Excellence in Museum Mission Statements: Some Examples

In my “Introduction to Museum Management” course at George Washington University, we spend an entire day on the purpose and value of mission statements, which is prompted by a wide-ranging set of readings:

  •  Anderson, Gail. “A Framework: Reinventing the Museum” in Reinventing the Museum, pages 1-9.
  • Drucker, Peter. “The Commitment”, “Leadership is a Foul-Weather Job”, and “Summary: The Action Implications.” Chapters 1, 2, and 5 in Part 1 in Managing the Nonprofit Organization.
  • Weil, Stephen. “Creampuffs and Hardball: Are You Really Worth What You Cost or Just Merely Worthwhile?” Chapter 11 in Reinventing the Museum.
  • “Mission and Planning” in AAM’s Standards for U.S. Museums, pages 33-37.
  • Desmidt, Sebastian, Anita Prinzie, and Adelien Decramer, “Looking for the Value of Mission Statements: A Meta-Analysis of 20 Years of Research.” Management Decision 49, no. 3 (2011), 468-483.
  • Liket, Kellie C., Marta Rey-Garcia, and Karen E. H. Maas, “Why Aren’t Evaluations Working and What to Do About It: A Framework for Negotiating Meaningful Evaluation in Nonprofits,” American Journal of Evaluation 35, no. 2 (June 2014): 171-188.

Each of the readings prompted a list of principles and practices for mission statements, which they used to assess a set of 20 randomly-selected mission statements from museums in the United States.  Based on their analysis, they identified the following mission statements as models of excellence (in alphabetical order):

Heritage Frederick: The Historical Society of Frederick County
Heritage Frederick is a dynamic nonprofit organization that researches, and shares, the significant historical impact of Frederick, County, Maryland, on our state, nation and world. We excel in engaging and interactive experiences that are relevant, accessible and meaningful to all people.

Old Salem Museums and Gardens
Old Salem Museums & Gardens presents an authentic view of the rich cultural history of early Southern life to diverse audiences—with special emphasis on the Moravians in North Carolina—through the preservation and interpretation of historic objects, buildings and landscapes.

Oneida Community Mansion House
Using its historic site and collections, the non-profit Oneida Community Mansion House shares the story of the Oneida Community – one of the most radical and successful of the 19th century social experiments – to explore pressing social issues that still confront audiences today, historic preservation, and the natural environment. Approved by the Board of Trustees, 2015

Parrish Art Museum
Inspired by the natural setting and artistic life of Long Island’s East End, the Parrish Art Museum illuminates the creative process and how art and artists transform our experiences and understanding of the world and how we live in it. The Museum fosters connections among individuals, art, and artists through care and interpretation of the collection, the presentation of exhibitions, publications, educational initiatives, programs, and artists-in-residence. The Parrish is a center for cultural engagement, an inspiration and destination for the region, the nation, and the world.

The Robbins House
The Robbins House is a Concord-based nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness of Concord’s African, African American, and antislavery history from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Our mission is to reveal the little known African American history of Concord and its regional and national importance. Our vision is to inspire conversation, expand understanding and contribute to a better society.

South Street Seaport Museum
The South Street Seaport Museum preserves and interprets the origins and growth of New York City as a world port, a place where goods, labor, and cultures are exchanged through work, commerce, and the interaction of diverse communities.

Treehouse Children’s Museum
The mission of Treehouse is to be the magical place where children, ages 1 to 12, “Step into a Story”® through interactive exhibits and programs that are rooted in the need of children to create meaningful connections through stories and imaginative play.

Congrats to these museums and thanks for creating such inspirational examples.  What about the other 13 museums that didn’t make it to top? Students found that many museums have mission statements that are vague (the ever-popular “collect, preserve, and interpret”), indistinct (interchangeable with any other museum), or merely promotional slogans (“inspire science learning for life”); that it was difficult at times to find the mission statement on websites or IRS Forms 990; and that one museum didn’t have a mission statement (come on, folks, it’s 2018).  These examples of excellent mission statements suggest how museums continue to evolve in their thinking about their purpose and role in society as well as provide insight into what the next generation of museum leaders believes is the right direction.  If your museum or historic site has an excellent mission statement, please share it in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “Excellence in Museum Mission Statements: Some Examples

  1. Fred Cruger

    “The Society’s mission is to collect, preserve and share the history of the Granite Falls region to foster better understanding and appreciation of the values that built our city and contributed to our County’s rural heritage. Our purpose is to locate and identify appropriate material, to protect and interpret that material, and finally to make it available to the greatest possible extent.”
    Granite Falls Historical Society mission statement contains the vague “collect, preserve, and interpret”, but our actions focus on the “make it available to the greatest possible extent”. Decades of newspapers, school yearbooks, historic texts and articles, and of course pictures, are available and searchable online. Items are on loan to other museums and libraries in the county. Over a century of maps and photos are available to be overlaid and compared online, along with searchable homesteads and historic assets across the county.

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  2. Janice Klein

    Frankly one of my all-time favorites was that of a large natural history museum in a mid-west city that changed it’s mission from “studying the Earth and its neighbors” to a five page single-spaced statement.


  3. steph

    I remember one of my favorite supervisors ever – Craig Tuminaro – expressing the importance of mission statements, stating that organizations that stray from their mission often are unsuccessful. He even made us memorize ours 😉

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