Sixty museums in search of a purpose

February 15, 2012

András Szántó’s analysis of the mission statements of 60 museums makes for interesting reading.  The accompanying Wordle is a graphic account of the most commonly used words in mission statements (which is also interesting for what is omitted).

Composing a mission statement isn’t as easy as it sounds. Should a mission describe what a museum is doing, or what it should be doing? Is it about tangible goals to which institutions are held accountable, or Platonic ideals to which they merely aspire? Should a museum’s mission offer an inventory of assets and activities, or will it work best as a crystallisation of core principles? How will it reflect a museum’s take on cultural progress, audience demographics, funding sources and technological opportunity?

Short or long, however, what lurks behind the carefully scripted sentences is a swirling cauldron of organisational politics.

All that aside there are other issues pertaining to mission statements.  My research into disappointment has generated some interesting insights into the relationship between disappointment and idealisation.  The more we create ideals, missions, visions and values that are aspirational rather than attainable the more we guarantee disappointment.  I’m all for ‘blue sky’ thinking but I’m also all for realistic and achievable plans that can be delivered and realised.  That’s not to say that all mission statements are guaranteed to generate disappointment it simply means that any strategic planning process must build in a ‘reality testing’ phase.  Keeping it real can’t eliminate disappointment but it can help us examine the relationship between fantasy and reality and in turn, create plans that can be realised and delivered.

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