Museum Archives Guidelines

The Museum Archives Section of the Society of American Archivists includes those who are responsible for the organization and care of archival collections located in museums. These guidelines have been created by the section to assist all types of museums—independent museums as well as museums contained within larger institutions—in the development and administration of archival programs. The guidelines outline the components of a successful museum archives program and should be used in conjunction with detailed information on the administration of archives that is available through SAA and from other professional sources.


A museum's organizational records document the history and development of the museum, its collections, exhibitions, and programs as well as the contributions of individuals and groups associated with the museum. These records are unique and irreplaceable assets of the organization. A museum should maintain an active, professional archives program to systematically collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to its organizational records of enduring value and to recommend policies and procedures for the creation, maintenance, and ultimate retention or disposition of current museum records in all formats. By supporting an archives program a museum not only promotes its own history, but also ensures that its vital records are preserved and that information resources are readily available to support the work of its staff and meet the research needs of scholars and the general public. However, it should be noted that if a museum exists in a setting where a decision has been made to concentrate all institutional records in a central archives (e.g., university archives), it is the responsibility of the museum staff to work closely with the institutional archives staff to determine the appropriate setting for the archives of the museum.

1. Definitions and Scope

A museum's archives identifies, preserves and administers records of long-term and permanent administrative, legal, fiscal, and research value not in current use. Records may be in any form—including, but not limited to, paper, electronic, photographic, and magnetic media. A museum's archival records could include:

  1. Organizational records, in particular those which relate to administration at all levels. For example: correspondence, memoranda, minutes, financial records, reports, grant records, departmental files, architectural plans, documentary photographs and negatives, film, audio and videotapes, and publications created by the museum.
  2. Collection records, such as object or specimen files and records of exhibitions and installations. These may be housed in the archives or, if actively used, in the curatorial, registration, or collections management offices.
  3. Acquired materials, such as papers of individuals and organizations, which promote the museum's mission through their relation to subject areas of particular interest to the museum (e.g., science, anthropology, natural history, art, history) and which add value to the museum's collections and exhibition programs.

2. Mission Statement

The archives should have a mission statement, approved by the director of the museum or the institution and ratified by appropriate governing bodies of the museum or its parent institution, which defines the authority of the archivist within the museum and the parameters of the archival program. The statement should explicitly recognize the archivist's role in the museum and/or parent institution's records management program. All general policy statements concerning the archives should be in writing and approved by the appropriate authority.

3. Status of the Archives

The archives should be an entity within the museum's administrative structure, supervised by an individual having custodial and related authority delegated by the director of the museum or parent institution. When practical, the archives should be a separate department within the museum. The museum archives may be an administrative affiliate of a parent institution's archives.

4. Professional Archivist

The museum should have a professionally trained archivist. If resources do not permit this level of commitment, expert advice should be sought in the development of the museum's archives and archival training provided to the staff member made responsible for them. The functions of the archivist are to appraise, acquire, arrange, describe, preserve, and make available the records of the museum and collections of related materials acquired from outside the museum.

5. Museum Records and Personal Papers

The museum should have a statement of policy which clarifies the difference between the official records of the museum and documents which might be considered the personal property of curators, directors, members of governing bodies, and other relevant positions. This is to discourage such persons from taking, as their own property, records that belong to the parent institution or museum, and that may be an integral part of the museum's archives. Donation of personal papers to the museum's archives is strongly encouraged in order to promote the preservation of significant documents not created by the museum itself.

6. Acquisition Policy for Collected Materials

The museum should define and make public an archives acquisition policy, which delineates the collecting of materials other than those created within the museum itself. The collecting activities and acquisition policies of other entities in a parent institution or outside institutions should be taken into account to avoid unnecessary competition. The policy should describe the conditions and procedures for accessioning and deaccessioning documents and collections that are not official records of the museum, and address principles regarding the ownership, administration, and use of all acquired materials.

7. Criteria for Retention of Museum Records

The archivist must be involved in the determination of how long and under what conditions particular records are to be kept. The criteria for permanent retention include:

  1. Evidence of the structure, development, mission and functions of the museum over time.
  2. Documentation of the actions, decisions, policies, and fiscal and legal rights and responsibilities of the museum.
  3. Research and informational value.

8. Current Records

The advice of the archivist should be sought on policies and guidelines pertaining to the creation, maintenance, disposition, and preservation of museum records (including electronic records and systems) with the aim of avoiding the unnecessary creation of duplicate records and the needless retention of nonpermanent records. The archivist should be consulted for recommendations on the protection of permanently active records of archival value in non-custodial situations (such as collection or accession records under the care of the registrar, collections manager, or curator and computer network backups under the control of the information technology staff). The archivist should also approve the appropriate disposition of records that do not have permanent value, or are required to be maintained by the archives of a parent institution.

9. Location and Conditions

  1. The archives should be located in a separate and secure area with adequate protection against fire, flood, vermin, theft, and other hazards.
  2. Temperature, light, and humidity should be controlled at appropriate and stable levels to ensure the preservation of materials. Certain records may have special environmental requirements.
  3. To prevent flood damage, archives should not be placed below ground level.
  4. If neither suitable accommodation nor adequate staff can be provided on-site for the archives, the institution should consider:
    1. Placing its records in the archives of its parent institution if applicable or in a nearby archival repository willing to administer them on a continuing basis.
    2. Forming or joining a consortium whereby several institutions cooperate to ensure that their archives receive adequate care.
    3. Contributing to cost in the above choices.

10. Arrangement, Description, and Preservation of the Records

  1. The archivist organizes records in keeping with the professional principles of provenance and the sanctity of original order whenever possible.
  2. The archivist produces written descriptive inventories, guides and other finding aids in accordance with accepted archival standards and makes them generally available.
  3. The archivist implements basic preservation measures such as the use of archival-quality containers.

11. Access

Subject to reasonable restrictions on the grounds of fragility, security, or confidentiality, records should be available to staff members, scholars, and other persons demonstrating a need to consult the material for research purposes. Access policies and restrictions should be in writing and applied equally to all researchers. Reference service should be provided to both on-site researchers and those at a distance.

SAA Council Approval/Endorsement Date: 
August 2003
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