—the whole museum, and thus was born our intentionality work with museums.

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In June, The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) invited professionals to respond to these questions for an upcoming issue of Dimensions magazine: When are evaluation and other visitor feedback strategies the most useful for helping advance a science center’s mission?  When are such strategies less successful?  We pondered this at a staff meeting and decided that a small but important tweak may be needed to begin addressing the questions.  First, let’s clarify that mission describes what a museum does and impact describes the result of what a museum does—on the audiences it serves.  We believe that anything a museum does—collect, exhibit, educate—is meaningless unless it is done in the pursuit of impact.  So, when is evaluation most useful for advancing a science center’s tree_fallsmission?  When it is done to advance impact not mission.  It’s a little like that old adage: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  With regard to mission and impact, we take a slightly different angle—if a museum does work or evaluation that does not lead to impact, are they really doing the work?

Evaluators are in the same boat as some museum practitioners.  Evaluation is a means to an end, just as a museum’s collections are a means to an end.  Unless evaluation is placed in a meaningful context, such as helping a museum pursue impact, evaluation doesn’t serve a purpose.  As an evaluator, I suppose I should say evaluation is always valuable.  But, that’s just not true.  I’m a self-proclaimed data nerd.  I love the minutia of evaluation—pouring over pages and pages of interview transcripts and pulling out those five key visitor trends.  I can get lost in data for days and find myself pulled in many seemingly fruitful directions.  “Oh, how interesting!” I will say to no one in particular.  I often find myself lost in the visitors’ world, chuckling to myself about a quirky response to an exhibit or wondering who someone is and why he or she responded to a museum experience in a particular way.  Getting lost in your work can be fun and, lucky me, happens to those of us who are passionate about what we do.  So, while pursuing tangents in evaluation data is fun for me, there is a flip side to this coin—a lack of focus that can be detrimental to the pursuit of a larger goal.  This is why we, as evaluators, push our clients to articulate what it is they want to achieve to keep us (and them) on track.

We consistently find museum practitioners to be among those most passionate about their work.  Thus, these moments of losing oneself in one’s work, whether researching or examining an object, designing an exhibition, or creating a program, are frequent occurrences.  When it comes to pursuing impact, this passion is both a joy and a burden.  It is a joy because most practitioners can easily articulate what they do for their audiences.  But, they often get lost in what they do and may not think about why they do what they do.  A practitioner articulating the “why” is similar to the entire museum articulating its intended impact.  Articulating impact provides a laser focus for all the work that museum practitioners do and helps keep them on track toward pursuing that larger goal.  So, our response to ASTC’s second question, When are evaluation strategies less successful in helping advance a science center’s mission?  When a science center and its collective staff have yet to articulate the impact they hope to achieve on the audiences they serve.  Otherwise, we can all do evaluation until we are blue in the face but those reports will continue to collect dust on hundreds of science centers’ shelves.  Of this I am certain—just like death and taxes.

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Mission ImpactIn my last post, I refrained from sharing examples of impact statements because I wanted readers to ponder the idea for themselves (always a very useful activity) but promised I would delve into what comprises an impact statement and provide examples in future posts.  I believe museums need impact statements because if they aren’t clear about what they want to achieve, how will they make decisions to get there?  Museums need impact statements to guide their planning and decision making, but more importantly, they need to clarify (to themselves and stakeholders) why their work has value—public value.

Simon Sinek states with enormous clarity the importance of understanding why an organization does what it does in this Ted Talk:  (http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html) He makes the distinction between what organizations do and why they do their work.  He notes that people care about the why much more than they care about the what.  While all of his examples are from the business world, his point is clear, well articulated, and relevant to museums and other non profits. I see a clear connection between answering the why question and articulating intended impact, as impact describes how the museum will make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, and presumably, that quality is of tremendous public value.

There are three ingredients or building blocks to creating an impact statement:

  1. Passion: discovering the collective passions of staff—why you do what you do.  What about your work are you most passionate, and why that work is important (ask the why question three times to arrive at people’s deepest passions)?  As Sinek notes, talking about the why behind your work will help others know why they should care.
  2. Distinctiveness: identifying a museum’s distinctiveness—what does your museum do better than any other organization for the people in your community?  Distinctiveness is of vital importance because if you can describe what is distinct about your museum, you begin to suggest your museum’s value—its public value.
  3. Relevance: is about exploring the intersection among staff passions, the museum’s strengths and greatest assets—both of which suggest its distinctiveness, and what is relevant to the public. What the museum presents and how it presents it must be responsive to the museum, stakeholders, and the public.

In our last post Amanda was writing about the director at the Tate who believes “that art is a vital force for civic good . . .” (https://intentionalmuseum.com/2013/03/27/returning-to-your-core-radically-rethinking-the-museum/) The concept—for the civic good—comes close to what an impact statement might embody, although some unpacking may be required to fully understand what he means by those words.

