As museums shift to a more hybrid world of in-person and online programming, the importance of purpose has become increasingly clear. By reflecting on their purpose and identifying how they can best serve their communities, museums can create better organizations for their staff and the audiences they serve.
But what is purpose, and how does it fit in with an organization’s mission and vision? Adam Rozan, audience engagement innovator, spoke on this topic in Gather’s recent convening. He defined purpose as a museum's "reason for being. It’s why your organization exists." This differs from mission, which Rozan describes as how an organization achieves its purpose, and vision which articulates what the organization will look like when those goals are accomplished. While defined separately, purpose, mission, and vision should be interconnected in guiding a museum’s strategic decisions and goals.
During the pandemic, many museums were faced with this question of purpose when their doors closed and they had to compete with all of the other virtual programming available online. "If you don't have your building, if you can't rely on the things that really made you special and unique...you were forced to do it online. [This] meant that you could push and test who you were and what you're doing and how you were serving," Rozan shared. Now, as museums offer multiple ways for audiences to interact with them, it’s more important than ever for organizations to identify why they exist and how they serve their communities.
Defining a purpose is no easy task. At a macro level, Rozan declared the following:
"Museums exist for the public. Full stop."
At an individual level, each museum and its various communities are unique. Rozan stressed the importance of listening to audiences and staff to help shape an organization’s specific purpose. From a community perspective, "you have these different groups that you have a relationship with, so how are you meeting their needs? And when we think about our audiences more than just on a singular level...are we taking the time to speak to our various audiences and to understand what they need from us and how we might make that connection?" By taking a more community-centered approach to defining purpose, museums can create programs and experiences that are more meaningful and relevant to each of their audiences.
In addition to listening to community needs, it is equally important for museums to engage their staff in the process of defining purpose. Staff members are often intimately familiar with the museum's operations and day-to-day activities. They can offer valuable insights into what is feasible and sustainable in terms of programming and outreach. As Rozan said, "we have to really think through: what is it we can do? what is it we can sustain and ensure that our staff have the breathing space around these projects to do them properly?" The hard work of defining purpose is worth it, however. As one convening attendee noted, "once you do it, you can look to that whenever you're making a decision."
Museums can continue to engage their communities in meaningful ways by utilizing the right tools and strategies. One of these tools is Gather software, which many museums are using to increase access to their onsite, online, and on-demand programming. By partnering with Gather, organizations deliver more personalized experiences that foster a deeper connection with their various audiences, allowing them to better serve their community and fulfill their purpose.