, , , , , , , , ,

Museum Mission Statements

In mission statements, museums express their purpose and their relationships to the various publics they seek to serve. A thorough examination of mission statements is well beyond our scope, but based on those we reviewed, museums with collections tend to focus on the identification, display and interpretation of what they collect, preserve and study. For example, in the preamble to its mission statement, the Field Museum states:

Preamble: Serving The Public As Educator
The Field Museum is an educational institution concerned with the diversity and relationships in nature and among cultures. It provides collection-based research and learning for greater public understanding and appreciation of the world in which we live. Its collections, public learning programs, and research are inseparably linked to serve a diverse public of varied ages, backgrounds and knowledge.

The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art has a mission statement representative of art museums:

The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art is the art museum of the University of Chicago. In support of the University’s educational mission, the Smart Museum collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets works of art for the benefit of the University community, the citizens of greater Chicago and other general audiences, and the scholarly world at large. By means of both its own collection and loaned works, the Museum presents exhibitions of scholarly and visual merit, in the belief that contact with original works of art in a museum setting is an essential component of a liberal education and a key factor in understanding the world in which we live.

Mission statements of science centers and children’s museums—organizations that have small or no collections—focus on the experience they aim to provide and how they want to affect their visitors. For example, the mission of the Tech Museum of Innovation reads:

The Tech Museum of Innovation is an educational resource established to engage people of all ages and backgrounds in exploring and experiencing technologies affecting their lives, and to inspire the young to become innovators in the technologies of the future.

Although recent scholarly analyses and professional discussions conclude that museums are in the midst of a basic shift from a focus on objects and subject matter to a focus on audiences, the mission statements of many museums do not reflect this change. Some museums, however, under the influence of the American Association of Museums (AAM) Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (1992), have restated their missions to incorporate a community-focused approach and aligned their exhibition programs more closely with their missions (Morris, 2002).

Exhibition Mission Statements

In addition to their overarching mission statements, some museums establish exhibition mission statements or start their exhibition process documents with statements of purpose. These statements stress the importance of exhibitions as an educational tool for both voluntary visitors and students. Most address the need to serve audiences. The Field Museum states, for example, that The exhibit is the principal avenue of learning. Exhibits are augmented by people-mediated programs and a visitor-oriented museum-wide staff, which reaches out to assist all visitors. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, states in its long-range plan:

Exhibition: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, strives to be among the nation’s dynamic art museums by exhibiting its permanent collection and special exhibitions on widely diverse subjects in ways that combine the highest aesthetic standards with engaging and intellectually accessible presentations.

The National Museum of Australia opens its exhibitions policy statement with:

The National Museum of Australia is committed to interpreting and communicating what it means to be an Australian and to explore its consequences for all Australians…One of the main vehicles by which the Museum delivers these messages is through its exhibition program…This policy recognizes the national focus of the Museum’s role, and the need to deliver exhibitions through a network of venues and by the innovative use of new and emerging technologies, as well as by traditional methods. It also recognizes the importance of community involvement in the development and delivery of the Museum’s exhibition program.

Exhibition Plans or Programs

The bridge between missions and actual exhibitions is generally an exhibition plan. Most museums have five-year exhibition plans. Some, especially those with plans for major reinstallation of permanent exhibitions, project 10 years out. The 5-10 year timeframe is partly because of the lead-time required to develop and fund projects. The plans are, however, flexible enough to allow for both serendipity and a response to unanticipated events.

The exhibition plans of collection-based museums have a number of common elements. They specify the annual number of temporary loan exhibitions and broad criteria for their selection (e.g., in an art museum, to ensure a variety of media and historical periods). They specify the number of temporary exhibitions to be developed by the museum. And they plan for exhibitions that will travel and for the reinstallation of permanent galleries.

Some exhibition plans consciously peg specific exhibitions to distinct audiences, and a few follow a “something for everybody” approach. The audience segments most frequently identified are members of racial/ethnic minority groups. A few plans, as part of the need to increase museum income, regularly include exhibitions that will draw high attendance (“blockbusters”). Although the programs and materials associated with exhibitions are frequently targeted to school groups, it is the rare exhibition that is targeted to schools.

One useful way to categorize exhibition plans is to see them on a continuum. At one end are those that derive largely from the museum’s collections or the research of individual curators and focus on the public presentation of such objects or knowledge. At the other end are the plans that arise largely from museums’ interpretations of the public interest, that is, that are market- driven. Presently, as museums shift their focus from objects and subject matter to audiences, they find an accommodation between these two positions.


Smithsonian Institution, October 2002
Office of Policy and Analysis 1000 Jefferson Drive, SW Washington, DC 20560-0039

Main image: Mate1