Introduction to starting a museum
Museums Galleries Scotland has a long tradition of offering advice and helping new museums to get on their feet. We’ve compiled this toolkit to help you through the process of setting up a new museum or gallery.
This tool kit is also available as a download. It includes additional flow charts and checklists which you may find useful.
The first step is to work out whether setting up a museum is the right decision for you. It takes dedication and planning to build a sustainable and effective organisation. At the end of each page in this toolkit, we’ll ask you a Big Question to help you decide.
Museums are just one method of communicating your passion and sharing your ideas. Other options include temporary exhibitions and heritage initiatives. We’ll ask tough questions about the time, resources, and circumstances needed for your museum to thrive.
How the toolkit works
This toolkit consists of several guides which are all essential to creating and sustaining a museum. Although they have been written for a Scottish audience, their principles can be applied elsewhere.
The guides highlight issues you may need to be aware of and point you towards the right support. The Big Questions at the end of each guide will help to keep you on track.
This toolkit is designed for you to dip in and out of as you plan what you need to do. You can also use it to review your progress and get guidance on your next steps.
We’ve sought to reduce jargon as much as possible. When we use museum-specific language to talk about concepts commonly used in the museum world, we explain what they mean in this glossary.
How it will help
The New Museums Toolkit is underpinned by the framework of the UK Museums Accreditation standard.
It will help you to:
- Decide if you want to create a museum
- Arrange your governance
- Manage your money
- Look after your visitors
- Look after your collections
What is a museum?
The definition of ‘museum’
Museums Galleries Scotland uses the definition as written by the International Council of Museums in 2022.
This states that a museum is:
“a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”
Throughout the guides in this toolkit we’ll be referring to both museums and non-commercial galleries using the umbrella term of museum.
The underpinning standard for museums in the UK is Museum Accreditation. Museum Accreditation is designed to support and help museums keep a track of the full range of their work. It helps them focus on the things that matter.
The system assesses museums against
- How they are run
- How they manage their collections
- The experience for visitors
Not every museum requires Museum Accreditation, but it does offer a useful framework for assessing where you are and where you are going. It may seem daunting to make your museum eligible, but you can adjust the requirements according to the size and type of your museum.
This toolkit will help your museum meet the standards for accreditation.
What you need to know
- Museum Accreditation a UK-wide partnership which is managed in Scotland by Museums Galleries Scotland.
- It’s voluntary – you can still call yourself a museum without achieving the standard.
- There is no charge to take part.
- All museums can take part, from tiny community collections to huge national establishments.
- The Accreditation scheme is owned and developed by the museum community, meaning that all applicants are assessed by a panel of peers.
- Once you are accredited, more funding becomes available to you.
- Working towards Museum Accreditation unlocks other support, including a Museum Mentor for independent museums that do not employ professional members of staff.
Benefits of Museum Accreditation
Museum Accreditation provides a quality standard that serves as an authoritative benchmark for assessing performance, rewarding achievement and driving improvement.
It raises awareness and understanding of museums. It builds confidence and credibility both within the governing body and among the public.
It helps museums to improve their focus on meeting the needs of users. Accreditation also helps to develop a museum’s workforce.
Accreditation helps museums to examine their services and encourage joint working within and between organisations.
It helps with planning by formalising procedures and policies.
Accreditation demonstrates that a museum has met a national standard. This strengthens applications for public and private funding and gives investors greater confidence in the organisation.
Eligibility for Accreditation
In order to be eligible for Accreditation, a museum must:
- Meet the Museum Association’s 1998 definition of a museum
- Hold a long-term collection of artefacts
- Have a formal constitution
- Provide two years of relevant accounts
- Meet all relevant legal, ethical, safety, equality, environmental and planning requirements
- Be committed to forward planning to improve the service for users
Museums exist in a very competitive environment. There are many hundreds of established museums, all competing for diminishing public funding and a finite audience.
Why museum initiatives fail
1. The wrong aims: A museum can fail when it is trying to be something that it is not. Sometimes, an idea or initiative can cause issues when constrained by the responsibilities of a museum format.
2. Poor business model: Although museums are for the good of society, they still need a robust business model. A weak model means that museums do not effectively address key challenges.
Business models fail when they do not:
- Create an appropriate governance model
- Maintain a tight control over finances
- Attract enough visitors
- Keep track of collections
3. No structure or commitment
Museums flounder when the people involved do not have the ability or procedures in place to work together effectively. This affects a museum’s capacity to take informed decisions, deliver the right activities, and gain the support of stakeholders.
The New Museums Toolkit will address all of these potential problems. We’ll give you an idea of all the right decisions you need to make along the way.