First steps towards creating a museum
Creating a museum is only one of many ways to celebrate, preserve, and share the stories and objects that form our heritage. Temporary displays, websites, learning resources, and community events can all contribute to the public’s understanding and appreciation of a topic or issue.
Before taking any steps towards setting up a new museum, you need to work out if it’s the right decision to take.
This ‘first steps’ guide asks you a series of questions. It is intended to help you make the right choice by:
- Outlining the key characteristics of the different options available to you
- Exploring whether you could work with existing organisations
You may want to revisit this guide as you work your way through the New Museum Toolkit. Even if you are clear about what you want, the information in this guide may help you to communicate your ambitions to potential stakeholders.
What do you have?
What is the starting point for your museum?
Is it a collection? A community? A specific audience need? A market opportunity?
All museums must have a good reason to exist, and anyone wanting to start a museum needs to have an awareness of their available resources. Use the examples below to work out the foundations of your new museum.
Are you trying to preserve a building of historic interest? This can often be a strong starting point. Buildings can be important because of its occupants, its architectural significance, or its role in the community.
Objects collected over time, whether by an individual, community, or special interest group, can form the basis of a collection. Collections are essential to the life of a museum.
Objects might have been collected as a result of changes such as the loss of an industry or a way of life. A responsibility for safekeeping comes with the decision to begin a collection.
You will need to decide whether gathering objects together will continue and whether you intend to keep them on a permanent basis. Take other organisations and museums into consideration when working out what and how to acquire objects.
Some collecting is constrained by legislation. For example, human remains and some forms of archives can only be held by organisations which have proper safeguards in place.
Photographs, documents, oral recordings, or films
Groups of original records can be considered to be an archive and can provide evidence of significant stories. Oral testimonies are a popular and evocative way of capturing people’s experiences, opinions, stories, language, and accents.
Stories and information about places and people
The best museums tell stories. Perhaps your community organisation has undertaken research and brought together documents and publications for local reference.
This can include:
- Genealogical indexes
- Copies of local reference material such as newspapers
Volunteers and community groups
You may have an existing group of dedicated individuals who want to encourage activity and strengthen the identity of a community. Commitment from volunteers with a range of skills will be essential to the success of a new museum.
Intangible cultural heritage
Remember: cultural heritage is not limited to artefacts. It also includes traditions and knowledge passed from generation to generation. Language, rituals, customs, performances, and traditional craftsmanship are all examples of intangible cultural heritage.
Maintaining and recreating intangible cultural heritage can create a sense of identity and continuity.
What do you want to do?
Once you’ve worked out what resources you have, you can decide what to do with them. We’ve outlined a number of options below.
Exhibitions or displays, both long-term and temporary, are the most immediate ways of presenting collections to the public. You can do this using objects, written material, photography, and sound.
This doesn’t necessarily mean starting your own museum. Your location and reputation are important. Collaborate with existing venues such as museums, libraries, local halls, or even shopping centres and pubs to reach wider and well-established audiences.
Interpret or tell stories
Think creatively about how you can tell the unique stories that you have at your disposal.
Your information could come from a variety of sources. This includes people who donate objects, have knowledge of the local area, have special expertise, or have access to academic resources.
The people, places, events, and objects in your collection need to come with interpretation. This could be anything from simple labelling of an exhibit to costumed tours and dramatic performances. Think about using interactive displays, digital apps, and public events.
Lending and borrowing
People starting out in the world of museums generally need a boost to their collections. To help tell more stories in your museum, supplement your collection with items owned by other people and organisations.
If you do need to borrow items, ensure you have written agreements which set out conditions for care and insurance. Some museums will only lend objects if you are an Accredited museum. Lending your own items to other venues can raise the profile of your organisation and its collections.
Preservation of heritage skills
Some time-honoured traditions would die out if it weren’t for the passion and effort of people who care about these heritage skills. Perhaps you want to help preserve cultural and traditional knowledge by keeping industries and ways of life alive.
Improving your knowledge of your museum’s collections can place you in a position of expertise. This knowledge can be shared online, in displays, or in publications.
Who is it for?
Museums do not exist in isolation. They are created to connect with other people. Think carefully about your resources and aims, and then work out who could benefit from them.
A common cause, interest, location, or building can bring people together and create a focal point for a community. The activities associated with this focal point – volunteering, staging events, temporary exhibitions, creating a meeting place, information sharing and fundraising – will all contribute to bringing people together.
Families are often looking for something to do together. Heritage projects, organisations, and museums are attractive as they are both fun and educational. This builds a legacy, as children who visit museums are more likely to involve their own families as adults.
Learning opportunities aren’t just for schools: it’s a lifelong project which is open to all ages.
Object-based learning can bring subjects to life in ways not possible in the classroom.
Make your resources available to both formal and informal learners, so that lifelong learners can also enjoy them.
