10 “Best Practices” for Museums and Historic Sites

This list is not exhaustive, but it seems to be a useful starting point for the best ways to manage a museum or historic site.

  1. The institution (museum or historic site) should have a clearly defined mission and underlying values which direct the short- and long-term goals of the institution.
  2. Staff and volunteers should receive sufficient training to work both independently and in concert with the institution’s goals. This training should also cover how to best interact with objects or displays, visitors to the institution, and fellow staff.
  3. The institution should have a coherent, public statement that outlines its policies on collecting (accessioning) and deaccessioning (removing items from the collection). Policies should highlight the importance of routine, thoughtful review, the role of professional staff and outside opinions in the process, careful recording, and how information is provided on decisions made based on these policies.
  4. In its policies and training procedures, the institution should stress conservation and preservation. If possible, the site or objects which the institution oversees should remain in as good, or better, condition as when they were acquired.
  5. The institution is accountable for the content, nature, and quality of its programs. Interpretation of a site or objects should be kept ethical, respectful, and honest. Further, the institution should show awareness of how the narrative it provides might uphold or challenge dominant power relationships. Topics of race, gender, and class should be addressed within the main body of program materials.
  6. The institution should maintain personnel policies and practices that comply with legal requirements for staff and volunteers with regards to equal opportunity, safety, and fair working conditions. These policies should be clearly stated by representatives of the institution and agreed upon by staff and volunteers. Further, the institution should also prepare a well-articulated grievance process to register and address staff complaints.
  7. The institution should develop a code of ethics in accordance with codes provided by related umbrella institutions, such as the American Association of Museums. This code regulates the conduct of the institution at large and representatives/staff of the institution to ensure that the institution serves its constituents.
  8. Programs held by the institution should address the needs and desires expressed by its constituents – visitors, donors, peers, and the community at large. In engaging more closely with the community, the institution can build up its visitor base and provide a space for community members to get involved with each other and with the institution.
  9. The institution should maintain interactive programs to engage more meaningfully with visitors, in either high- or low-technology formats. Additional programs may incorporated direct community involvement in the institution.
  10. There should exist appropriate physical facilities in good repair for the institution to provide its programs. Further, the space should be appropriate for the institution’s goals. In the case of a museum, different exhibition contexts can transform audience perception of objects and, as a result, alters how visitors interpret the information that is conveyed.

Suggested Reading

Willard L. Boyd, “Museum Accountability: Laws, Rules, Ethics, and Accreditation (1991),” in Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift, Gail Anderson, ed. (Lanham: Alta Mira Press, 2004): p. 351-361.

Lisa G. Corrin, “Mining the Museum: An Installation Confronting History (1993),” in Reinventing the Museum: p. 248-256.

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)

Marie C. Malaro, “Deaccessioning: The American Perspective (1991),” in Reinventing the Museum: p. 331-339.

Lisa C. Roberts, “Changing Practices of Interpretation (1997),” in Reinventing the Museum: p. 212-229.

Robert Sullivan, “Evaluating the Ethics and Consciences of Museums (1994),” in Reinventing the Museum: p. 257-263.

Stephen E. Weil and Earl F. Cheit, “The Well-Managed Museum (1989),” in Reinventing the Museum: p. 348-350.

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