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Why Mission Matters


Do you know why you do what you do? Mission does matter.

I am always amazed, when I sit back and think about it, how much goes on behind the scenes at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology.   I like to compare museums to icebergs: what you see when you visit is just a small part of everything that is going on.  From working with the collection, researching exhibits, planning programs and events, to the things we rarely consider as “museum work” but are critical to any business (like marketing, managing the finances, fundraising, and health and safety just to name a few), museums are busy places.  It’s because museums are so busy that our mission matters.

For all of this activity to have meaning, everything we do must flow from a deep sense of purpose  – our mission.  It’s through our mission that we articulate our reason for existing, how we strive to serve our communities, meet our public trust responsibilities, and hopefully make a difference in the lives of the people we serve.

Museums have two fundamental public trust responsibilities: stewardship and public service.  Stewardship means that we are responsible for the collections we acquire and that we ensure they are available for future generations.  Public service means that we make the collections and the information about them accessible to everyone we serve.  (Canadian Museum Association’s Ethical Guidelines).  A museum’s mission defines how it will meet its public trust responsibilities, and more importantly, why it exists in the first place.

A good mission expresses the difference a museum is trying to make in its community, and ultimately must answer the question WHY.  Being able to articulate WHY, and more importantly, share that with others, is key to a successful museum.

Knowing your WHY is not the only way to be successful, but it is the only way to maintain a lasting success and have a greater blend of innovation and flexibility.  When a WHY goes fuzzy, it becomes much more difficult to maintain the growth, loyalty and inspiration that helped drive the original success.¹

While this concept may seem simple, it is surprising how difficult it can be to articulate WHY a museum exists.  It is easy to talk about WHAT we do and HOW we do it, but WHY can be elusive and difficult to articulate.  In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek does a great job of illustrating the difference in effectiveness between organizations and movements that have a clear understanding of their WHY vs. those that don’t.  This idea is summed up nicely in Simon’s TED Talk.

Having a clear sense of WHY our museum exists, beyond the “stuff” we collect, is a critical step in building long term sustainability and community engagement.

For the Museum of Ontario Archaeology, developing a mission focused on WHY has resulted in a significant increase in volunteers and increased engagement within the community.  Getting to our WHY was not an easy process, but it was filled with excitement and optimism about our future, especially because our WHY was developed with input from many people, all of whom contributed to a stronger sense of purpose and direction for us.

MOA Mission Matters Meeting 2014.
MOA Mission Meeting 2014.

 MOA’s mission is:

Through stewardship, research, and education, the Museum continually strives to advance our understanding of Ontario’s archaeological heritage.  We bring the human past to life, make it relevant to understanding the present, and inspire an appreciation of, and respect for, Ontario’s cultural diversity.

Simply put, we believe that archaeology brings to life the stories of how people lived.  These stories connect us to our shared human heritage and give us a sense of place in the world.  We connect with each other through our stories, and by sharing them, we understand and appreciate each other more.

This is our starting point, our WHY, and the difference we hope to make through our programs and collection.

¹ Sinek, Simon (2009).  Start with Why:  How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. London, England: Portfolio / Penguin, page 50.

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