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Don’t Let “Mission” Blinders Turn Your Path into a Rut

Most of you history docents know that, in the not-too-distant past, horses were often fitted with blinders, a pair of leather flaps attached to the bridle to limit their side vision and, hence, their distractions. Blinders made it easier to keep them on the path. Binders worked so well, in fact, that today some of those same paths are clearly visible as ruts across our western prairies. In museum education, the “mission” can sometimes limit vision, serving as a sort of blinder that can put your programming into a rut. How can you work within your institution’s mission without staying on the same path too long?

Of course, the purpose of a mission statement is just the opposite of the purpose of blinders. It is intended to present a broad view. A good mission statement articulates the museum’s reason for being. It defines the focus of the museum, and it is around the mission statement that a museum’s governing body, staff, resources, collection, programming, and activities are organized. The American Association of Museums requires a “formally stated mission” for accreditation, and further declares that “… every action and activity of the museum should support the purpose set forth in the mission statement.”

How, then, could such a benevolent guide occasionally encourage an education staff or docent to work themselves into a rut?

Mission statements vary, from the deceptively simple (” … to collect, preserve, and interpret . . .”) to the incredibly detailed, such as the Field Museum’s multi-page structure. According to the AAM’s Accreditation Commission, however, a “clearly delineated” mission statement should have three key elements. The statement:

1- identifies the market, customers, clients (audience), or those for whom services are provided;

2- expresses the end or goal toward which services are delivered, and

3- enumerates what services are going to be provided.

If we examine each of these elements more closely we may discover how our interpretation of the mission may unintentionally limit, rather than expand, our vision.

The Market

Usually, the mission identifies a museum’s clients as “visitors” or some equally broad group of people. An education department can assume that they are reaching all their mission-defined clients when they typically offer school tours, walk-in tours, and outreach programming. In an effort to wisely use limited resources, an education department can focus on a particular grade and/or subject area for their school tours. A history museum offers tours for the fourth and eighth grades because those grades study state history. A science museum, naturally, offers tours for science classes. An art museum designs a special after-school program for at-risk high school students to help them use art media to learn positive ways of expressing teenage angst. AH of these are worthy goals, all within the institution’s mission. Without careful examination of their goals, educators can trot along, comfortable in the knowledge that the path they’ve chosen reaches the clients identified by their mission statement.

On the other hand, history museum educators might take a slightly different path, working with high school English departments to gather oral history from residents of a local senior citizens’ center. Docents might teach oral history techniques, perhaps using museum artifacts as “prompts” as they facilitate interaction between generations. In addition to the “logical” clients — fourth and eighth grade students — a different path might uncover additional clients, such as students in humanities or civics classes, or senior citizens interested in connecting to their past.

A science museum, in addition to offering the “mission-statement” tours for science classes, might look for other clients in math classes. Data collection and analysis, a logical extension of the work of science museums, nature centers, gardens, and zoos, are also logical skills for docents to teach and for math students to learn in real-world situations. Computer networks between and among schools and science institutions can help both facilities share data. Creating such programs may draw into the docent corps men and women in the community whose technical specialties have never been used by the museum before — another new client base.

After-school art programs for teens, a most worthy and appropriate path for art museums, are not the only “socially conscious” path. A reading readiness program, designed for stay-at-home moms and their pre-schoolers, could offer our youngest clients experiences with such things as listening to and repeating sequences, identifying colors and shapes, creating and sharing stories, or experimenting with clay and paint. Docents with experience in early childhood education and/or local classroom teachers could provide the necessary training and develop a curriculum that would open the museum to these two new groups of visitors.

The Goal

Traditionally, the portion of the mission statement that says “interpret” is the portion allotted to the education department. And, “interpret” is a word that has led many museum educators into a touring rut.

Most dictionaries define “interpret” with some variation of the Encarta definition found on the internet: “… to establish or explain the significance or meaning of something.” With this definition, and a clearly established mission, docents lecture away. They learn the significance or meaning of the art, artifact, or specimen in their institution’s collections from the curatorial staff, from independent study, from college and university classes, and they happily share that information with visitors on their tours. They may soon tire of their repetitious lectures about the permanent collection, and they look forward eagerly to special exhibitions so they can learn new material to “interpret” for their audiences.

Many docents and education staff, however, don’t depend solely on the literal definition their institution’s mission statement implies. In order to keep their tours fresh and their clients coming back for more, they find ways to help visitors determine their own interpretations of art, artifacts, and specimens. They engage their audience in conversation, in mutually satisfying dialogue about mutually interesting objects. They guide their guests to observe, analyze, and make determinations based on knowledge they impart, as well as knowledge the visitors bring with them. They ask questions. They don’t lecture, so tours are always new, both to them and to their audience.

The Services

Most museum mission statements enumerate two “services” they will provide: exhibits and programs. In the best of situations, educators are involved in the development of exhibits so that educational programming is “built in” from the beginning. In some institutions, unfortunately, educators are still forced to “retro-fit” their programs. In both cases, however, it is the very nature of the word “program” that sometimes leads docents and other museum educators into those comfortable paths that can easily become ruts.

Educators who rely on only one of the definitions,” … a series of classes or lectures …” are content to provide a standard tour and, perhaps, a docent-narrated slide program for schools; occasional Sunday afternoon tours for walk-in visitors; and special tours for adults during special exhibitions. They’ve met the mission statement requirements.

A broader definition of “programs,” however, removes the blinders and allows educators to see that “classes and lectures” are too limiting and can easily lead to those sale, secure ruts. Encarta has another definition that’s much more useful: “… a system of procedures or activities that has a specific purpose …” Using this definition, museum educators look beyond the standard tour and develop an entire system of activities that advance the mission. In this case, “programs” can include interactive computers and readily-available reference materials; docent facilitators to help with hands-on discoveries; role-playing in docent-led re-enactments; or question-and-answer sessions at the end of a self-guided tour. In addition to school tours that begin at 9 a.m., this sort of programming looks at different time slots as a “system of activities” are created. Afternoon mini-classes for senior citizens. Evening language classes for new immigrants that use the museum’s collection to teach English. Or, as the Field Museum puts it, “Exhibits are augmented by people-mediated programs and a visitor-oriented museum-wide staff which reaches out to assist all visitors.”

Re- Visiting the Mission

The Oregon Trail worked. One wagon followed another across the plains, through mountain passes, and into the broad valleys of the Columbia and Willamette. No one got lost; everyone was as safe as they could be given the circumstances. Carefully following a limited interpretation of your museum’s mission works, too. The path is comfortable and safe, and the programming works. The deeper the rut you’re already following, the more difficult it will be to break out. But, taking the time to look beyond the “letter” of the mission and into its broader vision opens up new and exciting vistas. You, and your visitor constituents, may find the expanded path a much more rewarding one.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Don’t Let ‘Mission’ Blinders Turn Your Path into a Rut,” The Docent Educator 12.2 (Winter 2002-03): 8-9+.


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