By Randi Korn and Paul Pearson
At a particularly bleak moment in December 1776, George Washington declared, “Desperate diseases require desperate measures.” Museums, historic sites, zoos, and arboreta, like all other cultural organizations, find themselves operating in desperate circumstances caused by the pandemic and the economic shutdown. The question before us is “Which measures will be critical to helping our organization thrive (again)?”
One thing is—or ought to be—perfectly clear: no one measure will work for all of our diverse institutions. In spite of outward similarities and general structures, most museums operate under unique conditions, with varied assets and highly individualized audiences. Each community is different and each museum, as part of those different communities, will likely have different concerns and different questions—based on the museum’s distinct qualities, staff capacity and passions, and the community’s situation.
In fact, it may be confusing and destructive to imply that because of COVID-19, each museum must abandon its previous identity and mission and reconstitute itself as a wholly different entity in order to confront a specific calamity.
The current crisis may be a good time for museums to revisit values and purpose, but this exercise would be to rediscover, focus, and affirm their core and to build the confidence necessary to imagine and enact novel approaches to express that core. By core, we don’t mean our habitual program outputs, formats, and ways of engaging audiences, but our (hopefully more profound) fundamental reasons for being.
An overarching question that many, if not all, of our organizations might elect to start asking is “To What End?” Clarifying why we do our work, an often-overlooked question, is vital. Why we did our work a year ago may not be the same today or tomorrow, but at the very least, museums owe it to themselves and their publics to take the time necessary to think deeply as they ponder that question.
The basis of “why” is most productively grounded in critical statements of identity and purpose. A museum (or any organization or individual, for that matter) needs a stable anchor of core values and purpose in order to act most effectively, and enduringly, with and for the world around us.
This is true in ordinary times and may be even more essential when new conditions dramatically disrupt our operational conditions, program outputs, and outcomes for those we serve. A theme of business literature (for profit or socially purposed) is how organizations with confident identities and core values have an advantage during times of operational and emotional stress, so long as their leaders maintain their curiosity about the world we inhabit and enlist the creative will of their staff and stakeholders to discover new ways of expressing the organization’s identity and fulfilling its purpose.
Crises often motivate critical examinations of an organization’s soul.
The situation in which we find ourselves can become a great opportunity to identify our habitual behaviors and assumptions that may no longer hold true or relevant under new conditions. This kind of thoughtful reflection and reassessment of the status quo may set the stage for what we might term “the draft mindset.” The world is in a state of flux not only because of COVID-19, but because that is life―the worlds we inhabit are fluid and forever changing. So even as we revisit and reaffirm our core values and purpose, we will want to develop plans that are responsive and adaptable on an as-needed basis, empowering our museums to express their enduring missions under ever-changing circumstances.
Randi Korn founded RK&A, a company that helps museums plan and evaluate their work. She is the author of Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact.
Paul Pearson is a museum projects and planning consultant and teaches with the Johns Hopkins online graduate museum studies program.
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