Skip to content

Introduction to starting a museum

Overview

There are so many different ways to share the history and heritage of our communities, industries and places. This toolkit is designed to help you through the process of setting up a new museum or gallery.

Museums Galleries Scotland have a rich heritage of helping new museums get on their feet.

We love to support the development of museums and galleries and that's why we've compiled this toolkit - it's got all the different aspects of running a museum that you need to consider.

Big Questions

Before you even start, however, you need to work out if running a museum is for you. This guide to starting a museum makes you work out whether it's the right decision. At the end of each section we'll ask you a Big Question to help you decide.

There are other options for communicating your passion and sharing your ideas, whether that's a temporary exhibition or a heritage initiative. We'll ask tough questions about the time, resources and circumstances needed for your museum to thrive.

This toolkit brings together years of experience in advising and supporting museums, archives and other cultural heritage organisations. Whilst you may be passionate about sharing stories and objects with people, you will need to develop a similar tenacity and enthusiasm for business planning and the process of creating a sustainable and effective organisation.

This web version of the New Museum Toolkit contains images from the original document. These may refer to numbered sections of the full publication. Please download a copy if you wish to fill out these flowcharts.

Good luck!

How the toolkit works

This toolkit consists of several different guides, each of which are essential to creating and sustaining a museum. It has been written for a Scottish audience but the principles are transferable elsewhere.

We've sought to reduce jargon as much as possible. Where we needed to use museum-specific language to talk about concepts commonly used in the museum world we have explained them in the 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

Critical issues

Each guide within the toolkit covers some of the key components of starting a museum. It will signpost 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 keep you on track.

There is a wealth of information included - far too much to be absorbed at the start of a project. It is designed for you to dip in and out as you plan what you need to do. You can also use it to review your progress and for guidance on your next steps.

What is a museum?

The definition of 'museum'

Museums Galleries Scotland uses the definition as written by the International Council of Museums in 2007.

This states that a museum is:

A non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Throughout the many different guides that make up this tool kit, we'll be referring to both museums and non-commercial galleries using the umbrella term of museum.

Museum Accreditation

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

  • It's a UK-wide partnership, 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 museums community own and develop the accreditation scheme, so 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 a professional member of staff.

Benefits of Museum Accreditation

Performance

Museum Accreditation provides a quality standard that serves as an authoritative benchmark for assessing performance, rewarding achievement and driving improvement.

Profile

It raises awareness and understanding of museums. It builds confidence and credibility both within the governing body and among the public.

People

It helps museums to improve their focus on meeting the needs of users. Accreditation also helps to develop a museum's workforce.

Partnerships

Accreditation helps museums to examine their services and to encourage joint working within and between organisations.

Planning

It helps with planning by formalising procedures and policies.

Patronage

Accreditation demonstrates that the museum has met a national standard. This strengthens applications for public and private funding, as well as giving investors confidence in the organisation.

Eligibility for accreditation

In order to be eligible, 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

Potential problems

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

The wrong aims

A museum can fail when it is trying to be something that it is not. Everything is a struggle for these museums, because they would be better suited to celebrating stories and heritage in a different way, rather than constrained by the responsibilities of a museum format.

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

No structure or commitment

Museums flounder when the people involved do not have the right processes in place. Similarly, if a team are not committed to work effectively together then this leads to problems. It affects a team's capacity to take informed decisions, deliver the right activities or gain the support of stakeholders.

Here to help

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.

Perhaps a museum isn't right for you. Our guide to your first steps will help you with that decision. Visit the guide to running a museum for guidance on ongoing structures and business models.

The Big Question

This questions tests whether you will deliver benefit or value, working for the good of people now and for future generations. Ultimately, if an institution does not exist to benefit society at a wider level, then it does not count as museum.

Before starting a museum, this aim has to be at the centre of your planning.

Do you exist for the good of society?

 

Resources

Each section of the toolkit comes with a separate guide to online resources and different literature on the specific aspects of running a museum.

For guidance on accreditation, visit the Museums Galleries Scotland Accreditation page on the topic or head to the Arts Council England website.