Glossary of Museum Terms *


Accessibility: Giving equitable access to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience. Accessibility encompasses the broader meanings of compliance and refers to how organizations make space for the characteristics that each person brings.*

Advisory group: An advisory group is a collection of individuals who bring unique knowledge and skills that complement the knowledge and skills of the formal governing authority. The advisory group does not have authority to govern the museum; it cannot issue directives that must be followed. Rather, the advisory group serves to make recommendations or provide key information to the formal governing authority. The advisory group can be standing (on-going) or ad hoc (one time) in nature.

Annual Pass Program: A purchased pass that allows unlimited visits during the year (or another set time period).  Pass Programs can also be set up as a local partnership program which allows purchasers free admission to several participating venues in the area. Often coordinated through a Chamber of Commerce or Welcome Wagon – type of organization, these can be set up to allow one visit to each venue, or unlimited visits during a set time period.

Audience: Groups of people who use the museum’s services by attending or participating at an event, exhibit, program or other presentation. Audiences can be defined by using categories, such as the types of services they use and how they use them (e.g., visitors, members, researchers, program participants, Web site users), or by their demographic characteristics (e.g., families, school groups, seniors, culturally specific groups) or their interests and motivations for participating.

Audience, target: A sub-group of a community with shared demographics or interests that has been chosen as a group to engage with or attract.

Audience survey/study: Collecting data from the museum’s actual and potential audiences to determine their composition and receive feedback. Used to assess the effectiveness of the museum’s activities and services


Best practices: Commendable actions and philosophies that successfully solve problems, can be replicated, and demonstrate an awareness of standards.

Benchmark: A point of reference used in measuring and judging quality or value.


Code of Ethics:  Professional standards of conduct for staff, governing authority members and volunteers carrying out the mission of the museum. A code puts the interests of the public ahead of the interests of the institution or of any individual and encourages conduct that merits public confidence. A code of ethics acknowledges applicable laws and appropriate discipline-specific professional practices in order to help museums meet or exceed them For more information see: AAM Standards regarding an Institutional Code of Ethics

Collections Plan: A plan that guides the content of the collections and leads staff in a coordinated and uniform direction over time to refine and expand the value of collections in a predetermined way. Plans are time-limited and identify specific goals to be achieved. They also provide a rationale for those choices and specify how they will be achieved, who will implement the plan, when it will happen and what it will cost.

Community: Each museum self-identifies the community or communities it serves. These may be geographically defined, they may be communities of common interests, or communities formed around identities or a combination of these types.

Community engagement: Engaging with and collaborating with diverse groups to jointly meet needs articulated by the community and taking actions that truly benefit the community. (see Activity Eight for a more detailed explanation and examples).

Core Standards: The AAM Core Standards were developed in collaboration with other museum organizations and are grouped into the following categories: Public Trust and Accountability, Mission & Planning, Leadership and Organizational Structure, Collections Stewardship, Education and Interpretation, Financial Stability, and Facilities and Risk Management.

Culture: A group of people with shared experiences, beliefs, values, practices and norms.

Curriculum Plan: A written plan containing the framework, goals, and policies that guide the development and delivery of curriculum.


Decolonization: The long, slow, painful, and imperfect process of undoing some of the damage inflicted by colonial practices that remain deeply embedded in our culture, politics, and economies.**

Diversity:  All the ways that people are different and the same at the individual and group levels. Even when people appear the same, they are different. Organizational diversity requires examining and questioning the makeup of a group to ensure that multiple perspectives are represented. *

Docent/Guide: A volunteer or paid staff person who provides interpretation to visitors through a guided tour, talk or presentation. The museum field appears to be transitioning from the more traditional model of docents as volunteer tour guides, to an increasing number of institutions using paid guides. The National Docent Symposium Council now uses the term docents/guides to be inclusive and refer to the education and interpretation function or role, not to employment status.


Educational ecosystem: The formal and informal learning organizations within a community, the roles they each play, who they serve, the dynamics between them, and areas of intersection or overlap in the community.

