A Year in Review: An Assessment of the 2023 Museum Forecast

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

December 20, 2023

In Museum Forecast 2023, I shared three forecasts. This post will outline the specifics of my forecast for each area and offer observations on how those areas actually evolved over the course of 2023.

The forecasts covered in this post include the illegalization of unpaid internships, the repatriation of ethically questionable acquisitions as no longer optional, and the evolution of the collection development policy.

Forecast: No More Working for “Free”; the Illegalization of Unpaid Internships

My forecast is that states will continue the work they’ve done to require salary transparency and the prohibition of asking candidates for a salary history, and the next evolution will be to tackle unpaid internships. It may take a few years for impact, but the good news is we’re already seeing an increase in paid internship opportunities in the field. For example the Association of Art Museum Directors launched a paid internship program in 2018 (the same group that generated news coverage in their 2019 call to end unpaid internships), as did the Northwest Archivists (that both Lucidea and myself help to sponsor). More and more of these programs are springing up to help both museums and interns afford a paid internship experience. While the goal is for museums to include these costs in the operating budget, these professional organizations are helping to fill the gap and make meaningful change now.

How “No More Working for “Free”; the Illegalization of Unpaid Internships” Actually Played Out in 2023:

While there are no laws (yet) on the illegalization of unpaid internships, the museum industry has appeared to reach a majority agreement on making the shift to paid internships. Almost all national and regional profession organizations have created policies or statements regarding the requirement for internships to be paid in order for those opportunities to be advertised by the organizations. More museums (of all sizes) are also shifting toward offering paid internship experiences—many considering it a part of their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

These shifts are heading in a positive direction and are perhaps spurred on by the nonprofit labor shortage that has been gaining in size since 2020. Inadequate salaries is a huge contributor towards this labor crisis as years of unlivably low wages have become untenable with historic inflation rates. And, while burnout was always a risk for nonprofit labor levels, the impact of several years of global crises has driven many burned out nonprofit staff to quit and change careers entirely—away from the nonprofit sector. If paid staff positions are hard to fill, it’s no surprise that museums may also be rethinking their offering of unpaid internships through this lens of cultivating healthier staffing.

Forecast: Forecast: Repatriation is No Longer Optional

My forecast is that repatriation will no longer be optional. First, through ethical “peer pressure” and then followed by laws, museums will be forced to reconcile with decades worth of poor collecting practices and anemic provenance research. The proposition is no longer: Will the museum choose to repatriate? Instead, it’s: How will the museum arrive at repatriation? Will the museum administration offer it proactively or at least cooperatively? Or, will museum administration balk at the request, act poorly, and submit to it only after legal actions and/or reputational harm have occurred?

While some museum heavy weights such as the Smithsonian and the MFA (Boston) are leading the way, we’re still going to see larger, longer established museums struggle to evolve. This will be especially true for museums where there’s not been a robust focus on repair work, ethical collecting practices, and a re-evaluation of its collection provenance. Smaller to moderate-sized museums will have their share of challenges too as lack of staff and expertise will hinder participation in provenance research and repatriation—not to mention the likely financial impact that comes from this work. This is an area where federal granting agencies could assist more robustly by offering financial recompense (and incentive) to support museums performing this ethical and necessary work.

Museums that are engaged in DEI work at a programmatic-level will be better able to meet opportunities of repair as they come. Joining with the MFA (Boston) and others, these museums will lead the way regarding repatriation and will subsequently reap the ethical, reputational, and (potentially) financial benefits.

How “Repatriation is No Longer Optional” Actually Played out in 2023:

Each spring the Center for the Future of Museums (under the auspices of the American Alliance of Museums) publishes a TrendsWatch report and this year included a section on Repatriation, Restitution, Reparations. Then in the fall, the Center offered a Future of Museums Summit that hosted two panel presentations centered on repatriation and shared an e-bag containing a PDF pamphlet titled, “The First Horizon: Understanding the State of Voluntary Repatriation, Restitution, and Reparations Today.”

