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Museum Governance Matters

While you may be aware that the WDM has a Board of Directors, have you ever considered what the Board does?  Or why museum governance matters?

By definition (Canadian Museums Association) museums are not-for-profit institutions created in the public interest.   While museums have operational functions that differ from other not-for-profit organizations, they still operate within the same legal, ethical and business frameworks.

Because museums are created in the public interest, they have two fundamental public trust responsibilities: stewardship and public service.   The Canadian Museums Association’s Ethical Guidelines defines stewardship and public service as follows:

  • The trust of stewardship requires museums to acquire, document and preserve collections in accordance with institutional policies, to be accountable for them, and to pass them on to future generations of the public in good condition.
  • The trust of public service requires museums to create and advance not only knowledge, but more importantly, understanding, by making the collections and accurate information about them physically and intellectually available to all the communities served by the museum.

Stewardship and Public Service are the hallmarks of museums and the basis for the respected status that they have in their communities.  Not only keeping but increasing the respect of their communities requires museums to be public focal points for learning, discussion, and development, and to ensure equality of opportunity for access.

This is why museum governance is so important: because it is with the governing authority that the responsibility for everything the museum does rests.  Simply put, “governance” is the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented.  Whether the governing authority is a Board of Directors (as with the WDM), or a municipal council (as with many municipally operated museums), governance is the way in which authority, control, and direction over the museum’s activities are enacted.

So What is the Board’s role in Museum Governance?

The Board is the highest level of decision-making and legal authority in a museum.  By law, it is ultimately accountable for, and has authority over, the museum’s resources and activities.  The Board articulates and communicates the museum’s vision and defines the parameters within which the museum carries out its work.

At the WDM, the Board of Directors has chosen to operate under a policy governance model.  This means that the Board provides leadership through policy development and strategic direction and assigns the implementation of day to day activities to the museum’s staff.

The difference between governance and management functions can be outlined as follows.

For museums that operate as administrative boards, often called “working” boards, the separation between governance, management and implementation remains the same.  The difference is that individual board members are tasked with management responsibilities.  When engaged in management responsibilities, individual board members function like staff and must report to the board as a whole.

We’ll explore the responsibilities of board members and the distinction between governance and management in future posts.

Joan Kanigan, CEO

Originally written for the Museum of Ontario Archaeology and published at  This post has been updated to reflect the governance practices of the WDM.

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