Museums Explained




Mission, Organization and Accreditation



The general mission of art museums is to preserve, enhance, interpret, research and extend the reach of collections on behalf of society, provide public service through education, display of art works, scholarship and related activities, with accountability to their constituents. For information on missions of museums in your state contact the state's museum association. Websites for state museum associations include:

Alabama Museum Association

Museums Alaska

Museum Association of Arizona

Arkansas Museums Association

California Association of Museums

Colorado-Wyoming Association of Museums

Florida Association of Museums

Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries

Hawai'i Museums Association

Illinois Association of Museums

Association of Indiana Museums

Iowa Museum Association

Kansas Museums Association

Louisiana Association of Museums

Maine Archives and Museums

Michigan Museums Association

Minnesota Association of Museums

Mississippi Museums Association

Museums Association of Montana

Museum Association of New York

Nebraska Museums Association

Nevada Museums Association

New Mexico Association of Museums

The North Carolina Museums Council

Ohio Museums Association

Oklahoma Museums Association

Oregon Museums Association

Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations

South Carolina Federation of Museums

Association of South Dakota Museums, Inc.

Tennessee Association of Museums

Texas Association of Museums

Utah Museums Association

Virginia Association of Museums

Washington Museum Association

West Virginia State Museum Association

Wisconsin Federation of Museums

The national association is American Alliance of Museums, formerly the American Association of Museums.


Collection management policy

A museum establishes a written collection management policy for several reasons. The policy identifies the scope of its art collection, and may establish guidelines for improving the collection. The policy also may contain sections covering duties and responsibilities of a collections committee, plus guidelines for accession, deaccession, documentation and storage. An online example of a collection management policy is the abridged version of the complete Collection Management Policy for the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. The Museum's complete policy may be viewed here and the related acquisition procedure may be viewed here. Also see the 2011 policy adopted by by Tampa Museum of Art. Available by online search are further policies and procedures including those for Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Texas Tech University. An interesting reference book is Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies, by John Simmons, who has served as director of the University of Kansas museum studies program and surveyor for the American Association of Museums's Museum Assessment Program.



Museums may be departments of government entities or are separately owned nonprofit institutions. Others may be affiliated with colleges and universities. The SECAC Committee to Establish Guidelines for College and University Galleries and Museums says: "College and university art galleries and museums exist in a wide variety of forms. They often focus exclusively on art, but also can include other disciplines such as anthropology, history and science. According to the American Association of Museums, over 90% of America's museums have permanent collections, while others solely mount exhibitions. They can be found as independent entities within the academic setting, or as a part of a department or departments."[1]

Examples [2] of art museums that are departments of municipalities or larger government entities are:

Albuquerque Museum (city)
Bowers Museum of Cultural Art (city)
Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe (state)
National Gallery of Art (federal)
Smithsonian American Art Museum (federal)

(above: View of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art Looking West along Constitution Avenue, NW, photo © 2014 John Hazeltine)

Colleges and Universities [3] are major sponsors of art museums. Examples include:

Juniata College Museum of Art
Lowe Art Museum at University of Miami
Snite Museum of Art
University of Kentucky Art Museum

Other museums are private such as:

Amon Carter Museum
Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center
Getty (J. Paul) Museum
Irvine Museum
Isabella Stewart Gardner MuseumJ
Timken Museum of Art

There are relatively few private museums in America. In a Wall Street Journal article from April 4, 2008; Page W1, titled "The Firestorm Over Private Museums, Instead of donating their art, collectors are building private museums -- and roiling the art world," reporter Lauren A.E. Schuker says: "There are fewer than 100 private museums in the U.S., some dating back almost a century...."

Some museums are even affiliated with preparatory schools. An excellent example is the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy.

While many museums are encyclopedic in their collections, others collections are dedicated to more specific themes.

Geographic-centered themes:

Cape Museum of Fine Arts
Minnesota Museum of American Art
Museum of Nebraska Art
New Britain Museum of American Art
Westmoreland Museum of American Art
Whitney Museum of American Art

Subject-centered themes:

DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park
Museum of Photographic Arts
National Museum of Wildlife Art
National Museum of Women in the Arts
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Sid Richardson Collection of Western Art
Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art

(above: National Museum of Wildlife Art, July, 2012. Photo by John Hazeltine)

Artist-centered themes:

Walter Anderson Museum of Art
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Norman Rockwell Museum
C. M. Russell Museum
Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery
Andy Warhol Museum
Olaf Wieghorst Museum

(above: Norman Rockwell Museum, Late Summer, 2013. Photo by John Hazeltine)


American Alliance of Museums has had an accreditation program since 1971. AAM says on a page in its website that "The Accreditation Program had its genesis in the mid-1960s.  The program arose from museums' desire to define attainable professional standards for cultural and educational service, and to do so before some other group or the government imposed standards upon the field from without. Museums that do not own collections, but that use objects in their exhibits and programs, are also eligible for accreditation." Accreditation promotes:

This explanation [4] is offered by the Ellen Noël Art Museum:

The American Association of Museums is the national service organization that represents the needs of American museums to enhance their ability to serve the public.  AAM disseminates information on current standards and best practices and provides professional development for staff to ensure that museums contribute to public education in its broadest sense and protect and preserve our cultural heritage.  Since its founding in 1906, AAM has grown to more than 16,900 members. 
AAM Accreditation signifies excellence within the museum community.  It is a seal of approval and strengthens individual museums and the entire field by promoting ethical and professional practices.  Being accredited enables museum leaders to make informed decisions, allocate and use resources wisely, and maintain the strictest accountability to the public they serve.  Of the nation's nearly 16,000 museums less than 760 are currently accredited.
Accreditation is an arduous yet highly rewarding process.  It requires not only a commitment to maintaining the highest standards and best practices, but a significant investment of time and resources from all levels of staff and leadership.  Developed and operated by museum professionals, the American Association of Museums Accreditation Program reflects, articulates, reinforces, and promotes the best practices in museums and the strictest accountability to the public museums serve.  Accreditation is a rigorous process, usually over a three-year period, of self-study and peer review and signifies that an institution operates, on all levels, according to current professional standards and practices. The application is normally preceded by years of preparation.  The process is based around one year of institutional self-study, followed by a site visit by two peer-museum professionals. Around 30-40% of all museums that apply have their applications tabled, after review, to address some aspect of their operations or documentation.  The Ellen Noël Art Museum's application was granted on first submission review. 
Museums benefit from both the status and the process of accreditation.   Different benefits emerge from each step of the review cycle, and continue to unfold over the long-term.  Each museum experiences or capitalizes on a different mix of benefits based on its needs at any given time.  The AAM reports that over the last 30 years, participants have reported the following reasons as the most common and important.
Credibility and Accountability
·       National recognition of your museum's commitment to excellence and the highest professional standards of operation and public service
·       A positive public image and validation of the museum's work and accomplishments
·       Increased credibility with funding agencies and donors
·       Stakeholders see that the museum has fulfilled its public trust
Clearer Sense of Purpose
·       A clearer understanding of the museum's strengths, goals, priorities and mission
·       An opportunity for staff and board to be thoughtful about their practice
Leverage and Support
·       A valuable tool in lobbying local and state governments
·       Improved relationships with other museums, resulting in more loans and traveling exhibitions
·       Maintenance of accreditation leverages support for capital improvements
Sustainability and a Stronger Institution
·       Fosters sustained organizational development and improvement
·       A governing authority better educated about museum standards
·       Increased level of professionalism
What kind of museums can be accredited?
·       Institutions of all types ­ from art centers to zoos ­ and sizes, both privately and publicly funded are accredited. 

For more information on the accreditation process see the "AAM Accreditation Process" by the Museum of Northern Arizona.

