Because museums exist to collect, preserve, study, and interpret various objects, their collections must be made in accord with well-defined purposes and standards of quality. Objects chosen must be original works, wherever possible, and suitable for exhibition or for study purposes, or both. They must be documented with well-organized information and made available for viewing or study. Their care must be ensured and deterioration or destruction avoided.
According to the first comprehensive survey of U.S. museums, published in 1974 by the National Endowment for the Arts on the basis of data collected in 1971-72, about 120,000 people were then employed at full-time and part-time paid museum jobs. Nearly half of these were professionals with specialized training, acting as curators, librarians, designers, and lecturers. Nonprofessionals held clerical, security, and custodial positions. Two-thirds of all museums surveyed used unpaid volunteers, mainly in the education area, with art museums reporting most use of volunteers.
Increasingly, however, museum work is internationally recognized as a profession, and requires certain levels of academic education and training: a master's degree or doctorate in a subject is expected; a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement. While some museums, secondary schools, and undergraduate institutions offer limited courses, museum studies training at the university level is becoming a prerequisite for staff positions; such technical training is available in Canada, England, Italy, and the United States. The American Association of Museums, for example, is currently working to establish criteria for accrediting graduate programs. Women and minorities remain underrepresented, however, on museum staffs.
Curators of collections are mediators between the needs and interests of the museum, their departments, other scholars, and the public. A major curatorial task today, aside from collection building, research, and writing, is the mounting of temporary special exhibitions. In the great national museums of Europe, curators hold civil service rank as caretakers of the national and cultural heritage.
The physical condition of museum objects is the responsibility of specially trained conservators and restorers, either staff members or consultants. It is their duty to assess climatic, lighting, and display conditions; to make recommendations for the protection of objects on display or in storage; and to evaluate the fitness of objects to travel on intermuseum loan.
Knowledge of chemistry and physics is required of conservation specialists, as well as training in art history, archaeological methods, scientific study of materials and media, and restoration techniques. Excellent training is available in Europe at such centers as the Villa Schifanoia, Rosary College, Florence, and the London School of Archaeology, University of London; and in the U.S. at the Smithsonian Institution Conservation Laboratory, Washington, D.C., and the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. The latter awards a diploma in conservation after a rigorous 4-year graduate course.
Educational activities, always a focus of museums in the U.S., include the interpretation of collections through permanent displays and special exhibitions, programs for elementary and secondary school children in their schools or at the museum, guided tours by museum staff or volunteer docents, lectures and trips for adults, television and radio programs, film series, and performing arts programs. Many museums customarily lend objects to other institutions for exhibition purposes; many also organize traveling exhibitions destined for other museums, community centers, schools, and storefront museums. Such activities make special subjects available to a broader public.
Art museums customarily publish catalogs of their collections and exhibitions, often illustrated and providing information on the physical appearance, history, and, if appropriate, role played by the objects; fewer science and history museums do the same. College and university museums provide educational opportunities through their publications, exhibitions, and collections.
Most major museums establish and maintain libraries for research and for the documentation of the collections; separate facilities are customarily maintained for collections of slides. Many museums—the British Museum, for example—began both as libraries and collections of objects. Provision for a library was part of the incorporation act of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The librarian in charge of a museum library orders, accessions, and processes materials for the use of the staff and outside researchers and, if library staff and space allow, for the public (usually museum members). Librarians generally must hold a master's degree from an accredited library school, and special subject training is often required. Professional affiliation with such bodies as the Special Libraries Association, the Art Libraries Society/North America, or the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History (depending on the kind of museum served) provides opportunities for exchange of information and cooperative programs.
Collections of natural history specimens, archaeological objects, and ethnographical samples are generally acquired by field expeditions. Gifts and bequests are important sources of other types of collections. Purchase of specimens or of works of art is a more costly way of augmenting collections, particularly in recent years of general inflation and increasing rarity of first-rate works on the open market. Once acquired by a museum, a piece (or on occasion, an entire collection) is given an accession number, unique to it. The object is clearly marked with this number in such a way as to be visible but not to affect its appearance or condition.
In addition to a complete catalog of the museum's holdings maintained by the registrar's department, individual museum departments maintain catalogs of the objects for which they are specifically responsible. These catalogs record information that as completely as possible describes or documents each object: a sketch or photograph, pertinent bibliographical references, a report on its condition as received, the dimensions of the piece (in metrics as well as the customary system), and its source and the date received. Since the 1970s many large museums (and, increasingly, numbers of small ones) have employed computers to speed the storage and retrieval of catalog information.
Museums today, as nonprofit institutions, are customarily governed by a board of trustees (alternatively known as governors, regents, directors, or commissioners). Chosen for their management and professional skills, they hold the assets of a museum in trust as fiduciaries for the public. Trustees are a policymaking body who also make decisions on acquisitions (upon curatorial recommendations), manage the physical plant, and are in charge of budgeting, fund raising, and investment of museum funds. In the U.S., the state attorney general's office acts as a watchdog over reported or suspected abuses of power and duty.
Customarily, the board of trustees hires the museum's director, who is the chief executive officer and fund raiser of the institution. Directors, working closely with the curators and heads of service, legal, and financial departments, act as liaison between staff and board. Most directors are appointed from curatorial ranks and must be adept at administration, fund raising, and public relations. They must also be conversant with architectural and design considerations in order to mediate between those who promote extreme functional design of interior space and exteriors and those dedicated to preserving the traditional concept of the museum as a cultural monument in itself.
Recent cuts in public funding and increased competition for money from private sources, coupled with inflation and rises in taxes, have led museums to seek new sources of revenue. Museum memberships and sales of publications and reproductions in gift shops and by mail order are among the means of raising funds. Admission charges have been adopted by some museums but are opposed by others, on the ground that cultural and educational opportunities should be kept free. Many museums have adopted as a compromise the voluntary contribution policy, with amounts suggested for general admission; some museums exact an admission charge only to special exhibitions.
Funding for such shows has customarily been obtained from municipal, regional, state, or federal sources, as well as from the private sector, including foundations. Among the few federal agencies that grant funds to museums, the Institute for Museum Services (created in 1976) is the only one that provides much-needed operating expenses. Since 1981 it has been an independent agency within the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities.
In recent years all over the world, “blockbuster” exhibitions—enormous traveling shows such as the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” or “Picasso”—have attracted huge crowds. Many of the spectators were not, previously, frequent museum visitors. The long- or short-term impact of the popularity of this kind of exhibition has still to be assessed in terms of the educational goals of museums. Some museum professionals worry that, with media attention focused on these spectacular events, curators are diverted from the research, publication, and education that are the real purposes of museums. Other officials, in the U.S., argue that such mass audiences are needed to attract government and private funding and to build new public support for museums.
Many major U.S. museums, beset with economic problems in the latter part of the 20th century, reported inability to supply the number and variety of programs and services required by ever-growing numbers of visitors, totaling in the millions annually. Besides the need for increases in professional curatorial, design, and education staff, there are demands for new facilities for classrooms, libraries, and children's galleries, as well as for preservation and conservation work. Renovations and additions must also be done to satisfy federal legislation requiring museums to provide access and facilities for handicapped visitors.