Sunsetting your Site
Closing a museum is part of the museum lifecycle. Museums close for many reasons: lack of funding, accrued debts, loss of board or staff, dwindling visitation, lack of community support, and even natural disasters. It is important to have a plan in place before you need it to help ease this challenging, costly, and time-consuming situation.
Every museum will need a different closure plan. Below are some considerations to include in your plan.
Please note: The following is written to provide guidance and access to external resources for sunsetting a site, not legal recommendations. Make sure to consult with a lawyer if you have any uncertainty.
This guide is intended to support non-profit museums. BC Museums Association embraces a broad and inclusive definition of museums. In the BCMA Bylaws, a “museum” is defined as:
Institutions created in the public interest. They must engage their community, foster deeper understanding, and promote the enjoyment and sharing of authentic cultural or natural heritage. Museums work to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of people and their environment.
The definition of “museum” includes the following: museums; art galleries; archives; heritage and cultural centres; Indigenous cultural centres, Friendship centres, and bands/council; universities and/or local governments responsible for stewarding arts, culture, and heritage; natural, archaeological and ethnographic monuments and sites and historical monuments and sites of a museum nature; institutions holding collections of and displaying live specimens of plants and animals, such as botanical and zoological gardens, aquaria and vivaria; science centres and planetaria; conservation institutes and exhibition galleries permanently maintained by libraries and archive centres; nature reserves; such other institutions as the BCMA Council determines in its discretion.
Staff and Volunteers
The decision to close is often not an easy one, but the decision should be made as soon as all other alternatives have been exhausted. The closure of your museum should not come as a surprise to your board, staff, volunteers, and partners. Clear, open, honest communication is key as your museum considers and implements a closure plan. Share this closure plan and ensure everyone understands their role within it.
Your staff and volunteers are likely very passionate about their work and their museum, so this will be a very emotional time for them. In larger museums, scheduling one-on-one meetings with their supervisor in order to ask questions, seek understanding, and express themselves can be helpful. Some museums may consider an event to celebrate the work the team has accomplished.
The Red Cross offers training in psychological first aid to support self-care and caring for others. Make sure you consider and make plans to support the emotional well-being of the people impacted by your closure – this includes caring for your own well-being. If your museum offers benefits, consider contacting them to launch an employee assistance program. If you already have an employee assistance program, ensure that your staff are aware of its availability. Benefits and EAPs can be extended after an employment, if able, contact your provider and see if this will be feasible for your museum, plan, and staff.
Severance pay and final wages
Following employment standards in BC, museums with fewer than 50 staff members should give employees written notice regarding their last day of work, severance pay should be provided using the BC Government compensation calculator, and final payment should be made. Final payments include regular wages, overtime, statutory holiday pay, compensation for length of service, and vacation pay. Final payment must be made:
- Within 48 hours after the last day an employee works when an employer ends employment
- Within six days after the employee’s last day of work when an employee quits
If your museum has over 50 employees, more steps need to be taken. In addition to notifying staff, any trade unions as well as the labour minister should be informed. The number of staff will influence the amount of weeks’ notice required. To learn more, click here.
Your staff and volunteers need references and recommendations as they transition into new museums. Closing plans should take into consideration the time needed to prepare letters of recommendation. Something often overlooked during times of transition is which contact information former staff and volunteers should include as they seek new employment. If an museum has closed its doors, its phone numbers and email addresses will no longer be available.
A simple and clear communication plan will be necessary for this transitional period. The closure of a museum and the consequential deaccessioning of the collection will be confusing and certainly concerning for the community. Have a plan in place for your communications strategy. Consider clear, direct language.
The BCMA has a playlist of communication resources that you can explore here. When thinking about your audiences, consider that your closure will affect staff, volunteers, members, visitors, donors, researchers, clients, local government, friends of the museum, schools, and partners.
Prepare a press release. Cover why closure was the only option and the other routes that had been exhausted, when the closure will take place, what will happen to staff and volunteers, what will happen to the collection, and what will happen to the site.
With a closure on the horizon, special consideration should be given to bookings placed with your museum. Programs, field trips, facility bookings, site rentals, and special events should all be weighed against the probability of closure. The contracts that are used with bookings should have language that addresses the potential outcome should your museum close.
