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Celebrating 50 Years of Museum Excellence

Category: Museum Magazine
Clockwise from top: Charles Buckley, Weldon D. Frankforter, and Richard Grove in a working session of the Accreditation Committee of 1968–1970; Todd Smith, Evans Richardson, James Gilson, Amy Bartow-Melia, C.J. Roberts, Rebekah Beaulieu, Jill Hartz, Kenneth Schutz, and Lourdes Ramos in 2019; Arthur H. Wolf, Thomas Livesay, Lonnie Bunch, James Peterson (front), Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Jessie Otto Hite, Martin Sullivan, and James Welu in 1999; James Welu, James Peterson (back), Arthur H. Wolf, Leslie Bowman, Martin Sullivan (front), and Irene Hirano in 2002.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

AAM’s Accreditation Program and Museum Assessment Program demonstrate the field’s commitment to growth and improvement.

In June 1971, 16 museums became the first institutions to be granted accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums. This was the culmination of almost five years of study and development but also a milestone in a process that had begun in 1906. That year museum directors gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to found AAM and initiate what has become a more than century-long discussion about developing museum standards and measuring museum performance.

Today, 50 years later, 1,095 museums are accredited, and the Accreditation Program—stewarded by AAM on behalf of the field—continues to serve as the nation’s primary vehicle for quality assurance and self-regulation in museums of all sizes and types.

AAM Museum Accreditation is a widely recognized seal of approval that acknowledges museums for their commitment to excellence, accountability, and high professional standards. It indicates that a museum fulfills its mission and public trust responsibilities, has shown itself to be a good steward of its resources and is committed to excellence in museum operations and continual institutional growth.

From its inception, the Accreditation Program has maintained several important features:
It assesses how well each museum achieves its own stated mission and goals and meets the standards and best practices within the context of its type, resources, and other unique factors.

  • It employs a standardized process of self-study and peer review that incorporates multiple perspectives to ensure balance and fairness.
  • It draws on the collective wisdom of the museum field, including participating museums, peer reviewers, and the Accreditation Commission.
  • It is voluntary, collaborative, and confidential.
  • It is accessible and applicable to a diverse range of museums.

1967–1971: From Idea to Reality

The creation of accreditation and standards by which to evaluate museums was driven in part by the fear that if the museum field did not do this for itself, some other entity would—a far less desirable situation. The field needed to define its own measures of success. This premise was captured in a statement in Museum Accreditation: A Report to the Profession, published by AAM in 1970:

Accreditation—the establishment and maintenance of professional standards and the qualitative evaluation of organizations in the light of those standards—has long been recognized as proper for professional associations. Thus, a profession is judged by criteria selected by its own members, rather than requirements imposed by some outside force; and thus, institutions large or small, formative or long-established, are provided with carefully considered guidelines for judging their own success. It is through accreditation, therefore, that ethical and conscientious institutions may be identified.

… A principal reason for accreditation, therefore, is to make crystal clear to the public that museums recognize and accept their common goal and that they seek to achieve it by adhering to attainable professional standards of quality and performance.

Plans for museum accreditation began in earnest in 1967 when U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson asked the U.S. Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities to conduct a study of the status of American museums and recommend ways to support and strengthen them. The council enlisted AAM’s assistance, and in 1968 it established a committee to study an accreditation program for museums.

Based on AAM’s input, on November 25, 1968, the council issued America’s Museums: The Belmont Report, which stated, “It is urgent that the American Association of Museums and its member institutions develop and agree upon acceptable criteria and methods of accrediting museums.”

One year later AAM approved a resolution authorizing an Accreditation Committee to define the methods for establishing an accreditation program. On June 4, 1970, the committee presented Museum Accreditation: A Report to the Profession, which outlined the basic principles and framework for AAM’s museum accreditation program.

  • Based on all the previous studies, the program was created to:
  • Ensure self-regulation and quality assurance
  • Develop public confidence in museums by the public, policymakers, and donors/funders
  • Advance the argument that museums are bona fide educational organizations deserving of public support
  • Give private donors and governmental agencies an expert opinion as a basis for qualitative judgment in approving requests for support
  • Certify professional standards being met
  • Increase professionalization of museums and staff
  • Recognize excellence (“Promote institutional self-confidence and professional pride”)
  • Strengthen professional respect and cooperation among museums

1972–1985: Creating, Growing, Adjusting

The next 10–15 years of the program focused on growth and refining and developing administrative processes and policies based on lessons learned in the early years. The majority of museums that are accredited today entered the program in this period.

