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What is a Museum?

Rachel Hewitt

Museum of Surgical Sciences

Let’s say you’re a hoarder… ok, a collector.  Let’s say you’ve decided you’d like to start a museum with your collection.  This endeavor is, in some ways, easier than you’d think (and in other ways, a lot more difficult).

The American Association of Museums can help you get started.  While the AAM states that, “there is no single set of museum standards,” there are guidelines for becoming an accredited museum.  A complete list of guidelines can be found here, but for now, we’ll focus on the standards for physically housing and displaying your collection.

What kind of space do you need to accommodate and present your museum collection?

First of all, operations must primarily occur at a physical site.  Your website photo gallery cannot be accredited as a museum.  You must be operating from a space or “center” which has had a public access history of at least two years, and must be open to the public a minimum of 1,000 hours per year.  While it may be relatively easy to go from “center” or “institute” to museum, it can take some time.  Because the institution must be open to the public, a space zoned for public use is a must, but there are no size, historical, or geographical limitations.

What about the collection itself?

Museum of Surgical Sciences

Can you make a museum from a collection of miniatures or a vast collection of turtle skeletons?  The only set AAM rules for the specific collection are as follows, the institution must “have accessioned 80 percent of its permanent collection.”  Accessioning is the legal process behind acquiring an art object or artifact, part of which is the agreement that the museum will care for the object in perpetuity.  If you’re willing to take care of those turtle skeletons for life, and assure that they will continue to be cared for, long after you’re gone, you’re set.  The provenance of the items is often taken into question, specifically concerning the legality of origins and transferability.

Your museum must also have a formal system for cataloging, housing, and caring for the collection.  There are no set rules for how this is to be done as long as it is “appropriate” according to the AAM, but some issues of care and housing are climate control, minimization of handling, security, and pest control.

Staffing your museum

The only full-time employee necessary for museum accreditation is a full-time museum director, whose responsibility is handling the day-to-day operations.  The museum must also have one paid professional staff member with a museum background.  There are no standards for salary or minimum hours for this staff member.

Financing the museum

Milwaukee Public Museum

The only financial requirements for museum accreditation are minimal.  The AAM’s criteria for finances merely state that the institution should “have the financial resources sufficient to operate effectively.”  Outside this directive, there are no specific amounts necessary, nor specific funding sources necessary for museum accreditation.

As you can see, gaining museum accreditation does not require special facilities (other than the specifics of caring for the collection), or a massive staff, or extensive funding from specific sources.  Even the collection itself does not need to be comprised of a specific number of objects, nor a specific type of object.  Truthfully, anyone with a collection and the ability to properly care for, and publicly display it meets the physical standards for AAM museum accreditation.

The less tangible “paperwork” AAM criteria, Code of Ethics for Museums, and standards of the Association of Art Museum Directors will be explored in future articles.

Update:  See next article in the series, “Who Owns the Museums?” (see “related posts” section below)