Who Decides the “Best Practices” in Museums?

October 10, 2019

Museums and museum professionals work towards making their programs, exhibits, and events successful based on best practices set for them to follow. I thought about writing on this topic when I saw a discussion on Twitter revealing their thoughts on paternity of best practices. When I hear the words “best practices”, the following questions came across my mind: What do “best practices” mean? How do we decide what the “best practices” are? Which ones should be followed, and which ones should not be followed? Do they work for my museum/institution?

The American Alliance of Museums stated that Best practices are commendable actions and philosophies that demonstrate an awareness of standards, solve problems and can be replicated. Museums may choose to emulate them if appropriate to their circumstances. In other words, there are many ways museums can demonstrate standards and are able to figure out which ones are appropriate for their institutions. As a museum professional, I noticed that best practices are continuously evolving as all museum professionals share and learn from one another what works based on the changing societal values. It is up to individual museums to figure out how to execute best practices that make sense for their museums.

Museums, however, do have best practices that each one should emulate that are ethical, legal, and equitable across the field. In the American Alliance of Museum’s Ethics and Best Practices in Museums document, it discussed general museum ethics and legal policies and practices while sharing its own best practices. According to the document, the American Alliance of Museums’ standards and best practices for museums in the United States require museums

  • is a good steward of its resources held in the public trust,
  • has “a formally approved, separate and distinct institutional code of ethics,”
  • is “committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and operations,” and
  • will “legally, ethically and responsibly acquire, manage, and dispose of collection items as well as
  • know what collections are in its ownership/custody, where they came from, why it has them, and their current condition and location.”

General best practices in museums could be applied to many museums. They can take the best practice and figure out based on local and state laws how they should be executed within the museum and their communities. When the best practices are specific to subjects and expertise (i.e. science, children’s, railroad, etc.) these institutions refer to other museum associations for resources on best practices.

There are numerous “best practices” museums utilize for their institutions, and various categories for best practices in museums. To answer a question of what the best practices are is a challenge to undertake. Many museum associations have their own list of best practices. On one of the American Alliance of Museum’s related webpages, for instance, they listed a number of museum associations that are specific to the field; the Association of Art Museum Directors, American Association for Museum Volunteers, American Association for State and Local History, American Historical Association, Association of Children’s Museums, Association of Railway Museums, Association of Science-Technology Centers, International Council of Museums, National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage, National Park Service, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, and the Southeastern College Art Conference. Each of them has their own lists of standards and best practices for museum professionals to use for their museums.

Professional development programs introduce best practices for specific fields and departments. Museum professionals learn about best practices implemented by other museum professionals in museum education, volunteer/internship, finances, development and fundraising, leadership, boards, and collection stewardship just to name a few. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), for instance, had a webinar on Best Practices for Developing History Internships that is available to be viewed since it is recorded. According to their website,

Best Practices for Developing History Internships is an AASLH Continuing Education recorded webinar. This webinar is about tips and strategies for creating an internship program that both you and your interns will get something out of. Creating an internship program at your historic site can not only benefit your organization, but should also benefit your interns and lets you help develop the next generation of history professionals. We’ll cover the ethics of internships, best practices for managing interns, and a look at some common challenges and possible solutions. You’ll leave with ideas you can use at every organization, no matter its size.

In each professional development program in various formats there are descriptions that share what participants should expect to take away from the experience and share with their museums; once this information is shared, it is up to the staff of the museums to figure out the best way for them to execute methods and practices discussed. The previously listed example pointed out that by creating an effective internship program all museums can create a partnership that will benefit both the museum and interns. Best practices need to be reviewed, adapted, and utilized by museums based on its capabilities.

Discussion questions I will leave here: Do you have examples of best practices in museums that you have heard about? How are museums taking advantage of what they learned about best practices?

Resources and Additional Resources:

https://www.nemanet.org/files/3413/8552/9233/Standards_and_Best_Practices_Compilation_-_Fact_Sheet.pdf

https://aaslh.org/event/best-practices-for-developing-history-internships/

https://iowaculture.gov/sites/default/files/History%20-%20Research%20-%20Collections%20-%20Collections%20Care%20-%20Objects%20-%20Field%20Guide%20for%20Museums%20%28PDF%29.pdf

https://www.amazon.com/National-Standards-Best-Practices-Museums-ebook/dp/B004EEOLU8

https://ncac.org/resource/museum-best-practices-background

http://ww2.aam-us.org/resources/ethics-standards-and-best-practices/standards

https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/BRIEF-ETHICS-AND-BEST-PRACTICES.pdf

https://www.aamg-us.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/AAMG-Professional-Practices-2018-web-FINAL-rev043018.pdf

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