Young people are important as an audience outside of formal education settings, too. They are generally community-minded, committed, skilled, and in search of new opportunities.
They can also bring new perspectives on how to do things.
Many individuals or groups are interested in having objects, research, or resource spaces for their own use. The community you are working with may not be local. Specialists, experts, and hobbyists from across the world can create strong networks and communities.
Heritage and culture are a vital part of Scotland’s tourism industry – stats from VisitScotland show exactly how important it is.
That said, there are a growing number of attractions competing for tourists’ time and attention. Most tourists will only visit a town or city for just one day. Think about how your attraction can be a part of a wider experience which encourages visitors to stay in your area for longer.
You also need to think about how long your project will be.
A two-or-three-year project can be short, sharp, and make a big impact on a community.
A mid-length project, lasting up to ten years, can build a research collection. It requires a greater commitment of resources and people.
A project that lasts over twenty years will require long-term planning and commitment to ensure that objects can be enjoyed for future generations.
Identifying what you have, what you want to do, and who you want to do it for will have helped you establish the reasons for your project. You are now ready to explore the various options that could help you realise it.
This isn’t an exact science and there is a lot of crossover between different models of heritage projects. We’ve outlined a few of the main options to help give you an idea of what you might be aiming for.
A community archive is a group of documents or other records (such as photographs, film. and sound) brought together by people who share an interest in their community and how it developed. They are unique in providing a way for people of all backgrounds and ages to meet, talk about what they have in common, develop new skills, and capture stories that would otherwise be lost.
- It provides varied and interesting material.
- Archives bring community focus.
- Support networks around the nation are available for such projects.
- They are easy to make available online.
- You need a secure space to store and archive collections.
- Develop a website or set aside desk space for research purposes.
- Such projects tend to involve medium-term commitment.
Events are the life blood of some communities. They often mark key events in the calendar of an area or people. Events allow people to come together to celebrate, explore, and reinterpret their heritage in creative ways.
- One-off events do not require you to maintain a building or collection.
- It offers focus on one activity or story.
- Events come with the potential for partnerships and creativity.
- They have a wide variety of audiences, from local communities to visiting tourists.
- Establish whether you need public liability insurance.
- Consider creating an archive as a by-product of the event.
- You can choose between making it a profitable event of keeping it just for heritage purposes.
- It is a short-term commitment.
Exhibitions can take on many different forms and take place in a variety of locations. Some exhibitions take place online or on advertising hoardings, while others allow communities to decide which objects and stories to include.
Partnerships with existing venues provide access to an established audience and can bring venues and objects to life in new ways.
- You aren’t in charge of maintaining a building: you just provide the items.
- You can focus on doing the things that interest you.
- There is the potential for partnerships with established organisations.
- You don’t necessarily need a collection.
- Exhibitions can give you lots of creative freedom.
- Make sure that your venue is secure.
- If you loan items for the exhibition, ensure you have a thorough loan agreement.
- It’s a short-term commitment, but agree in advance how long the exhibition will last.
Heritage centres differ slightly from museums and galleries. These are spaces with interpretative media, often used to share information and stories about a place and its communities.
Think of them as a useful orientation point, an introduction to an area, and a hub for community activities. A heritage centre may have a few objects, but it does not generally have ownership of a collection in perpetuity.
- The focus in heritage centres is on stories, instead of collections.
- There are no collections to look after, manage or store, but you can still bring them in.
- Heritage centres can help to regenerate a historic building.
- These aren’t suitable for preserving artefacts long term.
- You need to operate and maintain a building.
- These require medium-to-long-term commitment.
Museum or gallery
Museums come in many shapes and sizes. Although they commonly take the form of a traditional building with rooms of exhibition cases, there are a growing number of museums with innovative and unconventional designs. Examples of new approaches include mobile, digital, and hybrid museum spaces.
Read our Big Question to work out if museums are right for you.
- Museums and galleries are an established and widely understood model for heritage projects.
- The Accreditation Standards creates a benchmark for museums to work towards.
- Museums come with establish support networks.
- Collections can bring stories to life.
- Caring for collections takes responsibility and significant resources.
- You will be entering a competitive field – there are many museums already in existence.
- It often takes ten years or longer to be fully established.
- Historic buildings offer poor environments for collections.
- These are long-term commitments as you are agreeing to care for collections in perpetuity.
Research services enable people to engage with or commission research. They often hold large volumes of records or publications which relate to a particular subject or geographic area. These records are often duplicates of primary material held elsewhere.
Some research services are operated by individuals as a private business, while others are branches of larger organisations such as army regiments.
- If you are using collections held by others, there is no building to maintain.
- You can focus on your own subject specialism.
- It quickly generates expertise.
- Research services sometimes lead to the unintentional and ad-hoc acquisition of objects.
- They can lack focus if the business model rests on accepting research commissions from other people.
- It’s a short-term commitment.
