Starting A Museum

Starting a museum or historic organization is an involved process. A good place to start is with the Museum Association of New York's "What Comes First: Your Guide to Building a Strong, Sustainable Museum or Historical Organization (With Real Life Advice from Folks Who’ve Done It)." This guide will help individuals and groups determine if founding a museum or heritage organization is the best alternative for preserving a collection, a building or a community’s history. The discussion questions encourage exploration of organizational and professional issues that will help you build a strong rationale for starting an organization that has at its heart the public trust. In addition to checklists of prompting questions, you’ll find this guide jam-packed with no-nonsense tips and real life advice from colleagues across the state. Established organizations will find this guide to be a useful tool for self-study and planning. You can purchase and download "What Comes First," as well as other premium MANY publications here.

Below you will find a list of other resources and references to assist in the planning process.

Chartering Historical Societies, Museums, and Related Agencies in New York State
The University of the State of New York, State Education Department provides information on chartering a historic organization or museum on its website here. This primer outlines the procedures for organizing and incorporating a historical society or museum, as well as pursuing a Charter from the Board of Regents of The University of the State of New York. Regulations pertaining to Chartered organizations are also explained. Sample constitutions and by-laws are also included.

Code of Ethics for Museums 2000
Adopted in November 1993 and revised in 1999 by AAM’s Board of Directors, this code provides a framework for developing an institution’s own code of ethics and reflects the current, generally understood standards of the museum field. Issues covered include governance, collections, programs and promulgation.

A Handbook for Museum Trustees
by Harold and Susan Skramstad. This book will give you the tools you and your board need to handle the challenges facing museums today. Written to help trustees better understand the “why” and the “how” of trusteeship.

Organizing Your Museum: The Essentials
American Alliance of Museums Resource Report.

A Primer for Local Historical Societies
2nd Edition, by Laurence R. Pizer. ISBN 0-942963-12-0. This guidebook should be the first acquisition for groups that rely on volunteer labor and a variety of fundraising activities. Discover practical information on organization, financing, publicity, oral history, site-marking, tours, publishing, and more.  0-942063-12-0).

Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning
by Gerald George and Cindy Sherrell-Leo. ISBN 0-910050-78-3. Covers a gamut of concerns associated with launching a new museum. Subjects include choosing a building, collections care, registration, exhibits, conservation, staffing, financial management, fundraising, and more.

Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards (revised)
by Richard T. Ingram. ISBN 978-1-58686-054-7. This booklet describes the fundamental responsibilities of boards, focusing primarily on the whole board as an entity. Also included is a helpful list of responsibilities of individual board members. Published by the National Center for Nonprofit Boards.

American Alliance of Museums

1575 Eye St., NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20005
Fax: 202-289-6578

AAM is the largest membership association for museums in the US. Member benefits include a monthly newsletter, Aviso; bimonthly magazine, Museum News; free or discounted admission to museums throughout the country; annual meeting and regional seminars and conferences; access to insurance programs and special industry discounts, and much more.

AltaMira Press

AltaMira Press
1630 North Main Street, #367
Walnut Creek, CA 94596
fax: 925-933-9720
Orders Only: 800-462-6420

American Association for State and Local History

1717 Church Street
Nashville, TN 37203-2991
fax: 615-327-9013

AASLH is a membership organization that offers a range of programs for the volunteers and staff of history and heritage organizations and historic house museums/historic sites. Members receive History News, a quarterly magazine; the Dispatch, a monthly newsletter; invitations to attend workshops and the annual meeting; and use of a free Video Lending Library.


Suite 900
1828 L Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036-5104

The BoardSource is a membership organization that is dedicated to increasing the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations by strengthening their boards of directors. BoardSource publishes a number of excellent books and offers workshops and consulting services.

Grants for Museum Assessment

The Museum Assessment Program can help your museum improve its operations through a three-phase process consisting of self-study, peer review, and implementation. Grants to underwrite most of the costs of an assessment are available from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Grants are non-competitive and are available on a first-come, first serve basis. Contact MAP staff at the American Alliance of Museums for an application, 202-289-9118 or, and access more detailed information on our Web site at

There are four Assessments available:
Institutional Assessment – Provides an overview of the management and operations of the entire museum.
Collections Management Assessment – Reviews collections stewardship in the context of overall museum operations; primarily focuses on collections planning, policy and procedure
Public Dimension Assessment – Reviews the entire operations of the museum and how they serve the museum’s audience; looks at the organization from the outside in while focusing on the public’s perception of, experience with, and involvement with the museum.
Governance Assessment – Helps the museum’s governing authority examine their structure, roles, and responsibilities. Enhances their ability to advance the museum’s mission and engage in effective planning. Can result in:

  • Clearer understanding of the responsibilities of the governing authority
  • Improvements in board recruitment, retention, and engagement
  • Increased ability to obtain and manage resources.