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Legal Issues in Museums


*Please note that I am not your attorney, I am not giving legal advice, and there is no attorney-client relationship.

This article is far too short to give an overview of legal issues in museums. Rather this article seeks to raise awareness that there are a plethora of legal issues impacting a museum, and your museum, staff, and board need to be aware of this. Museum staff and boards should see the value in evaluating the legal implications of an action or inaction on a regular basis, crafting policies to ensure compliance with laws and seeking advice from legal counsel.

Museums run pursuant to legal and ethical restrictions. Legal issues arise on a daily basis, not just when the museum is involved in a lawsuit. Museums must follow state, federal and sometimes international laws. Legal issues that impact museums include non-profit, business, contract, tax, property, intellectual property, employment, insurance, art and cultural heritage law as well as a whole host of other laws.

Ethical guidelines, such as those promulgated by the American Alliance of Museums, also influence museums’ actions. While ethical guidelines are non-binding, they do indicate the industry standard and sanctions can be issued for those museums that fail to comply with museum organizations’ ethical guidelines.

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For more in-depth information on legal issues impacting museums, the following sources are helpful, and were used in crafting this article:

  • Marie Malaro and Ildiko DeAngelis, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books. 2012.
  • Patty Gerstenblith, Art, Cultural Heritage and the Law. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press. 2012.
  • Anne-Marie Rhodes, Art Law & Transactions. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press. 2011.

The Legal Issues in Museum Administration annual conference hosted by the Smithsonian and ALI-CLE is another resource to learn more about legal issues impacting museums.

While not every institution can afford in-house legal counsel, these resources and your legal counsel should provide a starting point for understanding some key legal issues impacting your museum. Some attorneys even offer pro bono (free) advice to non-profits if your institution cannot afford to pay for it. The important thing to recognize is that there are legal issues in museums, and that they need to be addressed.

Ms. Varner is an Attorney at Law, who has written multiple publications. She has lectured on issues impacting museums, cultural heritage, and arbitration. Ms. Varner is Executive Director of the National Art Museum of Sport. She also serves as Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

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