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Museum Methods: a practical manual for managing
small museums and galleries
Starting a museum Section 1: Museum Management
1.1 Starting a Museum
This sheet raises a number of issues, including legal implications, buildings, collection management and financial
management which should be considered before setting up a museum or gallery. The information may also be helpful as a
checklist for groups already running a small museum.
What is a museum?
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as:
a non-profit making, permanent institution, in the service of a society and of its development, and open to the public, which
acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purpose of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of
people and their environment.
Museums range from small organisations run by volunteers to large institutions with paid professional staff. A good museum is
well planned and the people in charge have vision and an
understanding of all aspects of running a museum.
Museums are set up by specialist groups, historical societies, local councils, state and commonwealth governments or individual
enthusiasts. Usually, people want to set up museums for good reasons: they have a commitment to the preservation of cultural
heritage of a particular type or in a particular subject area. However, despite good intentions, a museum may not last if it is
set up in an ad hoc way, or if it duplicates existing museums in the same area.
Do you really need a museum to achieve your objectives? Planning is essential, and the first stage of this is to consider
whether establishing a museum is the best way to meet your objectives. Are there other similar museums already in the area?
Can the town sustain a museum? Will the museum have the support of the local council? It may become clear that the best
direction is to join with an existing museum or historical society, or
to set up a heritage, research or interpretation centre, rather than setting up a completely new museum.
Another way of promoting the heritage of an area is to adopt an open-air or living museum approach. This means that perhaps a
street, village, town or even a shire could be presented as a living museum. This has happened very successfully in Melbourne's
industrial north-west and in Broken Hill. The emphasis of a living museum is on encouraging appropriate restoration, presentation
and interpretation of the heritage items in the area.
What is involved in setting up and running a museum?
Once the above questions have been answered satisfactorily, it is time to consider the following issues:
Draft a statement of purpose outlining the concept behind the museum and concisely list its main objectives. Developing a
mission statement is also a useful exercise because it means really working through the concept behind the museum and developing a
simple statement which will convey this vision.
The next step is to develop a strategic plan which lists the
museum's objectives, and the strategies that will be used to meet them over the next three to five years. These documents will then
form part of the museum's constitution.
It is also essential to develop a collections policy outlining the type and range of material which the museum will collect. Some
museums choose to collect only material relating to their region or to a relevant theme such as mining, or to a broader issue, for
example women's history.
A museum should be set up as an incorporated association, company or trust to administer and take responsibility for the
organisation. Check, with the relevant bodies, the legal requirements that pertain to your state.
The building A number of functional considerations must be addressed -
whether establishing a purpose-built museum or setting up in an old or heritage building. Collections have certain storage and
display requirements, and objects can be harmed by fluctuations in temperature, by light and by insects. A custom-built museum
can allow for proper exhibition spaces, spaces for education
activities, disabled access, and for a properly balanced and
Many museums are set up in old or heritage buildings. These
buildings may - or may not - be suitable for museum use. Where a heritage building is clearly not appropriate, serious consideration
should be given to finding another site.
The following questions should high-light the main issues:
- Are the spaces inside the building satisfactory for display
purposes? - Is the building in the best location to attract visitors?
- Is it environmentally stable? - Will museum use of the building require inappropriate changes
that would reduce its heritage significance, eg removal of walls, new toilet facilities?
- Would the building be better presented as a heritage item in its own right? eg a flour mill as flour mill rather than housing locally
collected items. - Will development of the site compromise the building's heritage
Museums must have public liability insurance to ensure that visitors are covered in the event of an accident. Insurance to cover
the building and the collection is also strongly advised. If the museum uses volunteers, obtain volunteer workers insurance.
(See Museum methods sheet 'Legal concerns for museums and galleries'.)
Security Museum security is often overlooked, yet every year there are
thefts from museums. Factors which can make a building susceptible to burglary include poor locks on doors and windows;
skylights; and not having an alarm system. Objects which are unsecured, either on open display or in unlocked cases, can be
easily stolen, hidden in a handbag or large pocket. Planning security at the outset, and buying showcases which lock, can save
a great deal of heartache in the long term.
Where possible, it is desirable to have on-site caretakers either in
the building or on the grounds. They can perform many of the duties involved in running a museum and will often work in
exchange for free accommodation.
Museums are expensive to maintain properly and it is rare that
profits, from entry fees for example, will cover costs. Develop a business plan and budget for ongoing and staff costs. A museum
may be set up and run by volunteers in the beginning, but in the
long term a paid professional director, curator or education officer may be required. Many museums do survive on raffles, cake stalls
and other community fund-raising activities but often their activities - and opening hours - are very limited due to lack of
In some cases financial or in-kind support is provided by local government, so it is important to discuss the proposed museum
with the council. Limited funds are available for museums and moveable cultural heritage through state government programs.
However, these are very competitive and never provide total
funding. Information about grants can be obtained by contacting the arts ministries or heritage offices in your state.
There are many housekeeping tasks involved in the day-to-day running of a museum. Museums need to have an attendant at the
door to collect fees and/or to provide information to visitors, the collection must be documented, cared for and monitored regularly
for any signs of deterioration, and skilled people are required to develop exhibitions and public programs.
Small museums often rely on volunteers for most of these activities. However, volunteers do not have unlimited time, and
are not necessarily trained in a particular area. When planning for a new museum, consider the feasibility of employing a paid
professional curator or similar manager. Museum training can equip staff with a range of skills from cataloguing through to
exhibition development and fabrication.
A museum cannot display all its objects, all the time. In fact, even with adequate space, constant display can result in the
deterioration - or even destruction - of some objects. Separate storage areas must be planned for at the beginning; these do not
have to be high-tech or expensive. A controlled, uncluttered environment with little natural light is a good beginning. (For
further information see the Collection management and Preventive conservation sections of Museum methods.)
Collection management Collection management is the care and maintenance of the
museum collection. It includes providing adequate storage,
documenting objects as they enter and move through the
museum; ensuring that the museum has legal title to each object; caring for loan objects; monitoring the museum environment;
cataloguing the collection; and establishing policies, systems and
procedures for conservation, acquisitions and deaccessioning and disposal.
Establishing systems saves time and aggravation in the long run.
Museums which were set up without the benefit of legal documents covering donations can find themselves in a difficult
position if for example, the grandchild of a 'donor' demands the return of the silver tea-service which has been on loan to the
museum for the past 20 years. Without a deed of gift form or similar proof of ownership the museum i