As a first step, you need to establish why you are meeting with the museum staff and what you intend to learn. This is important whether the work has been initiated by you or by the museum. Both museum staff and community members must understand and agree to the results of this first step. Once you agree and have set up a visit, there is still a lot to consider. This can be a complicated logistical process, and you are also building a relationship with the museum. This takes time.

You might consider asking these questions when planning your visit:

Who is the primary museum contact person for arranging the visit?

How many staff will be participating in the visit? What are their roles? [Depending on the collections you will be working with, you may want privacy or you may request that more staff be present so you can share information.

If invited by the museum, will you be compensated for participation? What expenses will be covered?

If the institution pays expenses, will you be reimbursed or will the museum be billed directly?

Where will you be meeting? How will the collections be accessed (for example, will they be pulled from storage and set on tables in the conservation lab? Or will they be viewed where they are housed?)

What do you want to see? [Museum staff may need to pull items for you to view or research, and this takes time and preparation. Let them know what you want to see, even if you can only give them a general idea.]

What items do you want to avoid? Are there culturally sensitive collections in the building? [Specify whether you want to avoid certain collection items or types of collections (for example, medicine bundles, funerary items, and/or human remains)]

What is the proposed schedule for the visit? [This gives you an opportunity to discuss and negotiate the schedule]

Have the collections you will be working with been treated with pesticides? [Historically, many collections were treated with mothballs, or even arsenic, lead, or mercury, to prevent insect infestations. For your safety, museum staff may recommend that you wear gloves and sometimes lab coats while studying some collection items].

Can information about the collections be provided to us before our visit? [You can request reports and/or copies of catalog records with images, if available. This documentation gives you an idea of the number of items, what they are, and what they look like].

Will the museum want to record (video/audio/photos) the meeting? Will we be asked to sign permission/release forms? What kind of recording is acceptable to me and/or my group? [Request a copy of the permission/release form prior to your visit. If you have any questions or want to edit the form, discuss this with the staff prior to the visit]

What forms will I have to fill out? [such as collections access forms, payment and reimbursement forms, and tax forms; see Addendum II for examples of various forms]

What will happen to information about the collections that we share with the museum?

Let the museum know:

Who in your group will be the primary contact for the museum. If there is a change, inform the museum.

If you need to spend time alone with specific collections, will require a private space to do so, or plan to make offerings, including burning substances. You may want to discuss how your offerings will be handled by the museum after the visit.

If you would like a general tour of the museum or would like to see collections outside the project’s scope.

If non-English speaking community members will be participating in the visit and you will need additional time for translation.

If people in your group need special assistance, such as a wheelchair.

This is not a complete list of questions or things to consider; you will likely come up with additional questions based on your specific situation.

Once you have scheduled your visit, you may wish to consider the following:

As the community representative, you might feel pressure from the museum staff to be the overall authority or expert about the collections you are working with, but only you know what knowledge you possess, and what you can and cannot share. It is your right to decline to answer a question or to say “I don’t know.”

It is also your right to tell staff when they should stop any recording (such as video, photographs, audio recording, and notetaking), and whether any information shared during the off-the-record period is private and not to be shared further. You may request a review of notes taken by museum staff before they are entered into the official museum records. This will allow you to make changes or delete information.

If you have never visited the museum before, the experience of seeing collection items from your community may be overwhelming. It is important that you express your needs to museum staff to let them know if:

You have to cut the day short.

You need longer or more frequent breaks.

You need to engage in your own cultural practices, whether alone, with the collections, or with staff present.

Reflect on the entire experience. Were you satisfied with the visit? If not, do you feel the need to discuss this with the museum staff? Are you interested in future visits and /or a longstanding relationship with the museum?


Opportunities may arise for museum staff to learn more about the communities from which museum collection items originate. A visit to your community by museum staff allows you to introduce, on your own terms, aspects of your history, culture, and arts that you feel are important to share.

It may be beneficial to consider the following in setting up a visit to your community by museum staff:

Develop an agenda with the appropriate community members and museum staff.

Share relevant community policies, cultural protocols, and governance structure.

Recommend literature and online resources about your community.

Assist with local travel logistics, including directions to the meeting location, lodging and meal options.

About these guidelines

This project was funded by the Anne Ray Charitable Trust with additional support from the National Museum of the American Indian.

Guidelines Project Credits

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