Many cultural institutions rely on mission statements to communicate the purpose, philosophy, and vision of their organization. Within the context of museums the American Alliance of Museums explains that “a mission statement is the beating heart of a museum . . . [it] drives everything the museum does; vision, policy-making, planning and operation.” All decision-making at museums, parks, libraries, and other related sites flows outward from the mission statement, which acts as a foundational nucleus for those decisions.
I suppose that the philosophy underlying mission statements is all well and good, but I’ve become increasingly skeptical of their purpose. My employer sent me to a wonderful week-long training session about two months ago on facilitated dialogue practices, and one of the training leaders made a very good point about mission statements being too limiting in terms of what counts as a “successful experience” at a cultural site. Paulette Wallace highlights this issue in Living Landscape Observer when she suggests that national parks in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand generally do a poor job of promoting what she describes as “social value.” These parks emphasize intellectual and emotional connections to natural and cultural resources in their mission statements, but they are less successful in highlighting the contributions and values of the stakeholders, interest groups, and audiences who patronize these sites. Natural and Cultural resources are valued in mission statements at the expense of the most important resource: the visitor.
But there’s an even bigger issue behind mission statements. Allow me to first quote a few mission statements from cultural institutions throughout the United States.
[Site 1] advances the understanding and exploration of [a medium sized-city in the U.S.’s] history, culture, and architecture.
We increase knowledge and inspire learning about nature and culture through outstanding research, collections, exhibitions, and education, in support of a sustainable future.
[Site 3] seeks to deepen the understanding of past choices, present circumstances, and future possibilities; strengthen the bonds of the community; and facilitate solutions to common problems.
Through its collections, exhibits, and programs, [Site 4] is dedicated to preserving and promoting knowledge of the world’s cultures, past and present.
These mission statements (and many others I came across online) are bland and uninspiring. If these statements were the first thing you saw upon visiting a cultural site, would you still be inspired to walk through the front door? These statements suck because they’ve been written to please the Boards of Directors for their respective institutions rather than the people who actually visit these sites. They communicate what the site does, but they don’t communicate why this work is important and meaningful. Who cares? Why is this work worth supporting?
In their 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath argue that making ideas “sticky” and emotionally resonant means making people care about your message. The Heaths argue that you can effectively make people care by using associations (like connecting history to present-day political problems) or appeals to self-interest and identity, but “the Curse of Knowledge” can act as a barrier in communicating your ideas.
The Heaths use the mission statement of a Duo Piano foundation to make this point. The foundation’s leaders stated in a conference that “we exist to protect, preserve, and promote the music of duo piano.” When asked by Chip Heath why it was important to preserve this form of music, the leaders responded that “we want to keep it from dying out.” After hearing this response another confused conference-goer finally asked, “I don’t want to be rude, but why would the world be a less rich place if duo piano music disappeared completely?” Only then did the Duo Piano leaders finally explain that
the piano is [a] magnificent instrument. It was created to put the entire range and tonal quality of the whole orchestra under the control of one performer . . . and when you put two of these magnificent instruments together, and the performers can respond to each other and build on each other, it’s like having the sound of the orchestra but the intimacy of chamber music.
After being asked “why?” repeatedly, the foundation leaders finally got to their main point – that the sound provided by two pianos in harmony offers a unique and special way of hearing music.
The Curse of Knowledge prevented the Duo Piano foundation leaders from effectively communicating the importance of duo piano music to a lay audience because explaining what the foundation did was a good enough answer for them. They didn’t need to be told why duo piano music was important because their knowledge and passion for the music was already there. But the audiences and patrons who might support the duo piano mission may not have the same level of knowledge or enthusiasm as the foundation leaders. They need to be told why this mission is important and how it benefits society.
Those of us who work in cultural institutions and public history sites don’t need to be told why our work is important, but the people who visit (and don’t visit!) our sites may be a little more skeptical. That’s why we should replace our Mission Statements with “Why Should I Care?” statements.
Why is history important? How does an individual and collective possession of historical knowledge make the world a better place? These are the sorts of questions we need to formulate answers for and then communicate to our many publics.