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There have been some questions and comments lately on museum policies on
exhibits, standards, etc. So here it is a beautiful day and I am staying
in to write up Museum Science 101 notes. Hope this clears up some
The American Association of Museums defines a museum as follows:
"For the purpose of the accreditation program of the AAM, a museum is
defined as an organized and permanent nonprofit institution, essentially
educational or aesthetic in purpose, with professional staff, which owns
and utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the
public on some regular schedule." (_Museum Accreditation: A Handbook for
the Institution_, pp. 26-27. AAM, 1990)
Of course, a museum need not be accredited by AAM to exist, but it is a
good working definition as a place to start. (The definition for
non-collections based institutions, e.g. children's museums, science
centers, etc. which are primarily exhibits and education centers, is
slightly modified to recognize this distinction.)
"Organized" means, among other things, that the museum has all the
appropriate founding and governing documents: articles of incorporation
or charter, IRS documents, etc.....and the mission statement and
collections policy. This is important. Wake up, y'all.
The mission statement is the brief but descriptive summary of the
purpose, nature, and scope of the museum. It is hard-wired and takes
major effort to change or modify. If you are a paleontology-only museum,
you would say so here. The mission statement includes the museum's name,
governing authority, purposes for which the museum was established, scope
of the museum's activities and collections, and any other short but lofty
language that is needed. If you collect all the fossils in the world, say
so. If you specialize in certain taxa, geographic areas, time units or
whatever, say so.
This is not "standardized:" it has to be written for each museum and
approved by the director and the chair of the governing authority (NOT the
same person). But there are plenty of these out there to use as examples.
Having this gives you some real legal power in accepting or rejecting
donations and loans. You can honestly say that you would love to exhibit
Gramps' 10,000 flint flakes mounted to a plywood board in the shape of
the state of Oklahoma, but you are limited by your mission statement to, say,
dinosaur-related materials only. Conversely, if you ARE a dino-only
museum and you are exhibiting shrunken heads, bike chains and weird art,
your board has the right to call your behavior into question because you
are violating your mission.
With me so far?
The collections policy is also relatively short, hard-wired, takes a lot
of work to modify, is a legal founding document, etc. This sets the
institution's ability and practices for acquiring, lending, conserving,
and deaccessioning materials. It also sets the code of ethics for museum
staff and boards, defines conflicts of interest and lines of authority,
sets restrictions on access and use, and just generally acts as your
legal authority for owning collections. Usually it is not the museum
that owns the material: it is the governing authority, often acting on
behalf of the public trust.
Now beware. Public trust is not the same thing as public domain. You are
charged with providing the best possible care, use and access to
collections for the benefit of the public. You are NOT required to have
everything accessible to anyone at any time for any reason. That would be
highly irresponsible. Think about putting all your own possessions out on
a public sidewalk and expecting them to stay there, and I think you'll
see the difference. The point of stwardship is to manage things so that
they are maintained for public benefit at some level in perpetuity...not
first-come, first-served. That means that we manage collections for you,
the people you like, the people you hate, in memory of the people who
came before us and set up museums and collections, and for the benefit of
those little ingrates who haven't even been born yet. :-) Naturally that
means that there will be some restrictions and no open-access policy.
Museums are also not required to exhibit everything. In natural history
museums, where the number of specimens is frequently in the millions,
this is a blessing to everyone.
Collections policies are also not "standardized," but there are
guidelines for the essential elements. The Association of Systematices
Collections and the Society for the Preservation of Natural History
Collections have both published recommendations and guidelines for museum
collections policies. Ultimately, like the mission statement, the
collections policy has to be custom-written for the institution.
The collections policy will determine if you can accept long-term or
"permanent" loans; if you can assume the liability of exhibiting loan
material from other institutions; if you can make or accept loans from
private entities as well as public institutions, and, if so, what the
rules for both sides are; how you document and care for materials on
loan; and who is empowered to accept liability on behalf of the museum.
