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Step 2: Identify Purpose, Needs and Resources

Your museum’s success depends on a solid vision, a clear purpose, adequate resources and community engagement.

Thinking About Starting a Museum? A Discussion Guide and Workbook on Museums and Heritage Projects (PDF, 37 pages) is an excellent, comprehensive resource for thinking through core issues related to mission, vision and community needs. The first section discusses the functions of a museum and the resources needed to operate one. The second section has a series of questions to evaluate goals and objectives, the community’s needs, and available resources. The third section offers over 50 alternative ideas for heritage projects that may achieve the goals without starting a museum.

Here are some of the types of questions found in the workbook, which can help you evaluate your goals and objectives.

Is there another museum that already has a similar mission?

Before investing in a new organization, you may want to consider sharing your collection and support with an existing institution.

Does your community want another/your museum?

You should consider whether creating a museum is the right path for you and the community you intend to serve. Will establishing a museum fill a community need? Will there be enough community support for the organization, be that from elected officials, private funders, potential audiences or other stakeholders? Consider assessing your community’s need through conversations with community leaders or surveys.

Do you have the funding and capacity to not only start but to sustain a museum?

Is there broad interest in your idea? Enthusiasm may be high at the beginning, but “in perpetuity” is a long time. Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning provides a good, basic primer of museum planning. It discusses the pros and cons of establishing a museum and shares insight on identifying the resources needed for your museum’s activities and operations.

Is a nonprofit museum the proper course for your vision?

As primarily educational entities, most museums choose to establish as nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations and apply for tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Organizations with 501(c)(3) tax status are exempt from federal taxes and contributions are deductible by donors for income tax purposes. There are legal and tax requirements for museums that file as 501(c)(3) organizations and understanding these implications will help you decide if a nonprofit organization is right for your goals. Nonprofit museums are not the only answer for preserving cultural heritage. The Community Toolbox shares some advantages and disadvantages of having nonprofit status and exemption. In addition, the American Bar Association makes available an article on alternatives to forming a charitable nonprofit.

Resources to Help You Identify Your Purpose, Needs and Resources

  • Starting a Museum: Advice from the Trenches: The Alliance’s Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) blog featured a post on one person’s first-hand experience starting a museum.
  • Start a Children’s Museum: The Association of Children’s Museums shares some resources on starting a children’s museum, which includes some FAQs and a list of networking and resource organizations. (PDF, 7 pages)
  • Science Center Planning: The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) offers resources and tips for planning a science center. The materials provide guidance in building a relationship with the community, preparing a case statement, developing a business plan, planning the facility and understanding learning in informal settings.
  • Starting a Nonprofit Organization: BoardSource provides a guide on starting a nonprofit organization that explains board roles and responsibilities and steps for getting started. The guide shares helpful resources, such as sample job descriptions for board officers and a bibliography (PDF, 38 pages).
  • Find Your State Association: The National Council of Nonprofits has 36 State Associations across the country. Connecting with these organizations is a great way to learn about starting and managing a new nonprofit.
  • Drafting a Purpose Statement: The Nonprofit Law Blog has a two-minute video on how to create a useful purpose statement in its Tips for Starting a Nonprofit.
  • Starting A Nonprofit Organization: The Society for Nonprofits offers some resources and FAQs on starting a nonprofit organization, which address fundraising, grants and donations.
  • Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning: This publication by explains the basics of museum planning and addresses the current issues facing new museums. Available for purchase from the AAM Bookstore.
  • Organizing Your Museum: The Essentials: This publication features practical information and advice that trustees, volunteers, and/or staff need to know about starting a museum and successfully managing every stage of its development. Included are sample bylaws, mission statements, long-range plans, job descriptions, collections management policies, and readings.

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