A brief history of the SAR Guidelines for Collaboration

Museums are changing, as seen in the increasingly collaborative nature of all aspects of museum work. Today, more museums recognize community expertise as critical to all aspects of responsible museum work, from collections documentation to public programs, exhibits, conservation and education. Whereas prior museum policies limited access to collections and museum processes, often shutting out communities, many museums are now welcoming communities and facilitating access to collections. Still, access to collections and ways of sharing expertise and authority vary from museum to museum and even within the same institution, from one department or staff member to the next. What does it mean to truly collaborate? How can we advocate for a collaborative model of museum work? How can museums build positive, long-term relationships with community members?

In 2012, after decades of working with various museums to carry out collaborative methodologies, conservator Landis Smith brought the idea of a seminar to address these questions to Cynthia Chavez Lamar, then director of the Indian Arts Research Center (IARC) at the School for Advanced Research (SAR). The proposed initiative included the idea for the creation of a badly needed resource for museum staff planning or carrying out collaborative work. Dr. Lamar supported the idea, as the seminar proposal was well-aligned with the IARC’s collaborative initiatives in community-based documentation and stewardship of collections.  Further, she broadened the scope of the Guidelines initiative beyond conservation to all aspects of museum work. Facilitated by Lamar and Smith under a generous grant from the Ann Ray Foundation, the initial seminar included conservators, collections managers, curators, tribal museum directors, artists and cultural leaders from North America and New Zealand.

Since then, in a fully collaborative process, a core group of tribal and non-tribal museum professionals met periodically to formulate a set of guidelines for building successful collaborations. In addition, larger review sessions were organized to solicit feedback and to include the ideas and perspectives of a broader group. As work continued, it became clear that two sets of guidelines were needed: one for museums working with communities and another for communities working with museums.

After Dr. Lamar’s departure from the IARC, she continued to support the Guidelines initiative from her new position at NMAI. Commitment to the creation of the Guidelines was maintained by successive IARC Director, Brian Vallo, and most recently by Acting Director, Elysia Poon.  Throughout, collaborative programs consultant/conservator, Landis Smith, co-facilitated and organized the process.

The SAR Guidelines were first posted in 2017 and a second version in 2019. The SAR Guidelines for Collaboration is an evolving document.