In the museum world, “mission,” “vision,” and “purpose” get used interchangeably. “Aren’t they interchangeable?” you ask yourself in a quiet voice. After a rich week of discussion in Quebec City at the Communicating the Museum conference, I am now convinced that they are not the same thing.  And therein is the core challenge facing museums today.


You have a mission statement that was probably massaged and debated and wordsmithed by a team of highly invested voices in your institution. And that mission statement, in all likelihood, covers these three pillars of the museum world: preservation, education, and inspiration. Great. We have a starting point. But that’s all we have. And each of those words creates their own limitations:

  • Preservation = don’t touch
  • Education = facts, stats, and summary information
  • Inspiration =  ???

If you start with a “don’t’ touch” model of preservation and an encyclopedic dryness to your education, then inspiring your audience is a tall order. We start in an inspirational hole of our own making.

And thus, we have lost the promise of the inspirational museum experience. Harsh as that assessment might sound, the slow but steady decline in museum attendees moves us to surmise that there is some truth to that.

Our ability to inspire our audiences needs a jump start that goes beyond the borders of our mission statement.


This isn’t who we are, this is who we are going to be as an institution. Kim Mitchell, Chief Communication Officer at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and Tiffany Rolfe, Partner/Chief Creative Officer at Co: Collective, explained during their presentation that MoMA’s new vision is to be “the most engaging museum of modern and contemporary art – for everyone.” There are two key phrases in that statement: “The Most Engaging” and “For Everyone.” That’s following the Daniel Burnham directive of “Make no little plans.”

How are they going to be the most engaging modern art museum for everyone? By removing obstacles, adding value, and creating unique experiences, not just within the walls of the museum, but at multiple points of contact outside the institution.

A vision statement is critical. If you don’t know where you are going, then you aren’t likely to get anywhere interesting. Or, as they say, if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time. What’s your vision? Where are you going as an institution in five years? Who are you going to be in 2117?

Your vision should be audacious, ambitious, and yet entirely achievable.


Chances are you won’t be able to answer what your purpose is using only your mission statement as a guidepost. Adam Rozan, Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum, drove that point home with his presentation.

Rozan asked us to consider, “Why do we need to exist as an institution?”  You don’t get to cheat and say, “because art/science/history/culture matter.” That’s why museums, the collective of them, exist. Why does your specific institution exist? What do you seek to achieve that is different from any other museum?

Let’s imagine that I will only visit one more museum in my lifetime. Pitch me on why it should be yours.

Here’s the thing about that pitch.  You don’t need to be the best-in-class collection to give me an inspirational pitch. It doesn’t take a priceless collection, gobs of cash to create whizzy technological displays, or cutting edge anything to create an emotional connection that will stay with me forever. It takes having a narrative that hits my heart and my head. Make me feel like your institution is mine.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts did this so successfully that the public decided to drive the purchase of an art piece that they believed belonged permanently in Montreal in MMFA. Through a public-driven, public-supported, fund-raising campaign called “Raise a Million, Save the Sun,” MMFA was able to buy Dale Chihuly’s “The Sun” glass sculpture. This wasn’t just a campaign for wealthy donors to contribute, although they did. It also involved thousands of small dollar donors, who were just as invested in MMFA as their institution.

“To me, this new meeting of museum professionals was a wake-up call,” explained Corinne Estrada, Director of Agenda and the Communicating the Museum conference. “The presentation, “Stop the don’t” by Adam Rozan, was very inspirational.  We should all think and act more openly.

“The focus on our social mission was the hot topic of the conference and it is the big driver for engagement.  Education is the key to engage existing and new audiences.  Sometimes museums use entertainment but it is only a tactic, as the objective always remains education.  And the winner is the MMFA in Montreal.”

There’s a lot of work to do. But museums have proven, repeatedly, that we can adapt to the times. It’s time, once again, to pull our sightline up and find the horizon. Mission, vision, and purpose: they are our starting point, our destination, and our roadmap. Find your north star and set your course.

Check in again next week for our interview with Adam Rozan.