Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Impact of Standards on the Sustainability of Historic Sites 

12-09-2015 17:35

At the Kykuit conference on Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century in April 2007, attendees discussed the standards and best practices affecting historic sites and the impact of those standards and best practices on sustainability. By reviewing and summarizing those discussions, I hope to prompt further thought and public dialogue on the issues and on what I think are necessary changes in attitude and action.

It is clear that the museum field is in the midst of evaluating and revising standards. Formal accreditation programs exist at the American Association of Museums, zoos, gardens, and art museums, or are being developed. Though standards programs have long been in place, public perception of museums has been affected by the fallout from misdeeds, accidental and purposeful, in both nonprofits and for-profits. In the U.S., museums are nonprofits, responsible to the public trust. Lapses of that trust have brought heightened government scrutiny and new legal oversight.

There is also clearly a gap between what the standards actually are and what some museum professionals believe they are — leading to unnecessary rigidity or other negative effects. These are some of the issues this article highlights.


Two well-known organizations offer standards programs for historic sites: the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). Historic sites are also expected to meet the requirements of multiple other programs. Some examples are the National Park Service, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, and, perhaps most important or influential, collection management standards established by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).


AAM’s standards and best practices have been approved by the AAM board of directors after being developed by the Accreditation Program and the AAM board’s Ethics Committee with extensive input from the field. They apply to all museums, whether or not they are AAM members, or whether or not they are accredited. Given the many types of museums (zoos; botanic gardens; children’s museums; history, science, and art museums; and historic sites) the accreditation standards are necessarily broad in scope.

The AAM Accreditation Program is now almost 40 years old. The number of museums has grown explosively since the program was developed in the early 1970s; in recent years the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) estimated there are 18,000 museums. The accreditation program’s systematic effort to describe museum standards and provide a method to review and measure individual museum performance against the standards has helped raise the professionalism of the entire museum field.

Accreditation is based on two core questions: How well does the museum achieve its mission? and Does the museum meet standards and best practices as they are generally understood and as appropriate to its circumstances? The “characteristics of an accreditable museum” are described in AAM handbooks and on the website The characteristics fall into seven broad categories:

  • public trust and accountability, _ mission and planning,
  • leadership and organizational structure,
  • collections stewardship,
  • education and interpretation,
  • financial stability,
  • facilities and risk management.

Because standards change over time, describing and reaching them is a moving target. Thus, an accredited museum undergoes a subsequent review every 10 years. Some museums are going through their third or fourth accreditation review. The other critical element is peer review. A museum undergoing accreditation review or participating in AAM’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP) benefits from an on-site visit by peer professionals.

Of the estimated 18,000 museums, 800 are accredited at any one time. Out of these accredited museums, 33 percent are history museums and historic sites. Though history museums and historic sites are the most numerous museums, they are underrepresented in the program.

The accreditation program has been conducting sessions around the country for input from the field and is piloting a shortened subsequent review process. Preliminary feedback shows that for the program to grow significantly it would need to be less labor intensive for museum participants.


In the AAM Accreditation Program, some areas important for history museums are secondary or not included, such as library/archives or historic buildings. During the first Kykuit conference in 2002 on historic houses, participants discussed the types of standards needed for small and mid-sized history museums and the desire for a tailored standards program that could be completed in phases and that includes archives and special collections, historic landscapes, and buildings. In response, AASLH is conducting a pilot project to develop a standards program and a framework of assistance, funded by IMLS. The project is being closely coordinated with AAM Accreditation and Museum Assessment programs, and builds on the framework of AAM standards, adding specifics as needed to address issues particular to history museums and historic houses/sites. Volunteer teams across the country have drafted a self-assessment tool which is being reviewed this spring and will be piloted in 2008 and implemented in 2009. It will be an incremental program, by which a museum can work to meet standards one area at a time. The pilot project has the following objectives:

  • Provide museums and historical organizations with standards and resources for a step-by-step approach for improvement.
  • Build a program that encourages improvement and rewards progress.
  • Allow institutional participants to work toward excellence one operational area at a time.
  • Complement rather than compete with guidelines and/or standards issued by other associations and/or agencies within the museum community including AAM’s Accreditation and Museum Assessment programs.
  • Invite state, regional, and national service providers to help deliver program services to their constituents. (Service providers are groups like regional and state museum associations and state historical society field service offices organized to deliver training programs to museums.)

