Leadership and Organizational Structure Standards

Good governance is the foundation that enables the museum to succeed. The effective operation of a museum is based on a well-functioning governing authority that has a strong working relationship with the museum director. Together, the governing authority and director set the direction of the museum, obtain and manage the resources needed for it to fulfill its mission, and ensure that the museum is accountable to the public. These expectations apply to all museums regardless of governance type, structure, or name.

Core Standards: Leadership and Organizational Structure

  • The governance, staff, and volunteer structures and processes effectively advance the mission.
  • The governing authority, staff, and volunteers have a clear and shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities.
  • The governing authority, staff, and volunteers legally, ethically, and effectively carry out their responsibilities.
  • The composition and qualifications of the museum’s leadership, staff, and volunteers enable it to carry out the museum’s mission and goals.
  • There is a clear and formal division of responsibilities between the governing authority and any group that supports the museum, whether separately incorporated or operating within the museum or its parent organization.

Professional Practices: Governance

In order to fulfill its basic responsibilities of nonprofit governance, the governing authority must:

  • Determine the organization’s mission and purposes
  • Select the chief executive and supporting and assessing his or her performance
  • Ensure effective organizational planning and adequate resources
  • Manage resources effectively (including exercising good stewardship of collections and historic structures, if applicable)
  • Ensure that the organization’s programs and services advance the mission
  • Enhance the organization’s public standing
  • Ensure legal and ethical integrity and maintain accountability
  • Recruit and orient new members of the governing authority
  • Assess performance of the governing authority
    For museums that have remote governance, these responsibilities may be spread out along a designated chain of command. In such cases, responsibilities must be clearly assigned to particular positions. For museums with joint governance, these responsibilities may be partitioned between different entities. See below.


As evidence that good governance practices are in place and to demonstrate that the museum is meeting the Core Standards, museums should have the following documents:

  • Mission statement
  • Institutional plan
  • Articles of incorporation, charter, enabling legislation or other founding documents
  • Bylaws, constitution, will or other documentation under which the museum is governed

If the museum has a parent organization, it should have documentation regarding the importance of the museum to the parent, expressing its commitment to support the museum (e.g., a resolution passed by the parent, parent organization’s bylaws or organizing documents, memorandum of understanding or management agreement between the parent and the museum). Museums should have documentation of operational relationships with other organizations integrally connected to the museum’s governance or operations (e.g., written memorandum of understanding or other type of formal agreement) and evidence of delegation of authority for operation of the museum to the museum director or the equivalent position.

Composition of the Governing Authority

A governing authority is expected to:

  • Cycle in new people and new ideas
  • Reflect the diversity of the communities it serves
  • Provide opportunities for external input so that the governing authority is accountable to those communities
  • Ensure that members of the governing authority are evaluated on their performance and nonperforming members are cycled out

Term limits are not required for the service of members of the governing authority, though term limits are traditionally employed by museums to achieve these goals.

When it is not possible to control these factors within the governing authority itself (e.g., museums within parent organizations, those with remote governance or those that are government-governed), the museum needs to find other ways to accomplish the goals outlined above. This may include establishing supporting groups as needed to assist with governance (e.g., advisory boards, auxiliary groups, community boards).

Delegation of Authority

All museums should have a director or the functional equivalent, part-time or full-time, paid or unpaid, to whom authority is delegated for day-to-day operations. Furthermore, the governing authority, staff, and volunteers should have a clear and shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

Having clear delegation of authority means that the governing authority understands the main areas of its responsibility. Those areas are to collectively determine the mission, set policies for operations, ensure that charter and bylaw provisions are followed, plan for the institution, approve budgets, establish financial controls and ensure that adequate resources are available to advance the museum’s mission.

Delegation of authority leads to effective leadership and organizational structure by creating clarity about the distinct roles of governance and management; this clarity allows each to focus on the work they need to do. There is communication and collaboration but no duplication of effort. Since the governing authority has appointed a director (or equivalent position) with the expertise to run the museum, it should allow the director to perform his or her responsibilities without interference.

An unencumbered line of authority allows the institution to achieve more. It promotes good use of resources, including time. The director has the authority to act independently and oversee the day-to-day operations while the governing authority uses its time to make decisions that steer the institution. Staff at all levels should be clear about the chain of command.

Documentation of the delegation of authority may be found in the bylaws of the institution, the formally approved job description of the director (or equivalent position) and is often included in the institution’s staff handbook.

Joint Governance

In museums with joint governance, in which the basic responsibilities of governance are shared between two or more groups (e.g., a city and a private, nonprofit organization, or a university and an advisory board), or when a separate entity provides resources vital to the museum’s operation (e.g., land, collections, building, staff), the standards require that the museum clearly identify all the groups that are engaged in governance or provision of these vital resources and the responsibilities of each group. These relationships should be detailed in formal, written documents (e.g., memoranda of agreement, memoranda of understanding, operating agreement).

Direct Care of Collections

This white paper provides field-wide guidance about this term from the Code of Ethics for Museums.

Questions and Answers about Selling Objects from the Collection

We’ve prepared answers to some of the questions from the latest discussions on this topic.

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Ethics, Standards and Best Practices

As the national organization representing museums of all kinds, we bring together museum professionals in order to formulate voluntary ethical guidelines, standards and best practices that inform museum operations. The Characteristics of Excellence for U.S Museums and Code of Ethics for Museums provide the foundation for museum excellence. They address “big picture” issues about how museums should operate and put forth broad outcomes that can be achieved in many different ways based on an institution’s discipline, type, budget, governance structure and other unique circumstances.

These standards are directly informed by the field. They are filtered through the dialogue, debate, and data generated by our excellence programs, professional networks, conferences and seminars, national studies and relationships with other museum service organizations. We recognize the great diversity of the museum field and the importance of the ethical codes, standards and best practices developed and issued by various discipline/interest-specific museum associations. Taken together, they work in concert to ensure museums hold themselves accountable to their peers and their publics.


Ethics and standards help foster common vocabulary, expectations, and assumptions. They foster informed decision-making, which contributes to an accountable and credible museum field. Adherence to mutually agreed-upon standards also enables museums to self-regulate, to a large extent, in a flexible and appropriate way that accommodates the huge diversity of our field, rather than have regulations imposed by lawmakers.

We encourage all museums to commit to these standards, best practices and ethical guidelines in order to fulfill their roles as essential educational and community institutions. This commitment to excellence is necessary to secure the support, trust, and recognition we need to advance our goals with lawmakers, funders, other community groups and the general public.


Field-Wide Ethics and Standards

Read more about ethics and standards issued by the Alliance and other organizations.

National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums

This guide is an essential reference work for the museum community, presenting the ideals that should be upheld by every museum striving to maintain excellence in its operations. This publication is available as a free PDF to all museum members.

Accreditation Commission Policy Statements

The following policies address certain eligibility issues and participation requirements specific to museums engaged in the Accreditation Program. Although they are Accreditation Commission-issued policies and not national standards, non-accredited museums may find them of interest.

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