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What’s the purpose of your Museum?

In 2006, Blake Mycoskie was in Argentina learning to play Polo, when a chance encounter changed his life.

A conversation in a bar introduced him to two people in the country to donate shoes to children living in extreme poverty. “But what happens when they grow out of them in a few months”, someone asked. And TOMS was born.

TOMS started with a simple idea; every time someone bought shoes from them, the company would donate a pair to people in need. Over 60 million pairs of shoes later, the company isn’t only a huge success, but it’s the poster child for purposeful companies everywhere.

A purposeful company doesn’t just sell products; it is driven by a mission to achieve something more significant than making money.

‘Purpose’ has been one of the biggest trends in business over the past decade; every company has to know it’s WHY?

Like these businesses, museums are driven by purpose, not profit. Where I think they differ is that museums struggle to express their ‘WHY?’

While Southwest Airlines can proudly say that they “connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly air travel.” Most museum staff would struggle to tell you their organisational WHY?

Perhaps this is because traditional mission statements are so often overly complicated and feel distant from the work that a museum does (Note: WHAT a museum does and WHY they exist aren’t the same thing).



But good examples of a museum ‘WHY’ are out there. Take Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, for example:

Philbrook strives to make a creative and connected community through art and gardens.

In my opinion, it does everything that a museum WHY should do. It’s short, memorable, inspiring and most important of all, it’s true.

This purpose comes through in everything that the museum does, it’s not a dusty mission statement, but the organisations North Star, guiding their programs, priorities and actions. 

I think this is key when asking why purpose matters. Having a clear and communicable WHY tells everyone in your organisation what they get out of bed in the morning to achieve.

I think the need for this is especially relevant now, as museums struggle to handle the financial impact of the global pandemic.

In many institutions, staff have been furloughed, redundancies have happened, and there is uncertainty about the future.


As Simon Sinek explains in his 2011 book, Start with Why. A clear WHY can be your rallying point; this reminds everyone of their common purpose, and it helps us to see beyond immediate challenges.

Your WHY Statement should be:

  • simple and clear
  • actionable
  • focused on how your museum contributes to the world

In his second book ‘Find Your Why’, Simon Sinek suggests this simple formula for a coming up with your WHY Statement:

TO ____ SO THAT ____.

The first blank represents your contribution to the lives others through your WHY. And the second blank represents the impact of your contribution.

It’s a powerful tool to make it simple and straight forward for anyone to draft a meaningful WHY statement.

Here’s how this might look like for a museum :

To bring to life the art of Frida Kahlo, so that our visitors can enjoy it and to be inspired by it.

The first part of this WHY statement expresses the museum’s contribution to the world. While the second half shares the benefit to visitors. 

As with the example above, ideally, this should be unique to your museum.

Getting started only requires a pen and paper. But the best results come from working with people from across your organisation to find your ‘WHY’. 

I feel that now, as museums regroup after COVID-19, is the perfect time to ask your colleagues to come together and share their aspirations. 

Together forge a vision for ‘WHY’ and make that the banner under which your museum takes on the future.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now spends his time championing best practice through MuseumNext.

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