Notes from IHA

Notes from IHA

Illinois is fortunate to have many museums. But how many are there? No one knows for sure, but the Institute of Museum and Library Services is making an effort to find out. The IMLS conducted an extensive study of tax-exempt charitable organizations throughout the United States. The results of the study, the Museum Universe Data File (MUDF), were announced by IMLS director Susan Hildreth at the American Alliance of Museums conference in Seattle on May 19. Ms. Hildreth said there are over 35,000 museums in the United States. There may be, and this study is an excellent starting point, but closer examination suggests we still need to refine the data.

The MUDF study was based on a review of 990s and other data. The 990 is a report that tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS each year. The museum universe report, thus, includes not only museums, but other cultural heritage organizations including historical societies that do not operate museums, genealogical societies, foundations, friends groups, memorials, veterans organizations, art centers, nature centers, preservation organizations, halls of fame, and heritage societies. Some are museums and some are not. The MUDF also includes some duplicates and a few museums that have closed. The section on Illinois museums lists nearly 1,400 organizations, and a printout covers more than 37 pages. Then there is the problem of parent organizations. Some museums are part of a complex of structures operated by one tax-exempt body. In some cases, the entire complex would be considered a single entity, but in others, where there are separate staffs and different geographical locations, one could make a case that each of them is a separate museum. This does not take into account factors such as whether or not the museum has collections, holds exhibitions, or opens to the public for a certain number of hours on a regular basis. The objective of IMLS in documenting the museum universe was to be inclusive and to accept the self-identification of the organizations. The 990 report includes a category for museums, but the MUDF drew upon some other categories as well, such as the one for historical organizations.

While the MUDF list includes many entities that clearly are not museums, there is a further complication. The MUDF was created from tax-exempt organizations. But that does not include tax-supported museums. There are many museums that are part of a park district, forest preserve district, or conservation district; many others are operated by municipalities or by state or federal agencies. There is a need to document these museums, too.

The MUDF was not a onetime thing. It will be ongoing and continuously redefining the museum universe. To help in these efforts, IMLS has reached out to state museum organizations and other bodies to review the museums in their jurisdictions and to share the information. The IMLS invites comments, which can be emailed to This will result in a more complete picture. It will never be perfect, as there are museums opening (and, unfortunately, closing) constantly. But the efforts of many people, led by the IMLS, will help to bring us closer to knowing how many museums are out there. These collected data will be useful to researchers, journalists, the public, and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels for planning and policymaking.

The IMLS MUDF is available online at The IHA is assessing the list of Illinois museums, as is the Illinois Association of Museums. We have already learned of museums we didn’t know about, and we welcome additions to the list. Contact the IHA office to correct or add to the list.