A museum will be able to work on this self-assessment section by section, building accomplishment and capacity and getting recognition for progress.


Successful history museums and sites also implement standards from outside the museum world. Kykuit attendees mentioned several of these such as standards of the National Park Service, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and the American Institute for Conservation.

Funders apply their own filters in making decisions; these filters, then, effectively function as standards. During this Kykuit conference, attendees — including representatives from the funding community —listed some of the filters that influence funding decisions: impact numbers (on- and offsite attendance, web hits); management capacity and staff levels; capacity to raise matching money; overall fundraising capacity; the funder’s interest areas; the museum’s partners; impact by location, mission, and partner; regulations (when government or law set the standards); geographic diversity; and public access. Museums think funders want innovation (i.e., new), though the funders at the meeting said they want “good” more than “new.”

Awards programs also apply evaluative criteria. In the AASLH awards program, for example, the core question is “Is it good history?”


Conference participants agreed that standards help museums survive, because they:

  • Encourage improvement.
  • Protect collections from inappropriate treatment.
  • Give the public, media, donors, and grantors a way to identify places that are doing things according current professional standards.
  • Present benchmarks and external measures of performance for the museum and the public.


Kykuit discussants thought that standards can hinder museum sustainability. It was here that the gap between actual standards and perceptions of them was most obvious.

Perceptions of standards are affected by overlapping professions (historians and conservators, for example) and reflect attitudes that change more slowly than standards. For example, it was once acceptable to loan collection items to trustees for their homes or routinely use costume collections in fashion shows. And commonly held beliefs — such as HVAC must be installed in historic houses to protect the collections, that you can’t let people touch objects, that all objects are of equal value — are in fact the perceptions of the field, rather than an accurate reflection of the actual standards.

Such misperceptions can have detrimental effects:

  • Professional staff can reinforce the rigidity of standards to the detriment of mission-based program delivery. A focus on collections care can inhibit interactive opportunities for the visitor experience.
  • Some standards that protect collections can damage historic sites. For example, installing climate control systems might compromise historic fabric of a building.
  • Perceptions of standards affect cost of implementation: The perception that standards dictate that every object is as “precious” as another affects reasonably prioritizing care.
  • “Do not touch” environments inhibit creativity, learning, and innovation — by the institutions and by the public. Reproductions are one option to allow visitor use without endangering original artifacts, yet the high cost of quality reproductions can make this prohibitive. And using tactile learning also necessitates teaching visitors why some artifacts may be touched but not others.


For sustainability and survival of museums, it could be argued that the most important standards are the public’s standards. Historic sites and museums need to meet audience needs, and visitors and users have different standards than the profession. They want convenience, entertainment, and social learning experiences. They want things to do and touch. They want materials to take away. They want to be stimulated and even provoked. They want the sites to be physically and intellectually accessible. Successful visiting experiences change the visitor’s perspective and attitude; such experiences lead to a healthy human spirit. Relevance to the audience is the fundamental standard.

The discussion of standards at Kykuit was lively and elicited the following ideas and observations relevant for the whole field of historic sites:

“Muse” in museum means poetry and inspiration yet the word “museum” can be a slur, representing stodgy, hands-off, static, or elitist. Standards don’t help to reach the soul of the visitor (and bring an affective response); the highest level experience effects experiential change.

Collections are a means, a tool — not the core of the institution, which is its mission. The mission is the nexus of place, audience, and experience.

Each activity and program a museum undertakes should have multiple benefits rather than being one-off’s. How can we be clearer about the multiple benefits from standards programs? From all we do?

Discussants agreed that museums have become too rigid in site use; historic sites are not just about history, rather they should educate and inspire.

The question of whether historic sites and museums are in crisis was intensely argued. Some believe museums are struggling with finances and audience connection. Others pointed out that an aging population means boards, volunteers, and staffs are older and there may not be replacements when they leave their positions. And, if your museum is on life support, it’s too late to do standards.

As a field, historic sites don’t keep track of innovations very well. The result is that successes — as well as lessons learned — aren’t widely shared to motivate and guide others. There is no formal or informal database of such information.

Potential upcoming changes in public policy will affect areas we care about. The structure of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, enacted in 2002 and now up for renewal, leaves history and social studies out of the mix and is deeply affecting the future of the history audience — now and as those schoolchildren age, creating a generation without an affinity or even a basic knowledge of history.