Note: The pamphlet is also available as a free download via the AAM website.

The Center’s work in this area is reflective of the urgency and anxiety many museum professionals feel when attempting to ethically navigate repatriation, restitution, and reparations where few laws and scant policy currently exist. Whether it’s repatriation, restitution, or reparations, the Center concludes in TrendsWatch 2023 that it’s no longer “What is the museum allowed to do?” but instead “What should the museum do?”. A sentiment heard many times these last few years as museums struggle to discern what is their ethical duty in the absence of any legal duty. As we head into 2024, the discourse is starting to shift from should to “let’s figure it out”. AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums (with help from generous funders such as the David Berg Foundation) are utilizing their strategic foresight skills and their position as a leader in the field to help guide our experiments in this area into industry-standard policy.

Related Read: Museum TrendsWatch 2023: Repatriation, Restitution, Reparations.

Forecast: The Evolution of the Collection Development Policy

My forecast is that as museums make their way through DEI work, an increasing number will begin to explore how their collection and collecting needs to evolve. This will require an assessment and update of the museum collection development policy in order to help guide collection amendments as well as future acquisitions. As incentive, I additionally foresee accreditation, granting agencies, and donors will begin to require the submission of museum collection development policies in order to meet qualifications. Essentially, museums will need to show that this alteration in collecting more inclusively is not “just a fad” but a sincere and long-term programmatic change.

How “The Evolution of the Collection Development Policy” Actually Played Out in 2023:

Since writing Museum Forecast 2023 (in fall 2022), a rich and comprehensive resource, “Leading by Diversifying Collections: A Guide for Academic Library Leadership,” was published by Ithaka-S+R. While the audience is primarily academic libraries with special collections, the content and resources are broadly applicable to any museum. Additionally, this resource includes a variety of peer institution examples, success metrics, and a robust reading list.

Resource to bookmark: Leading by Diversifying Collections: A Guide for Academic Library Leadership, written by Kara Bledsoe, Danielle Miriam Cooper, Roger C. Schonfeld, Oya Y. Rieger and published via Ithaka-S+R, November 9, 2022, DOI: https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.317833.

More anecdotally, my firm has seen an increase this year in museums and archives inquiring about collection development policy revamping—driven by a need to make collections more representative and to provide relief on scarce resources (e.g. space, staff time, storage supplies, etc.). As we grow nearer to the deadline for the NEH’s Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions (due January 11, 2024), requests for consult have come in that focus on the management side of the funding opportunity as opposed to the more prominently emphasized “preservation” focus. This is a marked departure from the inquiries we receive annually regarding this grant. And it makes sense. Changing institutional policies can be incredibly arduous, especially if there are pockets of resistance. Often times bringing in an outside expert can be tremendously helpful in persuading everyone to align as well as doing the heavy lifting of policy evolution.

Resource to bookmark: Grants Workbook & Templates written by myself and published in collaboration with Lucidea Press.

On a museum-by-museum basis, many are prioritizing the review and evolution of their collection development policy. It’s exciting to see this occur at the ground-level with museums creating more ethical policies to cover areas of collecting where there are no laws. This work will also dovetail nicely into repatriation, restitution, and reparation work; and will aid in museums creating respectful and healing partnerships with descendant communities.


The museum field is centuries old with many of our North American museums reaching milestone anniversaries. Though the field as a whole may be slow to change, it is remarkable to see how these last few years of global upheaval have served as a catalyst for positive, ethical changes for the museum field. Our work is far from done, but it is helpful to periodically take account of the work accomplished thus far to help buoy our spirits for the work ahead.

This marks the end of the fourth Museum Forecast. We’ll start the new year off with our fifth Museum Forecast: 2024.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. She has authored several titles published by Lucidea Press, including Museum Digital Projects and You. Where to Begin? Rachael is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and a popular presenter.

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