Here are a few museum mission and impact statements—both statements work together to convey what the museum does and the result of what the museum does on audiences served:

Mission:

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture creates a better understanding of the world and our place in it. The Museum is responsible for Washington State collections of natural and cultural heritage and sharing the knowledge that makes them meaningful. The Burke welcomes a broad and diverse audience and provides a community gathering place that nurtures life-long learning and encourages respect, responsibility and reflection.

Vision (the Burke calls its impact statement its vision statement):

People value their connection with all life—and act accordingly

Mission:

The Baltimore Museum of Art seeks innovation and excellence in an artistic program that focuses on art of the modern era, from the 19th century to the present.  The Museum is committed to creating an environment that inspires creativity, encourages learning, and fosters human understanding in a place where everyone feels welcome as a place for personal learning and civic engagement.

Vision:

Visitors will expand their creative thinking, deepen their understanding of human experiences, and value the museum as a place for personal learning and civic engagement.

Mission:

The mission of Mid-America Science Museum is to stimulate interest in science, to promote public understanding of the sciences, and to encourage life-long science education through interactive exhibits and programs. The Museum also serves as a premier tourism attraction in Arkansas.

Impact:

Inspired by discovery, visitors are encouraged to investigate the world around them and realize science impacts everyone and everything.

As you and your staff explore their passions, the museum’s distinctiveness, and what is relevant to the public, you will begin conceptualizing an impact statement. With passion and focused attention on what you do best—in other words, playing to your strengths—and a deep understanding of your public, your value will be felt by all who experience your museum’s work.

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I follow Max van Balgooy’s blog Engaging Places.  Last week he posted “Rethinking the mission statement” (http://engagingplaces.net/2013/02/19/rethinking-the-mission-statement/) and it caught my attention because I, too, have written about museum mission statements, raising some of the same points that Max raises (see “A Case for Holistic Intentionality” http://randikorn.com/docs/the_case%20for_holistic_intentionality_042007.pdf).  In Max’s words, “most (mission statements) are mild mannered”; I note that museums’ missions are interchangeable as most describe what museums do (“collect, preserve, and interpret” according to Max). But in today’s impact-driven, evidenced-based non-profit world, the work of a museum isn’t as important as the result of a museum’s work—on people.  Max and I have been in touch this past week and we agreed to continue the conversation through our blogs.

Mission Statement Cartoon

Museums may need to change how they do their daily and strategic work as the (funding) environment in which they reside is quickly changing; museums can’t afford to stay stuck in a world that looks inward.  Mission statements, while important, grounding statements for any organization, focus only on what museums do; if museums collect, preserve, interpret, then what is the outward result of this work?  In a city that has a dozen museums, for example, how is that city benefiting from those museums’ assets and staff members’ diligence?  What impact do museums intend to create by doing their work?  What evidence is there that museums are making a difference in the quality of people’s lives?  What might those results look like, sound like?

I grapple with these questions every day as someone who wants to help museums collect evidence that demonstrates museums’ value.  The challenge is, before I can document the ways in which a museum has made a difference in people’s lives, first museums need to take the time to describe (in painstakingly concrete—and dare I say, measurable, terms) what their hard work affords a community.  Thus, I believe that mission statements need companion statements.  In addition to mission statements, I suggest museums also develop impact statements to describe the intended result of a museum on museum audiences—most notably those who live within the community where the museum resides.

Future posts will delve into what comprises an impact statement, but for now, I want to further explain why writing an impact statement is a necessary step moving forward.  Max notes that he hopes to encourage readers to “rethink their mission, vision, and strategy to become more relevant and engaging in their communities.”   For museums to achieve Max’s hope, museums may need to balance their thinking about mission with thinking about relevance and for whom museums are relevant, because it appears that collecting, etc., are a means to an end.  To what greater end are museums doing their work?

In today’s world, museums may need to start thinking about and acting on a much larger purpose—one that adds value for the common good.  Many museum staff members believe that their work already serves a larger purpose; however the connection between a museum’s work and the public good is not always transparent, especially to city and government officials and even funders who opt to support other kinds of non-profits (the Wallace Foundation, for example, no longer funds museums).  To make a difference in people’s lives, doing good work is no longer enough; museums will need to overtly, explicitly, and relentlessly connect the dots.  As museum geeks, it is our responsibility to help others see the value of a museum experience; we just can’t say that museums are great and leave it at that.  We have to back up claims with evidence.  But first museums need to clarify what they will measure.  And that will require debate and discussion among museum leadership and staff about what they hope their museum achieves by doing their work—in terms of the public good.  Museum boards and leadership can no longer afford to remain silent or arrogant about the topic.  If they want their museum to make a difference in people’s lives, they will need to articulate precisely what they mean—and then someone can measure it.

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