Operating Practices of Small Museums

Operating Practices Small Museum

According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), nearly 60% of the nation’s museums are classified as “small,” with fewer than three employees on staff. Another 21% employ 10 or less. Although small in nature, their impact on the communities they serve is immeasurable.

Operating Documents for Small Museums

Visit any small museum, and chances are, there’s more involved than what meets the eye. Every reputable museum, no matter its size or focus, will operate its institution based on the policies and procedures found in these five operating documents: (1) Mission Statement, (2) Code of Ethics, (3) Strategic Institutional Plan, (4) Disaster Preparedness & Emergency Response Plan, and (5) Collections Management Policy.

These documents should be carefully crafted as they provide the basis for which a museum makes decisions and cares for its collections. Let’s break down each of the five documents.

Mission Statement

A mission statement defines what a museum does, how it does it, whom it serves, and why. The statement should clearly articulate what makes the museum unique, its purpose, its fundamental goals, and its responsibility to the public and its collections. The mission statement also provides employees, stakeholders, and the public with a benchmark against which the performance of the museum can be assessed.

Essential elements of a museum mission statement:

  • Clearly explain what a museum does, how, why, and for whom
  • Articulate the museum’s role in providing a public service
  • The date the mission statement was approved and/or revised by the museum’s governing body

Code of Ethics

An institutional code of ethics articulates how the museum puts the interests of the public ahead of the interests of itself or any one individual. In addition, a code of ethics will recognize and define applicable laws, policies and procedures, and professional best practices that govern how the museum operates.

A code of ethics helps museum operators mitigate risk, while protecting the museum’s assets and its reputation.

Essential elements of a museum’s code of ethics:

  • An original document, drafted specifically for the museum (AMA provides its members with a foundational Code of Ethics)
  • Cleary state that ethical principles apply to every stakeholder, from the governing body, to staff and volunteers; and how those principles specifically apply to each group
  • Define the museum’s ethical responsibilities as a public service  
  • Address how the museum makes decisions regarding collections-related ethical issues
  • Define the process by which funds earned through the sale of museum collections are used for new acquisitions and/or the care of existing items
  • The date the code of ethics was approved and/or revised by the museum’s governing body

Strategic Institutional Plan

A strategic institutional plan outlines how a museum will obtain the resources it needs to fulfill its mission. In business terms, a museum’s strategic plan is closely akin to an official business plan. It will define the museum’s goals, the strategies by which it will attain them; while charting how and when it acquires, creates, and distributes its financial, human, and physical resources to fulfill its mission.

It will also include specific and prioritized implementation steps, timelines, resources needed, and individual roles and responsibilities for executing the plan.

Essential elements of a museum’s strategic plan:

  • Executive summary of the plan
  • Current and three-year plan and projections
  • Addresses all areas of operations
  • List of goals, actions steps, and individual roles and responsibilities in fulfilling the plan
  • Specific definitions of how and when success will be measured
  • The date the strategic plan was approved and/or revised by the museum’s governing body

Disaster Preparedness & Emergency Response Plan

As the title suggests, a disaster preparedness and emergency response plan is put in place to ensure that a museum will be prepared to address all natural and man-made scenarios, from the simple to the traumatic. Beyond a blueprint for responding to disasters, the plan will identify and assess risks to the museum, helping it to take precautionary measures to mitigate and manage risks more effectively.  

Essential elements of a disaster preparedness and emergency response plan:

  • Preparedness and response plans for all natural and man-made emergencies and scenarios
  • Contact lists of all emergency and disaster recovery services
  • Defines and assigns individual roles and responsibilities during an emergency, along with contact information for each person
  • Provides specific instructions on how to evacuate people; including floorplans, evacuation routes, and assembly areas
  • Instructions on how to protect, remove, and recover collections in the event of an emergency
  • The date the plan was approved and/or revised by the museum’s governing body

Collections Management Policy

Every museum, regardless of size, focus, or ownership, should have a collections management policy. The policy should explain what the museum’s collection encompasses, how it cares for the collection, how it makes items available to the public, and who bears responsibility for managing the collection.

The collections management policy will also define the collections management system the museum will use to inventory its items.  

Museum Collection Management Software System for Museums

A museum should utilize a collections management system, such as RelicRecord.com, to document and inventory each item in its collection.

A collections policy is critical, even for those museums that exhibit items owned by others. Why? The public expects; if not demands, that museums care for their collections in the most legal, ethical, and professional way possible.

Essential elements of a collections management policy:

  • Summary description of the museum’s collection(s), along with specific categories of the collection(s)
  • The process and authority by which new items are acquired, including any collection-related ethical issues
  • The process and authority by which items are sold or disposed; including any collection-related ethical issues
  • Specific policy of how funds generated through the sale of an item are used
  • The process and authority by which items are loaned – both incoming and outgoing
  • Complete documentation and inventory of each item in the collection
  • Specific instructions as to how collections are cared for and conserved, including those on loan
  • Protocols regarding who can access collections, including those on loan
  • The protocols and individual(s) assigned authority to make binding collections-related decisions
  • The date the policy was approved and/or revised by the museum’s governing body

If you’re a collections manager of a small museum, or simply a private collector in need of a collections management system, click here to learn more about how RelicRecord.com can help.

In addition, if you’re involved with a museum, or interested in starting one, visit American Alliance of Museums for more information.


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