In our society communities are not static but fluid and ever changing. People come and go, populations become more diverse—and there are increasing numbers of organizations and institutions they can use or affiliate with. As communities grow, change, and develop, people living within the loose association of geographical boundaries of the community become more vocal about their needs. And we in the museum and historical organization field are bombarded by often contradictory—and sometimes unreasonable—expectations from our communities.
How can we as organizations navigate in constantly changing times and with constantly changing communities, keeping in mind that in the end our communities, our audiences, may not be restricted by geography at all but rather by interest, or, in the case of the ubiquitous tourist, by the general desire to learn about things, or, in the case of the school child and education community by curriculum requirements and standardized testing. Such a navigation system cannot depend on professional standards or best practices mandated or sanctioned by professional or industry-wide associations; they must come instead from special and distinctive qualities, unique to each individual organization.
Almost 20 years ago Harold wrote in the January/February, 1993 issue of Museum News:
The word ‘museum’ has lost its power to adequately define a coherent body of institutions that have similar missions, goals, and strategies. To define a major research driven natural history museum, a regional science and technology center, an encyclopedic art museum, and a local volunteer-run historical society as a ‘museum’ is like describing General Motors, Kmart, a regional bank, and a local convenience store as a ‘business’--accurate but not helpful.
In the world of the future, every individual institution, including museums, must be judged on its distinctive ability to provide value to society in a way that builds on unique institutional strengths and serves unique community needs.
The only rule that will apply to all museums is that there are no rules that apply to all museums (with the exception of the most basic and technical rules for keeping track of money and collections). The high ground of object-centered transcendence, of a canon of authoritative knowledge, of codified and concise professional standards to train and guide all museum operations has lost its power to shape and control.
If this observation is correct it means that each individual museum or historical organization is going to have to make its own distinctive way in the world.
We suggest that the best gyroscope for setting the distinctive course of any organization is a clear Mission. A good Mission establishes the distinctiveness and importance of what the organization does and its value to the communities it serves. In the world of the 21st century the key question being asked of every organization is, “What is the value proposition?” A good mission statement is the answer to that question.
Harold and Susan Skramstad are internationally recognized museum planning consultants. Harold Skramstad served for over fifteen years President of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village. Prior to that, he served as Director of the Chicago Historical Society, and, prior to that, in several senior administrative posts at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Susan Skramstad served as the Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn Campus. They have served a wide variety of clients both in the United States and abroad in the planning of new museums as well as providing strategic, interpretive, and fundraising planning services to existing museums. Their work has been recognized at the highest levels. In 1992 Harold Skramstad received the Charles Frankel Prize (now renamed the National Humanities Medal) from President George H. W. Bush for his achievement in bringing the humanities to a broad public audience. In 1994 President Clinton appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities. During his term on the Council he served as the Chairman of the Public Programs Committee. In 2002 President George W. Bush appointed him to the Presidential Commission to establish an action plan for a new National Museum of African American History and Culture.