Do you flip to the back of a book before you buy it? Indexes and bibliographies, more than a table of contents, provide a better glimpse into the ideas of a book. I appreciate them when they’re at my fingertips but assembling them is a tedious task that requires absolute attention to every page. But one of the benefits, as Ken Turino and I discovered while indexing Reimagining Historic House Museums, are the common ideas that cut across the chapters contributed by two dozen leaders in the field. Rising up to the top were three factors that are most essential to navigating to success at historic sites and house museums:
1. Finding a Mission and Purpose That’s Meaningful.
Mission statements have long been used in nonprofit organizations and the version of “collect, preserve, and interpret [insert your museum’s topic here]” has now become a cliché. Better mission statements are an overlap of the site’s historical significance and the visitors’ needs, interests, and motivations. In our book, President Lincoln’s Cottage, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and the Trustees demonstrate how meaningful mission statements permeate decision-making at every level of the organization. Indeed, as my thinking continues to evolve on mission statements, they should not simply describe the work of the organization but address a major problem or issue in the community—that’s what makes them meaningful to a broader segment of the public. Why do museums collect, preserve, and interpret? To what end?
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): Continue reading →
The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.
Carol Kammen and Amy Wilson are preparing the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History for publication in early 2017 and invited me to update my entry on “Historic House Museums in the 21st Century” as well as contribute a couple new entries, including “Mission Statement.” I’ve long been familiar with mission statements (who isn’t nowadays) but drafting this encyclopedia entry gave me a chance to step back to look at its evolving history as well as a today’s context to see what’s happening. Here’s what I submitted (and remember, while books have been written about this topic, I have to condense it into a short summary):
Mission Statement. A mission statement describes the purpose of an organization and directs the planning, implementation, and evaluation of its programs and activities. These statements can vary as seen in these two historic sites that are adjacent to each other in Hartford, Connecticut:
Mark Twain House and Museum: to foster an appreciation of the legacy of Mark Twain as one of our nation’s defining cultural figures, and to demonstrate the continuing relevance of his work, life, and times.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center: to preserve and interpret Stowe’s Hartford home and the Center’s historic collections, promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change.
Had Twain or Stowe heard the term “mission statement” in their lifetimes, they probably would have regarded it as Continue reading →
The big gray brooding mass of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Despite the winter weather, I’ve been traveling extensively this month around the country. In Philadelphia I finally had a chance to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, an enormous prison close the city’s art museums but otherwise oh so far away. When built in the early 19th century, it was the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but after it closed in 1971, it became a forgotten ruin. Today, a private non-profit organization preserves and manages this National Historic Landmark with an usual mission statement:
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. works to preserve and restore the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary; to make the Penitentiary accessible to the public; to explain and interpret its complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed. While the interpretive program advocates no specific position on the state of the American justice system, the program is built on the belief that the problems facing Eastern State Penitentiary’s architects have not yet been solved, and that the issues these early prison reformers addressed remain of central importance to our nation.
In a way, old prisons are historic houses so I’ve been intrigued by the way these popular tourist destinations are interpreted to the public. Eastern State is a significant contrast from Alcatraz Island, which Continue reading →