For museums not yet ready or eligible for accreditation, AAM created the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) in 1981 to help museums evaluate themselves without judgment in order to strengthen their operations and better meet standards. In the past 40 years, nearly 7,000 assessments have helped over 5,000 small and midsize museums of all types benchmark themselves against standards and best practices; identify their strengths and weaknesses; and better align their activities, mission, and resources. Even some accredited museums choose to participate in MAP before reaccreditation to get a “checkup” or focus on a particular issue.

Since its inception, MAP has been administered by AAM and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). “The partnership between IMLS and AAM to implement the MAP program was groundbreaking when it began 40 years ago and has now become a foundational experience for supporting individual museums’ operational excellence and setting benchmarks for the field,” says Laura Huerta Migus, deputy director of the IMLS Office of Museum Services. “Beyond the incredible number of museums participating in MAP over four decades, another significant achievement of the program has been its responsiveness and adaptability—both in the development of new modules to better meet the ever-evolving capacity needs of museums and in innovations in delivery of the experience. The broad reach and continued vibrancy of the MAP program validates IMLS’ long investment in this partnership and in the field.”

MAP started out with one assessment that covered all areas of museum operation. Over the years, it has added and eliminated others and today offers five types of assessments, which are discussed later in this article.

1986–2006: A Focus on Standards

By 1990 the fast growth of the Accreditation Program’s first two decades began to level off. But one significant change happened in 1995 when noncollecting institutions became eligible for accreditation.

Meanwhile, accreditation standards were formally (and for the first time) articulated in 1996 as the Characteristics of an Accreditable Museum. These were strongly influenced by AAM’s 1992 landmark report, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, and emphasized that museums are educational entities, not just places where collections were displayed and stored.

In 1990, AAM also launched the MAP Public Dimension Assessment, whose development ran parallel to that of Excellence & Equity. (Over the past 20 years this assessment evolved into today’s Community & Audience Engagement Assessment.) MAP continued to grow, and in 2002 the Governance Assessment was introduced.
The standards used in accreditation were revised in 2005 and renamed the Characteristics of Excellence to impress that they were not exclusively for accredited museums but for all museums. These revised standards put additional focus on public trust and accountability (including transparency and ethics), risk management, financial sustainability, and community engagement. Shortly thereafter, the AAM Board of Directors approved them as the Standards and Best Practices for US Museums. Today, they are known as Core Standards for Museums.

2007–2017: Evaluating and Improving

As the Accreditation Program was approaching its 40th anniversary, it underwent a thorough self-assessment. Feedback from the field indicated that the process had grown cumbersome in terms of the time and volume of work required. However, the field felt strongly that the Accreditation Program should maintain its core structure of self-assessment and peer review, and that any changes should not reduce the standards or the rigor of the program.

In 2013–2014, after five years of “reinvention,” many program improvements were implemented, including a substantially shorter self-study for first-time applicants and a separate and shorter self-study for reaccreditation applicants. The overall length of the process was reduced by up to 50 percent, and the entirely paper process was replaced by a fully online submission.

2018–2021: Changes to MAP and COVID-19 Pivots

While the Accreditation Program was implementing the new changes to extremely positive feedback, MAP began one of the periodic self-evaluations that is part of its Cooperative Agreement with IMLS. Based on data gathered from prior participants to assess both satisfaction with MAP as well as its impact on museums over the short and long term, AAM spent more than a year updating the MAP Self-Study Workbooks and related program materials and resources for both museums and peer reviewers. For example, the assessment workbooks and activities now give more attention to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI), and more points of engagement with the peer reviewer were built into the process.

The Organizational, Collections Stewardship, and Community Engagement assessments all underwent this review and refresh—and the latter was renamed the Community & Audience Engagement Assessment. And the Governance Assessment, which had been on hiatus since 2010, was completely overhauled to change its focus from governance basics to looking at the board from three perspectives—people, work, and culture. Rebranded the Board Leadership Assessment, its goal is to help museums identify opportunities to move beyond surviving to thriving.

