What are “Museums”?

Like art, efforts to define “museum” are challenging and controversial.  The American Alliance of Museums takes the “big tent” approach to defining museums—“if an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent” (AAM 2008, 3). The Internal Revenue Service, however, takes a different approach, which can be puzzling to the field.  It assigns the type of charitable organization (e.g. history museums, elementary schools, forest conservation) with no guidance or approval from the organization.  Among the categories is  “Museums” (NTEE code A50), which is described as, “Organizations that acquire, preserve, research, exhibit and provide for the educational use of works of art, objects or artifacts that are related to the study of zoology, biology, botany, mineralogy, geology and other natural sciences; history; archeology; or science and technology.”

An analysis of IRS Forms 990 of museums identified as NTEE code A50 reveals the incredible diversity of the field as well as challenges our notions of “museum” (see list of examples in Table 1; a complete list is available as a pdf).  Consisting of roughly 18 percent of the entire museum field, Museums (A50) are the third-largest type behind Historical Organizations (A80) and Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82) (see Figure 1). While large in number, Museums (A50) have fewer resources than the average player in the field, but are growing faster.  They hold average net assets of $3,501,000, which is 28 percent lower than the museum field as a whole, but their average net assets increased 11 percent year over year compared to the 4 percent average of the entire museum field.  They are also united by their smaller scale and resources rather than subject matter with more than 85 percent of institutions receiving less than $1 million in revenue each year (see Figure 2), confirming the value of providing targeted services to small museums, such as the Small Museum Association, or funds, such as NEH’s Preservation Assistance Grants.

Figure 1.  “All” (black) represents organizations in categories A50-A54, A56-A57, and A80-82. Source: Internal Revenue Services and NCCS.

Figure 2. Source: Internal Revenue Services and NCCS.

Museums (A50) are an extraordinarily diverse category, ranging from well-known names such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Conner Prairie, and the National Liberty Museum to smaller players such as a historic lumber mill open several weekends a year, an Italian history archival project with no physical location, and a poetry museum. While some institutions such as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art may feel better placed in a more specific category, such as Art Museums (A51), factors such as their 120 acres of hiking trails may have steered their classification towards this more general category. This dizzying diversity of institutions does point that the A50 category is truly a catch-all “Museums” category (see Table 1) and perhaps too broad to be helpful to most boards and CEOs.

By understanding how the IRS defines “museums,” staff and boards can better understand how other government agencies (and perhaps us, too) may hold formulaic or banal expectations of what museums can or cannot do.  Definitions establish boundaries and clarify understanding, but they can also invoke prohibitions, limit creativity, and stifle innovation.     

Given the range of organizations within the Museum (A50) category, it confirms the diversity of the field and the challenge of defining museums with much specificity.  Each may be individually distinctive but together, it’s a blur. Secondly, by lumping these diverse organizations together, it could suggest that some are affinity groups that haven’t consolidated into formal museums, or they are museums without distinctiveness or clarity, or that they are organizations exploring new frontiers in collecting and programming that are beyond our usual definitions. Should we watch them with interest or avoid them as heretics? For example, Sturgeon’s Mill identifies itself as a “working museum” that operates as a historic mill for audiences only four weekends a year. Is this museum more or less of a museum than a hypothetical small standard museum that focused on the milling industry that is open year-round? The Medici Archive Project makes no offering of a physical collection, but rather centralizes and offers hundreds of thousands of searchable Medici-related documents to anyone with internet access. Is this vast comprehensive digital collection more or less of a museum than a small physical collection of Medici artifacts, is it perhaps better? Is Sturgeon’s Mill more of a museum than the Medici Archive Project, or vice versa?

By providing a large basket for these types of museums, we can better analyze the more specific categories such as Art Museum (A51) or Natural History & Natural Science Museum (A56). As the Financial Mapping Project delves into these more specific museum types, our analysis will become more explicit.  What affects financial sustainability?  Is it subject matter (art vs history), geography (New England vs Mountain Plains), or net assets (over $10 million?).  In our initial series of posts, the Engaging Places Financial Mapping Project (EPFMP) will examine the categories that are most closely related to house museums and historic sites (the primary focus of Engaging Places) starting with History Museums (A54) and close with a comprehensive review of all history-related organizations as categorized by the IRS.

Table 1. Examples of Museums (A50)

National Cowboy and Western Heritage MuseumOklahoma City, Oklahomawww.nationalcowboymuseum.org
Hagerstown Aviation MuseumHagerstown, Marylandwww.hagerstownaviationmuseum.org
Rock and Roll Hall of FameCleveland, Ohiowww.rockhall.com
Petersen Automotive MuseumLos Angeles, Californiawww.petersen.org
International African American MuseumCharleston, South Carolinawww.africanamericancharleston.com
Sturgeons Mill Restoration ProjectSebastopol, Californiawww.sturgeonsmill.com
Medici Archive ProjectBabylon, New Yorkwww.medici.org
Tennessee Valley Railroad MuseumChattanooga, Tennesseewww.tvrail.com
Conner PrairieFishers, Indianawww.connerprairie.org
Crystal Bridges Museum of American ArtBentonville, Arkansaswww.crystalbridges.org
American Poetry MuseumWashington, D.C.www.apoetmuseum.org
National Liberty MuseumPhiladelphia, Pennsylvaniawww.libertymuseum.org
Table 1.

2017 A50 Institutions

American Association of Museums. National Standards and Best Practices for U. S. Museums. Washington: American Association of Museums, 2008.