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Museum Studies in the Twenty-First Century: Theory and Praxis (September): Museum Administration and Ethics

By Juilee Decker

Museum Administration and Ethics

What does the future of the museum look like—whether it takes shape metaphorically as a tomb, a laboratory, a supermarket, a temple, a forum, a veiled vault, or some other form? Much has been written about museum careers—two examples being Elizabeth Schlatter’s Museum Careers: A Practical Guide for Novices and Students and A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career, edited by Greg Stevens and Wendy Luke—though in recent years much of the discussion has shifted to online forums.11 This section of the essay focuses on museological instruction related to operations (administration, research, and collections care).

Timothy Ambrose and Crispin Paine’s Museum Basics (which first appeared in 1993 and is now in its third edition) is a basic guide to many aspects of museum work, from management to care of collections. The book is suitable for students and staff of smaller museums with limited resources. New to this edition is a companion website that includes essay questions and assignments, diagrams and slides. Mark Walhimer’s Museums 101 addresses characteristics of an “integrated museum”—one that has a culture and a personality that that serve as “a well-crafted form of communication with the visitor”—but also looks at exhibitions and education, behind the scenes functions (fundraising, operations, collections care), and so on. A toolkit provides sample forms and guidelines on drafting a mission statement. A companion website is also available. Less guidebook and more primer, Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift, edited by Gail Anderson, gathers essays about the role of museums. This book provides helpful discussion of the history and theory of museums, but its significance lies in its benefit as a primer on leading ideas and essentials of the dialogue in the field.

Important prismatic approaches to museum administration can be found in Hugh Genoways and Lynne Ireland’s Museum Administration 2.0 (a revision of Cinnamon Caitlin Legutko’s Museum Administration), which includes pithy texts, diagrams, text boxes, and templates for applying the various principles. Though intended for classroom use, Museum Administration 2.0 is also a valuable resource for museum professionals. Also valuable is Heather Hope Kuruvilla’s A Legal Dictionary for Museum Professionals, a reference book covering intellectual property, corporate issues, and governance.

Management and collections care are critical areas of museum work, and hands-on experience (via internships and so on) will prove beneficial. Two important resources in this area will be useful guides to these endeavors: Samantha Chmelik’s Museum Operations: A Handbook of Tools, Templates, and Models and Basic Condition Reporting, edited by Deborah Rose Van Horn, Heather Culligan, and Corinne Midgett, now in its fourth edition. Chmelik offers procedures, tools, templates, and models for research projects—from conceptualization and data capture to analysis, recommendations, and sharing/dissemination. Six case studies inform the framing. Basic Condition Reporting addresses archaeological, ethnographic, and natural history objects and collections in addition to particular materials (paper, plastics, metals, ceramics, glass).

As with other disciplines, museums are guided by codes of ethics; in fact a code of ethics is a requirement for museum accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums.12 Several books offer advice, case studies, and methods for resolving ethical dilemmas. Distinguishing ethical issues from issues involving operational management, Sally Yerkovich’s A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics delves into ethical aspects of governance, leadership, collections (including repatriation and deaccessions), fundraising and income-producing activities, censorship and other controversies, and diversity and access. Gary Edson’s Museum Ethics in Practice centers on defining museum ethics; differentiating between social and professional ethics; and the value and importance of professional ethics. Edson includes valuable case studies, as does Bernice Murphy in her edited volume Museums, Ethics, and Cultural Heritage, which comprises thirty-four essays and appendixes that address ongoing work and the international commitment by institutions and individuals to museum ethics. As Murphy notes, discussion of museum ethics is no longer confined to “professional gatherings, academic teaching of museum studies, or seminars for those who work in museums. The professional conduct of museums has become mainstream news.” Finally, in her edited volume Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum, Janet Marstine argues for a “new museum ethics.” The essays in this volume position museums as spaces that promote social change.


11. Useful are Museum Junction http://community.aam-us.org and other online communities administered by professional organizations that serve museum professionals. In addition, a variety of museum jobs are available through databases such as Museum Jobs http://museum.jobs/ (email sign-in required), an initiative of Museum Hack (also an intriguing site).

12. Code of Ethics for Museums http://aam-us.org/resources/ethics-standards-and-best-practices/code-of-ethics.

Works Cited