Whether your dream heritage project is a museum, community archive, or other model, it can be achieved by working in collaboration with others.
There are many community heritage organisations and museums already in existence, a limited number of people available to visit them, and increasing competition for money and resources.
Before you start a new initiative, you need to consider whether you could achieve better results by working in partnership with an existing group or organisation. The first step is to find out what’s already going on.
Who gets involved
Be open about what you want to do – it helps to get people on your side. At this stage you should cast a wide net to identify those with similar or overlapping ambitions. Make contact with existing museums, museum forums, tourist bodies, visitor attractions, and community organisations to find out what is already happening and whether your ideas align with theirs.
Museums Galleries Scotland has a database of Scottish museums and knowledge of associated organisations. Your local authority might employ arts, culture, or museum specialists who can provide initial advice.
- Partnership could be a win-win situation. The community, existing organisations and your project could all benefit from collaborating on ideas and resources.
- Make sure all parties have clarity of focus and are willing to compromise. Identify opportunities for all parties to benefit.
- Remember, the museum sector is a welcoming one, where people are passionate and provide good support networks.
- Calculate how much you could save in time and resources by working with established organisations.
- Clear and consistent communication is key.
- Partnerships need active management to stay on track.
Case study: Musselburgh Museum
Musselburgh Museum is a small museum run by and for the people of Musselburgh. The original objective was to open a museum in the Old Town Hall, a historic and iconic building in the town, but a more practical and achievable solution came in the form of an empty shop. It is run by the Musselburgh Museum and Heritage Group and is not currently an Accredited museum.
In their own words
We started out in the 1980s as Musselburgh Museum Steering Committee. There was no museum in the town and we wanted to recognise and show off our heritage. We felt that the right place for this would be the former Town Hall, an iconic building in Musselburgh.
Over the years we organised and mounted exhibitions of three to four weeks duration in the Old Town Hall on aspects of our history. These were highly regarded, very well attended and hugely important for us as they aided our objectives, kept the committee in the public eye and gave us credibility. All this helped us to prove our case to the local authority that there was a need and demand for a museum in Musselburgh.
The level of political support for our venture varied over the years. East Lothian Council commissioned an independent report to investigate the feasibility of establishing a museum, the outcome of which was positive. However, as the Old Town Hall was not considered suitable, alternative premises had to be found.
The tipping point came when a local councillor came up with the idea of re-designating a vacant shop from retail to a museum. East Lothian Council led the procurement process for the design consultants, involving us at every stage along the way. We then worked with them on all aspects of the design and fit out.
The Council supported us by funding the initial building work and for ongoing costs associated with the building. Our museum is entirely staffed by volunteers. We have a contract for services with East Lothian Council which covers all aspects of our partnership, including the requirement to open the museum on a minimum number of days a year.
Our new museum opened in 2011. We put on regular displays using our collection, supplemented by regular donations and loans from the public. We receive an enormous amount of help and support in kind from the Principal Officer and permanent staff of East Lothian Council Museums Service.
We are staffed by volunteers who open the museum, create the exhibitions and run the organisation. East Lothian Council support us with the building costs but we need to find funding for our exhibitions.
We have had success in the past with funding and have been awarded an HLF grant for our forthcoming World War I exhibition. We have a small sales outlet in the museum but it doesn’t make much money.
We are most proud of…
Our museum! When you walk in it has a lovely feeling. We have a timeline, great storyboards, excellent lighting and display spaces and have really made the most of our small space. And people see it as theirs – it’s the museum for the people of Musselburgh.
Our advice for others
- Get the right support. In our case this was public support over a number of years and the right political support. It takes time but we are now regarded as a ‘little jewel in the council’s crown’ and other people come to talk to us to learn about what we’ve done.
- Don’t be afraid to start small. Our initial objective of having a museum in the Old Town Hall may still come to fruition, but for now we have something which is small but high quality and manageable – we can grow from here.
The Big Question
So you’ve examined the options available for setting up a new organisation and looked at the sort of activities you might want to undertake and the facilities you will need.
In some instances, the right decision for you might be not to set up a museum but to work differently.
Use the questions below to determine whether a museum, or a different model is the best for you.
If your answer is no, you might consider running events instead of opening a museum.
If you don’t, then a research service or digital collection might be ideal solutions for you.
If not, then consider partnering with an organisation which already has an established audience.
If you can’t commit for the long-term, then you might benefit from putting on a temporary exhibition instead.
If you have a collection, a display space, an audience, and the ability to commit to a long-term project, then a museum may be an appropriate solution.
We’ve compiled resources on all the different heritage models explained in this guide. They should give you some more ideas about what works for you.
- Community Archives and Heritage Group
- Community Archives Accreditation Scheme (Not to be confused with the National Archives Accreditation Standard)
- Oral History Society
- Scottish Council on Archives
Museum or gallery