Outstanding partnership projects and grand-funded work should be considered in your closure plan. Funders should be informed well in advance of your closure. Having an open conversation about the challenges your museum is facing with your granting agency allows them the opportunity to help you address outstanding project objectives. Based on the stipulations of your grant you may be required to return funding.
Collection management policies will lay out the steps taken during a closure. If your collections management policies do not currently have plans in place for a closure, this is the best place to start. Your type of museum and collection will guide your collections management policies. Closing will likely require deaccessioning your collection.
Deaccessioning your collection
Your closure plan will need to account for the time, space, staff, and funds it will take to deaccession your collection. Start by taking an inventory of your collection, clarify and address any unknowns in your collection, and contact the lender of any loaned items to facilitate their return. Your digitized collection will also need to be assessed and addressed.
Registered charities with the Canadian Revenue Agency, in most cases, cannot return donated items to their original owner. If a donation form includes language regarding returning an item, legal counsel should be consulted.
If your museum is able to amalgamate your collection to another museum, the objects that make up your collection will need to be deaccessioned from your collection and accessioned into the new host museum. If your museum is able to host your collection at a new museum and is still overseen by your governing body, the objects do not need to be deaccessioned from your collection; however an agreement must be signed between your two museums and updated regularly.
Indigenous partners should be consulted on the stewardship of their belongings throughout the life of your museum and not just at the time of your closure. The closure of your museum may interrupt repatriation work that has begun, and can disrupt communities’ ongoing research to locate their belongings. Your closure plan should include communicating with your established Indigenous partners regarding your closure and detailing a plan for continuing your repatriation process to completion before the closure is complete.
If you have Indigenous belongings in your collection but have not established a relationship with those communities, ensure they are aware of your closure and which items you have in your possession. The closure of your site might present an opportunity for ownership of community belongings to be efficiently repatriated, and should not be overlooked during this stressful time. However, do not assume that Indigenous communities will be in a position to accept items from your collection. For numerous reasons, from lack of funding, to the need for internal community consultation, to uncertain provenance, Indigenous communities may decline an offer to accept items from your collection. Communities may not be immediately able to accept the items, but may want the items returned in the future after undertaking their own process and research. If this is the case, it is critical that communities that are associated with items in your collection are informed of where the objects are being transferred to when your site closes. If you do not take care to inform the communities about where the items go, you have the potential to set back their repatriation planning and research.
The BCMA has a collection of resources to support your work with Indigenous culture and heritage.
This resource is not a substitute for legal counsel. If possible your closure plan should account for hiring a lawyer with expertise in non-profit dissolution. The closure of your museum does not require your society to dissolve.
Closure plans can be integrated into your museum’s bylaws. This would mean that if your museum ever faced closure, a voted-on and approved plan is already in place and familiar to your governing board. Closure of your museum does not require your society to dissolve. Voluntary and involuntary liquidation and dissolution of an museum is covered under the Societies Act of BC and the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act. If your museum is facing bankruptcy, this will affect your liquidation and dissolution. Please read the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act for more information.
In order to liquidate museums will need to make an inventory of assets. This includes your collections which are covered in the section above as well as any objects owned by your museum that are not part of your collection, such as financial assets and property. These non-collection assets will need to be disposed of which might include transfer to another museum or sale. Before an museum can liquidate, all liabilities must be paid. Funds remaining after liabilities have been paid and liquidation has occurred can be transferred following dissolution while abiding by the Income Tax Act guidance.
An application must be filled out by the museum for dissolution. After the internal affairs are completed, a financial report must be prepared that accounts for the steps taken during liquidation. A general meeting must be called with a quorum to present the report. After the final general meeting, an application is made for dissolution and the financial reports and any other reports are presented to the Registrar. Following a Societies Amendment Act of 2021, societies must now appoint a Record Keeper at the time of dissolution. Records must be kept up to three years after the dissolution.
Sunsetting a Museum Resources
This resource is an introduction to the concept of closing a museum well and is intended to get museums, boards, staff, and volunteers thinking about and making plans to approach closing a museum with care. For more in-depth information, we recommend the following resources: