A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment.
Museums are part of an international community. They voluntarily abide by commonly held ethics and standards and are governed with professionalism, accountability and in accordance with all applicable laws. There are both private and commercial ventures that use the name “museum,” but most museums, and certainly those that receive public funding, are not-for-profit organizations. Museums join provincial, national or international associations which provide support and resources to their members and act as a voice for the museum community.
THE PUBLIC TRUST
The public trust is the guiding principle of all public museums regardless of their size, type or operating budget. It is the legal concept that binds the museum to act in the best interests of society and it is executed in three ways:
1. GOVERNANCE generally falls to a board of directors elected from the museum’s membership. It is the legal and administrative processes involved in managing a not-for-profit organization. This includes defining what the museum does, who operates it and how they are held accountable through documents such as Mission Statements, Bylaws, Constitutions and Policies.
2. FIDUCIARY RESPONSIBILITY is the duty of the board to ensure the museum’s long-term sustainability and responsible and accountable financial management. It is also the personal responsibility of directors to act accountably and honestly.
3. PUBLIC OBLIGATIONS are the museum worker’s responsibilities to serve the public and its interests, present and future, especially in respect to the collections’ care and access.1
The museum relies on its board of directors to provide leadership.
Board members attend and prepare for meetings, carry out the duties assigned to their position, act as ambassadors, and volunteer for committees and museum work. Directors give generously of their time and expertise because they have a passion for the museum and the community it serves.
WHAT IS THIS GOING TO COST?
When starting out, planning is most important. A feasibility study, community consultation and facility plan need to be developed at the start of your project. It is tempting to overlook this stage, but the eventual costs to the museum, in money, time and lost potential, will be much higher if the project is not properly planned.
Operational expenses are the everyday costs of keeping a museum open and are often overlooked in light of the project’s initial demands. They include expenses such as utilities, mortgage, rent or lease payments, maintenance, insurance, taxes, salaries, and benefits. A museum also incurs ongoing costs to manage its collection and for conservation, research, programs, exhibits and publications. Each of these areas requires spending on materials, equipment, contractors, administration and promotion. If the museum is a community priority, some municipal governments respond by providing funding to cover some or all of these expenses. In most cases, the museum covers its operational expenses through a complex and diverse arrangement of funding sources.
Museum planners point out that planning costs seldom exceed 1.5 per cent of project costs and should be viewed from the perspective that “the initial 1.5 per cent [is] spent to ensure that the remaining 98.5 per cent is well used.”
Initial funds for planning, consultation, building construction, acquisition or renovation, environmental controls, collections, exhibit design, furnishings, promotions, opening events, and so on, are often secured through a large-scale fundraising drive or from the founding members themselves. Generally, community members, businesses or local governments make generous one-time donations. Capital funding grants are sought and a building or collection may be donated or purchased at a low cost.
MAKING THE MUSEUM MATTER
Special projects, exhibits and events keep the museum exciting and should be included in its budget. A museum that is merely existing is not likely to remain open for long; the public will quickly lose interest if it is perceived that nothing ever changes or happens at the museum. Furthermore, special projects allow the museum to tell new stories, reach new audiences and to do different and interesting work.
A museum is a people intensive venture. Many museums operate primarily with volunteers. They are the museum’s most valuable resource but they require training and generate expenses for materials, equipment and administration.
The number and combination of staff and volunteers that the museum needs depends on the size and scope of its audience and work. Most museums find it difficult to operate without hiring at least seasonal staff. Others prefer to have paid staff all year. In-house skills are often complemented by contractors or consultants. At a minimum, paid staff will impact the museum’s budget through salary, taxes and benefits.
Finding the right people to work at the museum, with the appropriate training, skills and personality, is crucial. It is important that both paid and volunteer workers are engaged in current debates about museum standards and practices and have access to networking opportunities. Ongoing training and participation in the larger museum community is key to the museum’s success.
Collections are traditionally the foundation for the museum’s activities. Collections are the artifacts, objects and specimens held in trust by the museum, to study, preserve, exhibit and use in programming. Because the museum holds its collections in the public trust the buildings that house them and the methods with which they are cared for are special. Museum buildings need to be environmentally controlled and have space specifically designated for the exhibit and storage of their collections. Approximately two-thirds of the museum’s budget and 60 per cent of its space is consumed by collection related functions.6
The museum is responsible for protecting the collection from the damage that can result from contact with people, time, and the environment; for the legal management of the collection; and for the compilation and organization of related stories and information. The museum collects objects and their stories, and shares them with its community through exhibitions and programming and by making collections records, thematic research, local history and historical documents held in the museum’s collection available to the public.
The museum provides public access to the collection by maintaining regular visitor hours convenient for residents, travellers and school and community groups. The museum is staffed by paid employees or volunteers and is kept clean, pleasant and free from hazards. Washrooms, drinking fountains and other public amenities must be available. Picnic tables, food sales and rest areas add to the visitor’s experience. The museum facility and amenities should be accessible to visitors of all ages and abilities including those with special needs.
The museum helps visitors to enjoy and learn from its collections through exhibits, programming and research opportunities. These opportunities provide the visitor both physical and intellectual access to the collection. The museum recognizes that diverse publics require diverse ways to access information. Visitors of all ages and economic, religious and cultural backgrounds should be able to understand the museum’s messages. The museum’s role is not simply to show visitors the collection but to provide opportunities to become engaged by it.
MUSEUMS AND COMMUNITIES
The museum’s community is the public it serves and can be geographic, or identity or interest – based. The museum relies on its community to visit, to donate and to volunteer. In many cases, however, the number and variety of activities drawing on each individual’s resources is more than the community can sustain.
THINKING ABOUT STARTING A MUSEUM? A DISCUSSION GUIDE AND WORKBOOK ON MUSEUMS AND HERITAGE PROJECTS
By Crystal L. B. Willie
Executive Editor David Dusome
This publication is also available on the Web site http://www.museumsalberta.ab.ca.