As a prerequisite to accreditation, museums must submit five Core Documents for verification, a set of plans and policies considered fundamental to professional museum operations, values, and practices. As of now, this includes documents related to areas like mission, ethics, and collections management—but nothing specific to education.
For some time now, museum education leaders have suggested this should change, that museums should be required to codify their educational polices to receive the mark of excellence. They argue such a requirement would legitimize the essential education role of museums, as defined in AAM’s landmark 1992 report Excellence and Equity, in a national context where the importance of that role has become only more apparent.
That context relates to the issue of public trust. Gallup polling shows that Americans have grown increasingly skeptical of institutions over the last four decades, including the media, public schools, elected officials, and even places of worship. On the other hand, numerous studies have shown that the public does regard museums as worthy of trust. A 2001 study cited in Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums found that 87 percent of Americans find museums to be trustworthy. Another national public opinion poll from 2017 found that 97 percent of Americans recognize the educational value of museums. Remarkably, in an age of partisanship, this faith in museums holds steady even across partisan lines: 99 percent of self-identified liberals and 98 percent of self-identified conservatives believe in the educational power of museums.
With this power comes an incredible responsibility, as well as the ethical and moral imperative, to do what we can to maintain this high esteem and this extraordinary degree of public trust. In particular, if 97 percent of Americans believe that museums are educational, then every museum has the responsibility to articulate its specific educational policies and practices—which is where a core document requirement could come in.Skip over related stories to continue reading article
In 2018, AAM, in conjunction with its Education Professional Network (EdCom), created a task force to explore whether there should be a core document specific to education required for museum accreditation. The task force was charged with determining if a) the museum field at large supported such a requirement, and b), if so, what museums should include in such a document. Nearly two years later, the task force has completed that survey and developed a set of recommendations.
To the first question, “Should there be a sixth core document?”, the answer was an overwhelming yes. The vast majority (77 percent) of the nearly one thousand museum professionals who responded to a survey agreed, and only 4 percent disagreed (see the full results here). These respondents came from diverse institutional backgrounds in terms of their focus—spanning history, art, science, cultural, children’s, and natural history museums, in addition to botanic gardens, zoos, aquariums, libraries—as well as their geographical location and the size of their budgets and staff. Their roles were equally diverse, ranging from executive director, to educator, to curator, to exhibition designer, to finance, to visitor services, and more. At the convening of the task force at the AAM Annual Meeting in May 2019, the vote was unanimously in favor of recommending a sixth core document.
To the second question, “If there is such a document, what should be included?”, more than 80 percent of the respondents indicated that core beliefs, connection to the organizational mission, strategy, a focus on DEAI (diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion), identifying core content, sharing evaluation plans, and key messages were of fundamental importance.
On other components, however, the responses were mixed. This is partly because the field does not have a clear consensus on the language around these plans. Some institutions have “education plans.” Some have “interpretive plans.” Others suggest “audience engagement plans,” to capture more accurately the scope of what education has come to mean in the field. This reflects the perspective that education is not limited to overseeing field trip programs for students, but rather encompasses the broad work of museums as a whole—including public programs and events, interpretation of objects, and exhibition development, along with other institutional undertakings that happen both in and beyond the museum. Ultimately, how this work is both defined and carried out varies widely from institution to institution.
What is consistent, however, is the opinion that the work of education should be central to the work of the museum, should produce a public benefit, and—with the addition of a sixth core document—should be expressly stated as part of the accreditation process. If such a document were to be included as part of the accreditation process, what information would be included? The task force, based on responses to the survey and careful analysis of more than seventy existing plans, has made the following recommendations.
Proposed Elements of an Education Focused Core Document
Education Plan Core Document Requirements
- Connects to the organizational mission, vision, and strategic plan and articulates core beliefs around learning.
- Identifies audiences served and potential new/under-served audiences, with focus on DEAI objectives.
- Makes explicit connection between audience and programs.
- Clearly outlines core content and goals and objectives/desired outcomes of education efforts/public engagement.
- Includes measurement against objectives and describes evaluation.
- Organizational accountability (structure for who is responsible for which pieces of the plan).
The next step in this process is to get feedback from the broad museum community. We ask you to take a few minutes to read the report and to fill out this survey. After we take in feedback and make potential edits, the proposal for a sixth core document will go to the AAM Accreditation Commission and eventually the AAM Board for consideration. After that? The work begins to create additional resources and training opportunities to help museums of all sizes work on creating their own core documents around education.
 American Alliance of Museums, Museums and Public Opinion: Summary of Findings from National Public Opinion Polling (Arlington, VA: American Alliance of Museums, 2018).