Chapter 4. From the mission statement to the message and scientific content of exhibitions

Table of Contents

4.1. Mission statement
Task 1:
Task 2:
4.2. Exhibition design as a creative act: collections and exhibitions. (Andrea Kárpáti)
4.3. Selecting objects for an exhibition: prestige, security and protection of objects (Tamás Vásárhelyi)
Task 3:
Task 4:
4.4. Making science understood – interpretation of scientific discoveries for the average visitor (Tamás Vásárhelyi)
Further reading

4.1. Mission statement

(Tamás Vásárhelyi)

After the political changes in the 1990s, for-profit companies started to use a phrase that was difficult to interpret in the non-profit sector: mission statement. Soon, public organisations adopted the term and presented their social commitment on their home page. However there is still some reluctance in museum circles about formulating clearly what their objectives are and how they intend to contribute to society. Yet more and more institutions understand that such a statement may strengthen the sense of identity and dedication of museum personnel and thus increase their performance as well. When museums formulate their mission, it has profound effects on their communication strategies. Therefore, we have to discuss this issue and show how this core document translates into action on different levels of the institution.

The image shows a detail from a home page.

4.1. picture: Mission statement of an American museum published on its home page.

If an institution has a powerful and well articulated mission statement, staff members are more likely to follow its intentions and formulate their own sets of objectives accordingly. However, if the mission is not clear for all, personal interpretations may differ and result in confusion or confrontation. A Dutch museologist once characterised the main function of the mission statement with a metaphor: if it is appropriate, everyone is looking in the same direction! Thus, a mission statement can only be considered successful if it is shared by at least the key personnel of the museum.

Museums articulate their objectives in different forms. Some examples:

–        Mission: the raison d’être of the institution, the justification of its existence;

–        Vision: public appeal, social use the museum intends to achieve;

–        Task, mandate: this outlines the target territory of the museum (according to geographical area, branches of science, chronological age of exhibited pieces, etc.) and the audience it hopes to reach (according to age groups, professional groups, etc.).

These three areas are covered in different core documents of the museum. The task or mandate is usually postulated in the contract authored by the sponsoring organisation at the first stage of the conception of the new institution, while the mission and vision are described in publications of the museum itself. The latter also include clearly specified tasks and responsibilities of departments or persons.

The organisation of an exhibition may serve several purposes. The simplest one is to keep the staff busy and develop their skills. An exhibition may also be considered as an investment that is profitable because of the sales at the ticket booth, the museum shop and restaurant, or – if it is a commercial show – an increase in purchases of the objects exhibited. A show may increase visitor numbers and enlarge the scope of potential visitors reached through messages on communication platforms that they may find intriguing enough to come and see the collections. In many instances, museums have new content to share: a research result that may change your life (or your way of thinking at least); important works of art; or new interpretations of those exhibited before. Whatever the purpose of the display, communication about it should reflect the mission and vision of the institution.

A flight of stairs with posters.

4.2. picture: Countdown 2010, a campaign to celebrate the Year of Biodiversity. The natural history museum of the Republic of South Africa, a country whose economy relies on safari tourism, called the attention of visitors to the importance of biodiversity already in 2008. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Why is it important for a museum to go beyond its immediate tasks and care for a lasting impact on values and attitudes of its visitors? Apart from knowledge transmitted through the observation of objects and emotional attachment to the institution as a place of high culture, museums may have other purposes, too: teaching skills that may be relevant for work, refinement of taste, inspiration for innovation and research, to name only a few. Museums have a beneficial effect that goes well beyond their mission: they urge us to revere and preserve our national heritage.

Handwritten note in an exhibition guest book.

4.3. picture: Translation of the text: “Here we have understood things we have been wondering about since childhood. Thanks to the professional guidance, we experienced and grew a lot.” The Museum of Postal Services had a great effect on this visitor! (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

At this point, we have to return to the concept of the mission statement. This set of objectives may have a profound effect on what, how, and why we exhibit. Let us take the example of a mixed profile museum in a small town that may state the following mission:

It is our main objective to collect, conserve, study and exhibit archaeological, historical, ethnographic and scientific heritage and make it accessible first and foremost for the citizens of this county. We also want to share our treasures with tourists and visiting school groups or individuals so that they could experience what this part of the country has to offer.

If this museum intends to function according to its mission statement, its activities should have the following characteristics:

1.       Exhibitions focus on the neighbouring area;

2.       Exhibitions are developed in four branches of science;

3.       Target groups are not only local citizens, but also incoming tourists and students;

4.       Knowledge is disseminated in an audience-friendly, innovative way;

5.       Interpretation does not indulge in bygone ages only, it keeps a contemporary profile;

6.       The museum inspires both locals and visitors to engage in cultural activities

Let us scrutinize these six characteristics and see what they really mean for planning and communication.

1.       Exhibitions do not have to be restricted to local issues. If there are regular visitors from other regions or countries, comparisons of local events and objects with their own culture may convey important messages for them.

2.       Not only four thematic areas may be targeted – interdisciplinary exhibitions may involve further branches of science and genres of art.

3.       Target groups have to be specified. If we want to communicate with every member of society, young or old, expert and novice, we are likely to fail. We have to identify those who come to visit and also those to whom we have important things to say and address them all. If the museum is near the border of the country, the citizens of the nearby state have to be targeted, too, with explanations in their language and special displays as well.

4.       Language is a key factor in museum learning. If we use the local dialect, it may be a friendly welcome for inhabitants of the town, while visitors may have difficulties in understanding it. Scientific accuracy is important, but dry facts and figures are indigestible. (In another chapter, we speak about learning styles of visitors, which also have to be considered).

5.       Museums are generally associated with the past. Although it is important to get to know and deeply understand our heritage, most visitors expect to find contemporary and relevant information in an exhibition – an idea or image that may affect their lives. This expectation is not always easy to meet, but there are good methods to build bridges between the past and the present. An example: “This stone axe was found in the yard of the building at 65 High Street.” The label implies that Stone Age people actually lived here where we are living now.

Different objects exhibited in glass cases and fresh flowers in vases.

4.4. picture: Objects from the past at an exhibition of local history: photographs and glass objects recall an old glass factory that was situated in the town. The decoration of the cases (vases with flowers) indicates the affections of museum staff towards their living environment that has now become the object of a display. Bükkzsérc, Hungary. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Someone holds a stone with handwritten inscription.

4.5. picture: A stone utensil from the Bronze Age. The inscription is simple and straightforward: “A plough turned it out of the soil in 1970, in Szögliget.” The style and format both suggest emotional attachment of museum staff to the object, although the way of holding the object – letting visitors handle it at all – is questionable. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

6.       There are many exhibition facilities, and many mission statements of museums housed in them. Not all of these make efforts to engage visitors in further studies or promote other places of (cultural) interest worth visiting. These efforts are worthwhile for the museum, because the experiences obtained elsewhere may help visitors to interpret and complete their experiences.

Exhibitions that consider these aspects will realise the mission statement of the museum and contribute to its sustained, beneficial reception in the local and broader community.