Education master plan: A written plan that identifies education goals, audiences, content, delivery methods, data gathering and evaluation methods for all education programs and services.

Equity: The fair and just treatment of all members of a community. Equity requires commitment to strategic priorities, resources, respect, and civility, as well as ongoing action and assessment of progress toward achieving specific goals.*

Evaluation: Obtaining valid and reliable information from visitors that helps in the planning of exhibitions, activities, and programs and in determining the extent to which the activities are meeting their intended objectives. Can include observation (tracking) studies, questionnaire, interviews, community meetings, and focus groups. Visitor evaluation can be carried out before (front end), during (formative), and after (summative) exhibition or program development.

Exhibit: The localized grouping of objects and interpretative materials that form a cohesive unit within a gallery and relate a message or idea. +

Exhibition: Exhibitions use a combination of objects, text, graphics, interactives, and/or props to create a physical space dedicated to the exploration of specific themes, messages, and ideas. An exhibition is a comprehensive grouping of all elements (including exhibits and displays) that form a complete public presentation of collections and information for public use. +

Exhibit/exhibition plan or policy: A written plan that identifies exhibition schedules, goals, interpretive guidelines, and policies and procedures as well as policies applying to any object loans, and care and documentation of objects in temporary custody.


Financial resources: The income and expenses of the museum.

Focus group: Interview studies involving a carefully selected sample of eight to 10 individuals whose demographic and psychographic characteristics are of special interest to the museum. A planned but informal discussion carried out with the small group of visitors or community members to discuss a predetermined topic in their own terms.

Forecasting: using data to identify trends and project the future state of a variable. Variables might include broad topics such as the local economy or the demographics of a community, or more specific topics such as available volunteers, school tours attendance, or wifi bandwidth needs.

Friends / Auxiliary Group: A support organization that is separately incorporated and whose primary purpose is the support of the museum. This may involve financial support, volunteers, or expertise.

Full-time staff: Employees who work 35 hours or more per week.


Governing Authority: The entity that has legal and fiduciary responsibility for the museum (this body may not necessarily own the collection or the physical facility) and may include not-for-profit boards, appointed commissions, governmental bodies, and university regents.

Names of governing authority include advisory council, board of commissioners, board of directors, board of managers, board of regents, board of trustees, city council, commission, or tribal council.

Head of governing authority: The elected or appointed head of the executive body to which the director reports. For institutions that are part of a larger non-museum parent organization, the head of the governing authority is considered to be the individual within the institution’s larger parent organization to whom the director reports/is responsible (e.g., dean or provost of a university, director of parks and recreation for a city government, military post commander, etc.).


Human resources: All of the people, paid and unpaid, who regularly work at the museum.


Immersive experience: Feeling deeply absorbed, involved and engaged.

Implicit Bias: Unconsciously held opinions, attitudes and expectations that shape decisions, actions and understandings without full awareness of this influence, which limits the ability to be objective.

Inclusion: The intentional, ongoing effort to ensure that diverse individuals fully participate in all aspects of organizational work, including decision-making processes. It also refers to the ways that diverse participants are valued as respected members of an organization and/ or community. While a truly “inclusive” group is necessarily diverse, a “diverse” group may or may not be “inclusive.”*

Intern: A student or trainee who works to gain experience for a career or profession. Some internships are paid, some are unpaid, some are done in exchange for school credit, housing or other compensation.

Inclusion: The intentional, ongoing effort to ensure that diverse individuals fully participate in all aspects of organizational work, including decision-making processes. It also refers to the ways that diverse participants are valued as respected members of an organization and/ or community. While a truly “inclusive” group is necessarily diverse, a “diverse” group may or may not be “inclusive.”*

Institutional plan: See Strategic plan

Interpretation: The media/activities through which a museum carries out its mission and educational role:

  • Interpretation is a dynamic process of communication between the museum and the audience.
  • Interpretation is the means by which the museum delivers its content.
  • Interpretation media/activities include but are not limited to exhibits, tours, Web sites, classes, school programs, publications, and outreach.
  • Interpretation methods and design is based upon museum and educational learning theories. Knowledge of cognitive development, educational theory, and teaching practices are applied to the types of voluntary, personal, and life-long learning that occurs in museums.