Kykuit participants considered why museums don’t partner and collaborate more than they do and observed that beyond competing for dollars and leadership, museums can be insular and protective; sharing isn’t part of the culture. This can affect audience interactions, reputation, and community involvement.


The discussions at Kykuit generated some of the following recommendations:

  • Historic sites need to break out of the “museum” box and assert that they are a “different species” (as zoos and botanical gardens have done).
  • We should create “situational standards” rather than one-size-fits-all standards to find an acceptable balance between responsible stewardship of collections and providing a meaningful visitor experience. Or, as some of the discussants said, we need “guidelines” not “standards,” and “tools” not “rules.”
  • Sites should promote history as a core American value and standards should help.
  • Standards programs should deliver measurable value and impact.
  • Sites should accept less rigid, more flexible site use.
  • There should be more discussion and decisions about when and how it is acceptable to adapt collections standards so that each site can provide a better visitor experience. The balance should shift from preserving collections to a focus on people.
  • We should distribute examples and case studies so sites can test “situational standards.” These should be direct, public sharing of success stories and lessons learned. These examples and case studies should feed into the standards for historic sites being developed by AASLH. We need articles that discuss deviating from the traditional model with balanced conversation about what’s not okay.
  • Colleague consultations and advisory support can help staff think differently and validate decisions that stray from traditional museum standards.
  • Designate “tiers” of value for collection items. Identify, for example, what is irreplaceable and what is still available or replaceable. Many museums have “permanent collection” and “use collection” designations and the latter includes items that have been identified as being acceptable to use rather than just display.
  • Educate boards and staffs of historic sites to be more open to new possibilities. Rethink professional training to include more discussion of flexible standards and fight the specialized museum staff’s “tunnel vision” so that everyone has a sense of responsibility for the entire organization. Involve universities in implementing changes to museum studies.
  • Be open to alternative uses for historic sites beyond museums.
  • Broaden the definition of museum to be a community resource with community involvement and engagement.


The Characteristics of an Accreditable Museum… in Plain English

This “translation” of the Characteristics of an Accreditable Museum from program speak into “plain English” is intended as a lighthearted way to demystify Accreditation Program standards by showing that they are not “extra work” or unattainable, but all things that any well run museum and nonprofit should be doing anyway. Please visit for the official version of the Characteristics and to learn more about accreditation standards. Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Museums.

Public Trust & Accountability


  • Be good
  • No really — not only be legal, but be ethical
  • Show everyone how good and ethical you are (don’t wait for them to ask)

Community engagement

  • Do good for people
  • Know which people
  • And to be on the safe side
  • Be nice to everyone else, too
  • Especially if they live next door

Diversity and Inclusiveness

  • Avoid cloning
  • Look something like the people you are doing good for
  • And maybe a bit like your neighbors
  • Let other people help decide what games to play
  • And what the rules are
  • Share your toys

Mission and Planning


  • Know what you want to do
  • And why it makes a difference to anyone
  • Then put it in writing
  • Stick to it


  • Decide what you want to do next
  • When you are deciding what to do, ask lots of people for their opinion
  • Put it in writing
  • Then do it
  • If it didn’t work, don’t do it again
  • If it did work, do

Leadership and Organizational Structure

  • Make sure everyone is clear about who is doing what
    • The board knows it is governing
    • The director knows she is directing (and the board knows it too)
    • The staff know they are doing everything else
  • And have it in writing

Collections Stewardship

  • Know what stuff you have
  • Know what stuff you need
  • Know where it is
  • Take good care of it
  • Make sure someone gets some good out of it
  • Especially people you care about
  • And your neighbors

Education and Interpretation

  • Know who you are talking to
  • Ask them what they want to know
  • Know what you want to say
  • (and what you are talking about)
  • Use appropriate language (or images, or music)
  • Make sure people understood you
  • And ask them if they liked it
  • If not, change it

Financial Stability

  • Put your money where your mission is
  • Is it enough money?
  • Will it be there next year, too?
  • Know when you will need more $
  • Know where you are going to get it from
  • Don’t diddle the books

Facilities and Risk Management

  • Don’t crowd people
  • Or things
  • Make it safe to visit your museum
  • Or work there
  • Keep it clean
  • Keep the toilet paper stocked
  • And if all else fails, know where the exit is
  • (and make sure it is clearly marked)

Publication Date: Spring 2008


Author(s):Katherine Kane