New York Museums of Excellence

Museum ButtonsWhen I first compiled my list of New York museums, one of my sources was the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).  Trade associations, I love ‘em. The Alliance accredits worthy institutions.  However, its website describes an AAM Continuum of Excellence rather than a black-and-white, accredited-or-not dialectic.

Indeed, the AAM offers a variety of options for museums short of full accreditation.  The simplest simply being signing a Pledge of, well, Excellence.  AAM maintains a list of museums that have signed the Pledge and/or proceeded further along its Continuum, up to and including full accreditation.

It’s surprising to me how many New York museums, many of which are AAM members, haven’t even signed the Pledge.  I wonder if the AAM charges for the privilege. In their shoes, I suppose I would.

Then again, I also wonder what’s in it for the museums involved.  AAM doesn’t exactly have consumer name-brand recognition; its not the Consumer Reports of museums (that’s a missed opportunity for AAM — or maybe that’s what my project evolves into?).

If it doesn’t get people through the door, I hypothesize that accreditation helps with fundraising. An institution can take its position on the AAM Continuum of Excellence to grant-making organizations and major donors to prove its legitimacy.  Of course, someplace like the Met doesn’t need to prove itself.  But it probably likes to play nice with its colleagues/competitors, so it goes along with the accreditation game too.  Which in turn gives accreditation greater legitimacy.  Big, happy, virtuous circle.

Some Places on the Continuum

In any case, only about  77 New York City institutions fall somewhere on the AAM Continuum of Excellence, out of my 190+ list.  A couple do so twice:  the New York Botanical Garden and its William and Lynda Steere Herbarium; and the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. I’m still counting those as single museums.

On the other hand, I assume the Met’s accreditation applies to the Cloisters and the Breuer, too.  And the Historic House Trust  is on the list, which I assume covers Wyckoff House and all the other historic houses under its umbrella.

Some AAM members on the Continuum list aren’t museums by any definition.  For example, Arup, the engineering firm, and Eriksen Translations, which helps museums go multilingual.  So you can’t take the AAM Excellence list entirely at face value.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (which runs the various city zoos and the aquarium) is also a Continuum of Excellence institution.  I’ve gone back and forth about whether to count zoos as museums; currently they are not on my list.

Acknowledging “Excellence”

I recently went back to the AAM Continuum of Excellence list again, as I continue to wrestle with the definition of a museum.  Revisiting it much further along in my project, I realized that getting accredited or even just taking the pledge probably really does mean something, in terms of a museum’s commitment to quality.

I also realized that the AAM website is just awful in terms of exposing Continuum of Excellence museums to the general public.  

To remedy that, I’ve added a column to the Gothamjoe Museum Database.  I’m not going to keep it constantly updated, but every few months I’ll check and update based on the AAM list.  Whether I personally recommend them or not, it’s worth helping museum-goers identify NYC museums that, like Bill and Ted, strive to be excellent.

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