Interpretive plan: A document that outlines what stories and messages the museum wants to convey through a variety of media, such as exhibits, programming, and publications. It may include the institution’s interpretive philosophy, educational goals, and target audiences. A museum may develop an overall institutional interpretive plan, or an interpretative plan for an individual component of its operation—for example, for its permanent exhibits or for one of its historic sites.

Inquiry based learning:  A pedagogical method that uses questions, problems and/or scenarios to trigger curiosity and critical thinking.


Learning, Formal: Structured learning that typically focuses on teaching specific, predetermined skills and/or knowledge. Learning outcomes are frequently measured or evaluated, usually through testing.

Learning, Informal: Learning environments or systems that offer self-directed opportunities that can lead to unexpected or unplanned learning, impacts and outcomes.

Learning, Self-directed: Also known as independent learning. An individual takes ownership of their learning process (with or without guidance). The free-choice environment of many museums can be a foundation for creating self-directed learning opportunities through interpretive scaffolding and visitor choices that offer multiple points of access.

Learning styles: Categorizations that differentiate the manner in which a person most effectively comprehends and processes new information. Designing educational materials and approaches to either match an individual’s learning style or to be inclusive of all learning styles is one educational strategy or pedagogical approach.

Learning organizations: Organizations that value continuous knowledge and skills development and actively support ongoing learning for all members as well has for the organization as a group.

Logic model:  A model (usually depicted in the form of a table or diagram) used to plan the resources, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact for a program or event.


Marketing: Marketing is the wide range of activities involved in making sure that you’re continuing to meet the needs of your customers and getting value in return. These activities include market research to find out, for example, what groups of potential customers exist, what their needs are, which of those needs you can meet, how you should meet them. Marketing also includes analyzing the competition, positioning your new product or service (finding your market niche), pricing your products and services, and promoting them through continued advertising, promotions, public relations, and sales.

Material culture: Objects, materials and spaces created by people to sustain, perpetuate or enjoy life as defined by their particular culture or society.

Membership program: A program that offers specific privileges, perks and discounts in exchange for payment of dues or fees (usually annually) as a charitable contribution. A well thought-out membership program can support fundraising and marketing, and can encourage member feelings of belonging, stewardship and loyalty.

Memorandum of agreement/memorandum of understanding: A written agreement spelling out the terms of the relationship between two entities, such as a museum and a support organization, or a museum and a municipality. It is signed by the governing authorities of the organizations.

Mission: A statement approved by the museum’s governing authority that defines the purpose of a museum—its reason for existence. The mission statement establishes the museum’s identity and purpose, provides a distinct focus for the institution, and identifies its role and responsibilities to the public and its collections.

Multiple Intelligences: A learning theory that suggests humans have eight possible different types of intelligence that impact learning styles and capabilities.


Nonoperating income and expenditures: Income and expenditures related to temporarily or permanently restricted funds, such as endowment contributions and pledges; capital campaign contributions and pledges; all realized capital gains and losses that are rolled back into principal; income from capital campaigns; and capital expenditures.


Open storage: Placing stored collections on public view without interpretative materials.

Operating income and expenditures: Income generated by or expenditures supporting the museum’s general operations in a given fiscal year, including exhibitions, education, conservation, collections management, acquisitions, research, training, development, and administration. It includes any portion of income from the endowment that is applied to operating expenses in a given year. It does not include capital expenditures. See also nonoperating income and expense.

Organizational capacity: The ability to effectively use resources to successfully fulfill its mission and goals while honoring its values and maintaining positive social impact.


Parent organization: The overseeing organization (such as a historical society or university) which is responsible for the fiduciary control of the museum.

Part-time staff: Staff who work less than 35 hours per week.

Pedagogy: A method and practice of teaching.