In 2005 the AAM published Accreditation Resource Kit, 3rd edition. "The completely revised Kit is a comprehensive tool to help you learn more about accreditation standards and benefits, demystify the process, determine whether your museum is ready to apply, and to guide its preparation. Also excellent as a self-diagnostic to assess operations and aid in strategic planning. An excellent resource not only for museums interested becoming accredited, but for consultants, students, new museums, and any institution that wants to move to the next level of professionalization. Find useful information in the Kit about the types of issues and performance measures all museums should consider as part of their operations." - AAM (right: front cover, Accreditation Resource Kit, 3rd edition. Image courtesy AAM) [5]


Other online resources

For a historical perspective on American art museums, read online the complete text of the book titled "Art Museums in America by George Fisk Comfort" by Comfort, George Fisk, 1833-1910, (Boston: H. O. Houghton and company, 1870) from the University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service Humanities Text Initiative.

The College Art Association Web page for Standards and Guidelines contains a 2013 report titled "Information about Museum Ethics and Professional Practices."

Google Books offers an online Limited Preview of The Manual of Museum Management, By Barry Lord, Gail Dexter Lord. Published 1997 by Rowman Altamira. 276 pages. ISBN:075910249X. Google Books says: "This volume presents a comprehensive and incisive analysis of the principles of muesum organization, the ways in which people work together to accomplish museum objectives and the ways in which museums can function most effectively."

"Published at a time when museums are in search of common ground, The Manual of Museum Management provides a tool with which we may begin to understand and deal with the challenges that are confronting museums. The book offers a shared vocabulary and analytical framework through which to rethink the museum. It is structured into three parts, discussing, in turn, the why, the who, and the how of museum management. That three quarters of its pages are devoted to the how is a particular strength....The book offers itself as a point of reference for all the diverse interests that comprise a museum. It gives museum directors a conductor's podium on which to make music from the chorus of curators, designers, educators, registrars, constituents, volunteers, board members, funding agencies, and the general public....Well-illustrated with tables and figures, the text also includes a dozen case studies....A useful appendix of job descriptions and qualifications for museum positions and a glossary defining key terms." - Patrick Norris, Kalamazoo Valley History Center, HISTORY NEWS (right: front cover: The Manual of Museum Management. Image courtesy Google Books)

From January through May of 2001, Professor Liana Cheney of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell chaired "Museum Issues", a 22 class course recorded in its entirety as a distance learning course. The course includes 22 lectures. Museums are defined and many types and facets of museums are discussed. Liana De Girolame Cheny is Professor of Art History, and Chairperson, Department of Cultural Studies, and Coordinator of Art History, Interdisciplinary and Intercollegiate Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She received her PhD from Boston University in 1978.



1. Report of SECAC Committee to Establish Guidelines for College and University Galleries and Museums. Adopted by the Southeastern College Art Conference at the 2000 Annual Meeting, Louisville, Kentucky, October, 2000.

2. The links for the above-listed institutions are to Resource Library "Sub-index" pages: When Resource Library publishes over time more than one article concerning an institution or non-profit organization, the publication creates as an additional resource for readers a sub-index page containing: 1) links to each RL article or essay concerning that institution or non-profit organization, plus 2) available information on the location, times of of public admission and costs of admission.

3. See "Why Do Universities Have Museums?" by Kimerly Rorschach, Director, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, filmed November 10, 2004. A relevant excerpt from her presentation:

University art museums can do things that larger municipal museums cannot do, and in my view they ought to do these things, indeed must do them.  What kinds of things?  More intellectually risk-taking exhibitions; real engagement of students in creative and meaningful ways that have the potential to nurture life-long lovers and supporters of the arts; meaningful involvement of faculty across disciplines, that can lead to a broader understanding and appreciation of the key importance of art and visual culture in civilizations and cultures throughout human history; and new ways of thinking about collections, including long-term loans from underused collections in larger museums, experimentation with new media in partnership with related university disciplines and resources, and the building of important collections in new areas not yet recognized by the major museums.

also read online through Google Books the full text of Managing University Museums By Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Melanie Kelly, Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education, Published 2001 by OECD Publishing. 200 pages. ISBN:9264195246. A support organization for college and university art museums is the College Art Association.

4. From Ellen Noël Art Museum news release dated August 24, 2005

5. AAM web pages accessed October 28, 2004 and April 17, 2008.

rev. 10/17/12


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