Best practices from a former academic museum director
Imagine no museum admission fees, a membership of 175 people, and a building totaling 4,000 square feet…one Director later – membership of 14,000 families, a building of 125,000 square feet, and a multimillion-dollar budget. “Oh, and all bills were paid,” exclaimed Gary Libby, retired museum director.
Gary Libby became the Director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona, Florida, in 1977. At the time, he had been teaching humanities and art history courses at Stetson University, and was serving on the board of the museum when the opportunity to lead it presented itself. Although he was familiar with the museum’s goings-on as Vice President of the Board, Libby immediately sought out advanced museum training to prepare him for this new role. He was accepted into the Smithsonian’s first museum management certificate program, led by Jane Glaser, the former curator of education at the Smithsonian. After three intense weeks in Washington, Libby was armed to the teeth with a new network of national museum professionals, new perspectives, and a firm foundation in museum best practices. The latter would become a driving force in his career.
The key to understanding best practices is that every profession has them; they are vital to success in any organization. “It suggests that, through experience and through principles, there are some basic givens that should be baked into organizations so that the organization has the greatest chance to prosper,” explained Libby. Best practices are a series of legal and ethical principles, typically included in the articles of incorporation, that reflect the highest and the best chances of success.
As Libby transitioned into this new role at the Museum of Arts and Sciences, the museum industry was also undergoing rapid expansion throughout the United States. “The American Association of Museums at that time (now the American Alliance of Museums) was critically important in providing for smaller organizations all over the country,” said Libby, they offered “self-study guides, all kinds of printed documents that would allow communities to ask themselves whether or not they had the wherewithal to build and maintain a museum, what the museum really meant, and how it could function in their community.”
Today, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) continues to provide various resources for best practices including guidelines on ethics, standards, and professional practices that make up a Framework of Excellence. Presented through outcome-oriented statements, these guidelines are meant to provide a minimum standard for all museums and discipline-specific organizations, including zoos, gardens, and aquariums.
It is then up to each organization to build upon the framework provided by AAM, and enact its unique mission in its community. “So I hit the deck in Daytona Beach,” explained Libby, “realizing a lot more than I had realized before I went to the seminar, and started on a long term evergreen plan of 1 to 3 to 5-years, with the trustees. I had to suggest to them that there was the possibility of the museum being a serious collecting museum in art, science, and Florida history.”
For Libby, the logical place to start was with the current museum staff. “I made sure that the Museum of Arts and Sciences had a handbook for staff that allowed them a full understanding of their responsibilities and their authority, and the combined unified mission of all of us to accomplish goals for our community.” The handbook was the byproduct of hours of staff time and expertise collected from open forums. It included information about the museum, employee benefits, legal and compliance statements, and it became a living resource that was updated and revisited every year. “The handbook gave me an opportunity to start a discussion with staff, especially green ones who had never been in a museum before,” he continued, “There were certain parts of museum operations that took a little more care than others, but the handbook got us all started on the same ground.”
Following an invitation to join the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant review committee, Libby began to notice a pattern within museums across the country. It seemed that the larger more established museums had different challenges than the smaller new museums that were focusing on setting up a board of trustees, developing a mission statement, filing necessary legal paperwork, and establishing principles and guidelines to “build a firm foundation that will allow the institution to grow and prosper in the future.” He continued, “The great big ones, for the most part – the Brooklyn Museum, the Anacostia Museum, the LA County Museum of Art – we checked there to see if the foundation had any cracks, if things inadvertently happened that affected the smoothness of operation and the ability of the organization to meld with the communities, but most of the big ones were much more technical, financial, and legal.”
Interestingly, Libby also noticed that the best practices proposed by AAM have been adopted around the world. He recalled an example regarding a colleague in Saudi Arabia, explaining that in Saudi Arabia’s national museum structure they “are using AAM best practices to help build some of the cornerstones of how these institutions will collect material, present material, how they will involve a greater access for more of their population in the history of their country.” Recalling a trip to Tibet many years ago, “I went into this little museum in Tibet and talked to the administrator there,” he said. “He had a gnarled up copy of the AAM museum standards sitting on his desk – I should have taken a photograph of it, it was great fun – but it proves that there are some universals in this profession that can be shared planet-wide that can give people from all over the world and from different cultures a great opportunity to succeed and play a meaningful role in their culture and community.”
The current state of museums
In the 1980s, the United States was hit with a recession that rippled through the museum field. Fewer museums could afford to send staff to professional training opportunities or conferences. Years later, Libby noticed there were more people entering the museum profession with little to no training, and their superiors often lacked the professional training to lead these new staff members.
Libby also noticed a falling off in applications for accreditation, something that is still happening today. “I think we only have one or two university galleries without collections that are accredited in the United States. It’s an all-time low. To me, that suggests something. It suggests that during the recession, when colleges and universities and some of the big museums were trying to save money, they reorganized the administration and cut out administrators. [They] put one person, for example, over art, music, dance, and theater rather than a head of art, a head of music, a head of dance, and a head of theater. When you do the former rather than the later, when you have one person in charge of divisions which are very different in nature and financial requirements you build in a conflict of interest that I think we are still suffering from, we are sort of working our way out of it.” He continued to speak about the study recently done by the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG), “you can see that conflict of interest has unintentionally filtered its way, unfortunately, into the structure of a lot of private and public museums of all types.”
AAMG published a guide in 2017 entitled “Professional Practices for Academic Museums and Galleries,” which seeks to build upon the best practices laid out by other organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums, and provides further detail on the unique role of the academic museum. This document outlines Mission & Strategic Planning; Governance, Organizational Structure & Leadership; Code of Ethics; Financial Stability & Fund-raising; Collections Stewardship; Education, Exhibitions, & Interpretation; Facilities & Risk Management; and Retrenching or Downsizing.
What happened in the museum industry following the recession points to the importance of establishing best practices in every organization. “When you don’t have standards by which to gauge and judge performance and action, then you tend to do what it takes to get something done; even if the long-term effect is very negative.” With over 40 years in the museum industry, Gary Libby has witnessed the effects first hand. “I think best practices are tried and true techniques, principles, methods, that reflect the very best in our humanity. And, also, on a practical level, give an institution who adopts them, the best chance of success in the long run, for the long haul. Principles are for the ages.”
 AAM, “Core Standards for Museums,” American Alliance of Museums, https://www.aam-us.org/programs/ethics-standards-and-professional-practices/core-standards-for-museums/
 AAMG, “Professional Practices for Academic Museums and Galleries,” Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, June 2017. https://www.aamg-us.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/AAMG-Professinal-Practices-2018-web-FINAL-rev043018.pdf
Cover image Visible storage at the Museum of Arts and Science, Daytona, FL. Photo courtesy of Southeast Storage Solutions.