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How Does An Institution Become a Museum?

Rachel Hewitt

Inside the Art Institute of Chicago

We previously discussed the physical logistics and requirements involved in an institution being certified as a museum (in the post “What is a Museum?”), but obviously there is more to a museum than a building, and even the physical requirements hint at this. Many of these necessities revolve around the details of the institution’s accessibility to the public. Clearly then, a museum isn’t meant merely to serve as a dumping ground for dusty artifacts.

There are a few key elements in museum certification that either imply or directly state that a museum is intended for public consumption. The first is that the museum must have a stated and approved mission, which is approved by the AAM (American Association of Museums). The mission statement serves as a way for AAM to evaluate the museum’s performance. According to Dana Twersky, Accreditation Assistant Director of the AAM, a museum will be accredited for ten years and then reevaluated beginning in its 9th year. The AAM is planning revamps to the process, which will require operational status reports.

St. Louis Art Museum

The Accreditation Commission’s Expectations Regarding Mission(1) document states that a museum must “assert its public service role and place education at the center of that role.” Secondly, “The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and operations.” Each museum’s mission is different and can depend on exactly the type of museum (art, children’s museum, science), but, the AAM’s Code of Ethics for Museums has this to say about museums and their missions in general; “Although diverse in their missions, they have in common their nonprofit form of organization and a commitment of service to the public.”

This quote brings us to the other key elements in AAM accreditation, one of which is that a museum should be essentially educational in nature. While what is considered educational can be somewhat subjective, the AAM’s Characteristics of an Accreditable Museum(2) has outlined the AAM’s expectations on this subject. The overall view of this outline is primarily two-fold. The requirements discuss that all content be high quality, accurate, and based on research done according to scholarly standards. The other side of this coin states that the museum must also assess and understand its audience (the public) and use this understanding to present accurate and appropriate content geared at the needs of the audience. The museum must also assess its effectiveness in its presentation of said content, and use the results for improvement of its programming.

Franke Reading Room at the Art Institute of Chicago

Another of the AAM’s key criteria ties into these characteristics in that the museum is required to “use and interpret objects and/or a site for the public presentation of regularly scheduled programs and exhibits.” Not only must the institution be committed to public service and education, but the site and collection of objects, be they artworks or dinosaur skulls, housed therein must be used for repeated public educational programming.

Lastly, the museum must be a legally organized nonprofit institution or part of a non-profit organization or government entity. Simply speaking, a non-profit organization does not allocate profits or surplus funds to owners or shareholders, but uses this surplus to further its mission. Whether or not a museum is governmentally funded, and it can go either way, it must be legally recognized as a non-profit institution, and therefore (in theory) be focused on public service and not on financial gain.

As you can see, though the physical requirements we discussed in a previous article are fairly simple to meet, the less concrete aspects of museum accreditation are both a bit more challenging, and a bit more specific in their standards for a museum’s direction. While the public accessibility standards and collections procedures are key in building a foundation for an institution, it is the educational and public service requirements that give a museum its content and purpose.

We will discuss the mission statements and educational programming of Chicago’s art museums in future articles.

(1)You can download a PDF of this document at the web link provided.
(2)You can download a PDF of this document at the web link provided.

Editor’s note: for further information, see “What is a Museum?” and “Who Owns a Museum?”