This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Museum magazine, a benefit of AAM membership.
The stewardship of “excellence” by a diverse and dynamic coalition of museums can better equip the field to confront many of the most pressing issues of our time.
Over the past two years, the dedicated commissioners and staff at the AAM Accreditation Commission have been thinking deeply about the role of accreditation during what has been a profound moment of uncertainty, upheaval, and debate across the museum field. The landscape in which we undertake our work has been irrevocably altered.
From the disruptions brought on by the global pandemic to the social movements that have inspired a reevaluation of museums’ essential responsibilities, this moment has demanded we revisit some of the core principles that have supported the Accreditation Commission’s work for the past half century. “Why does accreditation matter?” and “What is its future?” are questions we have been challenged to confront with a renewed sense of urgency and collective responsibility.
Our Brain Trust
When reflecting on the significance of the Accreditation Commission and its mission, I’m reminded of the example set by a young museum director at a culturally specific institution in the 1980s. This director assumed leadership of a museum that, even before achieving the distinction of accreditation, had a clear sense of its own institutional ambition and direction. Along with her board, she understood how the work required to obtain accreditation might reflect the museum’s commitment to its audiences and the objects in its care. She knew how important the accreditation effort would be as the museum signaled, to audiences across the globe, its dedication to pursuing the highest standards of museological practice.
That institution, The Studio Museum in Harlem, led at the time by the visionary Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, became the first culturally specific museum granted accreditation in the United States and would grow to become a preeminent site for art and artists of African descent. But even before that museum’s reputation was cemented for a global audience, Dr. Campbell understood the incredible value a culturally specific organization such as the Studio Museum would bring to the network of accredited museums all over the country and our ever-evolving sense of what “excellence” should look like in the museum field.
Since that time, the accreditation community has grown. The Studio Museum is no longer the sole accredited culturally specific institution, and the number of museums participating in AAM’s accreditation and excellence programs grows every year.
Here at the Accreditation Commission, we have a unique view into the many forms of cross-institutional support and ingenuity that have fed the resiliency of so many of our country’s museums during this period of upheaval. We have seen, up close, how the field’s collective wisdom has helped museums plan and shape their futures. The examples are abundant. The insight these institutions bring, not only to their own communities but to the field as a whole, is critical to understanding what will be required of our museums in the years and decades ahead.
These innovations will need to continue to guide and shape the standards, best practices, and ethical commitments that define our work. One of the things I find most inspiring about AAM’s accreditation and excellence programs is the way they represent a brain trust—a repository of the field’s hard-won wisdom. This creates ground coverage for further innovation in the field and ensures a sense of mutual accountability as we individually and collectively plan for our future.
The standards and best practices that are measured and articulated by the Accreditation Commission are the result of a growing community of experts and institutions that will give us new insight into how to approach our work in a new century. As we learned in AAM’s 2017 report, Facing Change, strong communities are strengthened by a firm commitment to meaningful diversity. By committing ourselves to the growth of a more diverse and equitable field—and, by extension, a more diverse network of accredited institutions—we are also making explicit our commitment to a more dynamic understanding of museological “excellence.”
A Commitment to Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue
Museums, we all know, are central to the civic life of this country. They serve as stewards of history and critical sites of learning. Today, the pedagogical character of our work offers us a unique opportunity to bridge theory and practice.
In the next century, a museological practice grounded in diversity and reliant on intercultural dialogue will help us keep pace with the momentum of our country’s progress and change. This work can no longer be thought of as an appendage to museological practice but rather a core animating principle that will make our museums smarter, more fair, and less hesitant when called upon to justify the public trust that has been placed in our hands.
Looking ahead, the museum field will need to maintain its commitment to accreditation and continue to invest in the processes by which we articulate our field’s core standards and best practices. These are the habits and beliefs that will remind us of our essential character.
The country’s recent past has shown me and my colleagues at the Accreditation Commission that the stewardship of “excellence” by a diverse and dynamic coalition of museums can promote a greater sense of mutual accountability and better equip the field to confront many of the most pressing issues of our time. We still have work to do, but the Accreditation Commission is committed to expanding the body of accredited museums to better reflect the immense diversity and institutional excellence that exists among museums in this country.
There is a tension that lives at the heart of the accreditation: Why appeal to “standards” in a world that is changing almost as rapidly as we can perceive that change? Why commit to “excellence” if it remains a moving target? This tension, I believe, can be generative. It can fuel our work as innovators and museum professionals committed to a better world. It can, as Dr. Campbell understood, help us chart our collective future, while we signal to our public the immense value of their trust.