These will vary widely among institutions and you should never assume
that what is true at one will be true for the next.
If you wanted to exhibit a private collection of dino material at a
typical natural history museum, you should be prepared for the following:
*Be able to _prove_ that the material was collected and is owned legally.
*Pay for any appraisals you want done. It is a major conflict of interest
for a museum employee to conduct appraisals or to recommend an appraiser
(though they can have a list of several appraisers, they cannot recommend
one over another).
*Negotiate and agree in writing to all considerations of steps to be
taken in the event of preventable damage and loss.
*Negotiate and agree in writing to allocation of responsibilities for
transportation, handling, and return packing and shipping.
There is no transfer of title in a loan. The paperwork should specify
that you are the legal owner and have granted the museum some limited
powers of authority for care of the object for the duration of the loan.
Normally, the loan MUST have a specified end date. Long-term or
"permanent" loans are a pain for everyone. If what you want is long-term
storage of your collection, consider that this is expensive for the
museum and the museum has the right to say no, or to charge you for the
costs of staffing, conservation, documentation, and storage. Closed-date
loans or donations are a lot easier legally.
Many museums will work very hard with prospective donors to make sure
that they are publicly credited in perpetuity.
What level of access you as a public citizen have to collections will
depend very much on the museum's collection policy, your position in the
community and reason for wanting access, the sensitivity of the
specimens, and (to be honest) the way you ask. A museum is not a library,
though more and more are going that way with teaching collections and
kits that can be checked out. Common and acceptable reasons for limiting
access may include:
*The material has not yet been described or published, and someone is in
the process of doing so. And you thought that espionage was just limited
to industry. It is VERY bad form to lend out someone's research material.
*The material is fragile and either has not been or cannot be cast.
*The material is unique and either has not been or cannot be cast.
*The material is currently undergoing preparation or conservation
*The museum has no idea who you are. NEGOTIATE. This especially goes for
educators. There is a true renaissance in paleo-based education and not
all museums have twigged yet. Make your case. Be friendly. Come prepared
to show what your program will entail. Develop a consortium of teachers
and museum people. Ask the museum if it will consider creating a lending
program for teachers in return for providing and requiring teacher
training in paleo education. (THIS is FUN.)
*The museum has no idea what you do. Artists take note. Many places just
CAN't make loans to private individuals. See if you can use the material
in-house. Understand the museum's concerns. More than one person has made
pirated molds and later sold casts without the museum's knowledge or
permission. This happened to me: someone brought in a fossil cast
catalogue in which were advertised three of the skulls I did my thesis
on...and I KNEW that the museum had not given permission. Negotiate. How
will the museum benefit? I can't tell you the number of times that
someone has focused only on his own benefits with no consideration of the
museum's position, and then wanted to know why he can't seem to get any
cooperation. Most museum support is minimal, most positions have to be
justified annually, and many collections are at risk of administrative
abandonment. Good cooperation between the museum and community can turn
that around, but it takes good planning and diplomacy.
IMHO, the best way to get what you want (legally) from a museum is to
work there. Do you have the time to be a volunteer or docent? Can you
teach a weekend class? Are there field and lab training opportunities
that you can sign up for? Are there opportunities for sharing your
interests and expertise with the museum staff? You'd be AMAZED how many
doors these relatively simple activities will open. Up to and including
museum employment....and all of the hard-and-fast rules of a museum can
be slightly more flexible when they are being flexed to accommodate a
valued community colleague. A museum is often only as good as its level of
community involvement, which should be a warning to both sides.
Does that answer most of the basic questions? Hope so. The sun is out
and I'm going to the beach. More later.
Director, Collections Care and Conservation
Chair, SVP Outreach Committee
(also SPNHC Council and MAP/CAP museum surveyor)
| San Diego Natural History Museum |
| P. O. Box 1390 |
| San Diego, California 92112 USA |
| phone (619) 232-3821; FAX (619) 232-0248 |
| email LIBSDNHM@CLASS.ORG |