Planning: The creation of policy and written plans. Thomas Wolf (Managing a Nonprofit Organization, 1990) lists two essential prerequisites of planning as, 1) an evaluation/assessment of the organization’s current position, and 2) a clear vision of the organization’s future expressed through a statement of mission and goals. These prerequisites apply to all types of planning, whether it is long-range, disaster, exhibition, marketing, or program.

Professional Practices: A professional practice [aka best practice] is generally accepted in the field as a reliable method or technique for achieving a desired result.

Public trust: The obligation and duty to serve the public interest rather than individual interest or institutional interest.

Purpose: The museum’s broad guiding principle as stated in its governing documents.


Social media: Forms of electronic communication (like Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).

Special events: Concerts, festivals, or special seasonal programs.

Special exhibitions: Usually short-term, temporary exhibitions.

Staff: Unless otherwise noted, refers to full- and part-time staff (paid or unpaid) of your organization.

Stakeholders: People who have influence on your institution or are impacted by your institution.

Standard: Generally accepted level of attainment that all museums are expected to achieve.

Strategic plan: Comprehensive plan that broadly delineates where the institution is going and provides sufficient detail to guide implementation. Sets priorities and guides important decisions that are oriented towards the future. Some museums split this into two parts:

  • Multi-year plan: Big-picture plan that sets strategies, goals, and priorities. Sometimes referred to as a strategic or long-range plan.
  • Operational plan: Plan that provides the details needed to implement the decisions in the strategic or long-range plan. Usually focuses on a short period of time and is typically geared to the museum’s budget year. Sometimes referred to as an implementation plan. For more information see: AAM Standards regarding an Institutional Plan.

Stereotype: An inaccurate generalization about a person or group based on oversimplified or limited information.

Sustainability: A way of operating that supports the organization’s current needs and can be continued without reducing resources or opportunities for the future.


Tours: Any type of tour of the exhibitions, grounds, buildings or surrounding area. This includes school, self-guided, audio, and guided tours.


Universal design: The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.


Values: The core belief system that provides a moral compass and framework for an organization’s goals, priorities and decisions.

Vision statement: An aspirational declaration of a museum’s intentions that may include a description of the ideal scenario or successful future.

Visitors: Groups and individuals who go to the museum’s physical facilities to use the museum services.

Visitor motivation: The reason why someone visits a museum, an exhibition or attends a program. A visitor’s expectations and needs are part of a visitor’s motivation to attend or not  attend.

Visitor experience:   A visitor experience begins when a decision is made to visit, and continues through the planning and research, the onsite experience at the museum, and then post-visit activities such as online research or conversations with others about the visit.   A visitor experience includes all interfaces or points of contacts a visitor has with the museum and its facility, services and products.

Visitor services: Facilities or services that provide comfort to visitors, including assistive devices, baby changing stations, checkrooms, dining area/food service, first aid stations, information desk, nursing areas, restrooms, seating, signage, water fountains, wheelchairs, and WiFi access.

Visitor studies: The use of data collection, research and evaluation to better understand and improve the visitor experience.

Visitor survey: A set of questions designed to gather information from visitor that will help a museum improved its programs and services. Surveys may be done using different methods: verbally, online, on paper, by email.

Visual literacy: The ability to observe, interpret, analyze and make meaning from a still or moving image. A shared vocabulary used to describe and discuss an image is generally considered a foundation for literacy.

Visual thinking strategies: A pedagogical method that uses structured facilitation to help students observe and engage with visual art.

Volunteer: An individual who offers time and service to the museum for no salary or wage.

Wayfinding: How a visitor determines his or her location and the best route to take to get to a destination within the museum. Maps and signage are some ways museums help visitors stay physically oriented and aid in wayfinding.

*Adapted from AAM MAP Glossary

*From Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group Report, 2018. Full Report available in the MAP Portal.

+ Adapted from Dean, David. (1994). Museum Exhibition: Theory and Practice (p. 161). London: Routledge.

**From TrendsWatch 2019, the American Alliance of Museums.