In addition, the first brand new assessment in 17 years was developed: the Education & Interpretation Assessment was offered for the first time in 2019. Follow-up visits were also formalized, reuniting museums with their original peer reviewer to support implementation of their previous assessment recommendations.

As with the Accreditation Program retooling, the updated MAP maintained its hallmark structure of guided self-assessment plus a site visit by a peer reviewer. However, when COVID-19 struck in March 2020, the Accreditation Program and MAP had to quickly pivot like the rest of the museum field. To maintain museums’ momentum in these processes, the programs shifted to virtual site visits. This was a big deal because in-person site visits have been an integral and critical aspect of both programs since their inception.

While not ideal, there were some positive aspects that emerged that have already been adopted to add efficiency and value to the in-person experience. For example, doing some Zoom meetings with staff or the board either ahead of the visit or after leaving the site, or virtually attending a staff or board meeting or program, can lighten the load and intensity of the days on-site for everyone and offer peer reviewers additional opportunities to get to know the museum.

What’s Next?

In alignment with AAM’s new strategic plan and to help museums address the issues they are facing, the excellence programs and their underlying standards and ethics are being evaluated with a diversity and equity lens. This DEAI focus will also extend to skill-building for the peer reviewers who conduct the MAP and accreditation site visits.

A rising tide lifts all boats. When museums commit to striving for operational excellence in mission fulfillment, the field demonstrates its professionalism and integrity—and the public and policymakers deem them worthy of their support and trust.

Other Excellence Programs

The Accreditation Program and Museum Assessment Program are part of the larger Continuum of Excellence that includes the following AAM and non-AAM supporting and pipeline programs that have been developed over the past decades.

Core Documents Verification
Core Standards for Museums
AAM Code of Ethics for Museums
Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (administered by American Association for State and Local History)
Collections Assessment for Preservation (administered by the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation)
Association of Zoos and Aquariums Accreditation Program

Why Do Museum Boards Value Accreditation?

Accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums is a wonderful testament to the work and life of Pearl S. Buck past, present, and future. This high-profile peer validation supports the credibility and value of Pearl S. Buck International and our mission. It fosters our organization’s growth by bringing national recognition and prominence to the historic grounds of Pearl S. Buck. Today more than ever, we need to communicate and deliver on Pearl’s mission of equality, diversity, and inclusion. By bolstering our public view and incorporating the AAM accreditation into our branding strategy, we expect to further strengthen and expand the reach of our programs and services to existing and new audiences.
— Statement from Pearl S. Buck International Board of Directors

Since the museum’s inception, it has been a priority of the Long Island Children’s Museum (LICM) Board of Trustees to maintain a high standard of excellence in everything we do. Becoming accredited demonstrates to our visitors, our funders, our community, and our peers that we follow best practices and work hard to be an exemplary museum. The accreditation process enabled both board and staff to take a deep look at our institution and address areas that needed work; it was a wonderful way for board members to learn more about LICM and brought board and staff together.
— Roni Kohen-Lemle, Chair
Board of Trustees
Long Island Children’s Museum

Museums are an essential part of American life and continue to play a critical role in their communities. It is of central importance to us as trustees to know that we are meeting the best practices and standards of the field in fulfilling our commitment to our communities and our public accountability to excellence. Accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums provides us with this knowledge. There is no higher or more meaningful standard.
— Kathy Dwyer Southern, President Board of Trustees, Biggs Museum of American Art

In 2018, the Filoli Board of Directors launched a new strategic vision to ensure we provided our community and visitors with broad and equal access to our organization. One of the tenets of this plan is “organizational excellence.” Accreditation through the American Alliance of Museums not only requires us to be transparent in our processes and operation through peer reviews, but it helps us to ensure we are accurately representing and living up to our intentions. AAM verification also helps to inspire the confidence in our membership to recognize Filoli as a leader in the museum industry.
— Statement from Filoli Historic House & Garden
Board of Directors

The McFaddin-Ward House represents a substantial investment in our community—demonstrated by serving and culturally enriching this region of Texas. AAM’s Accreditation Program has provided our museum with the performance standards and best practices to measure on an ongoing basis the quality of our operation. We are grateful for the insightful reporting and supportive AAM staff that provides our board the assurance of continued national recognition and success.
— Leslie Wilson, President
McFaddin-Ward House


Museum Accreditation Program
Museum Assessment Program

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