managing collection in a museum

Collections are the lifeblood of a museum and, of course, essential to its very existence. One of the paramount responsibilities of any museum is to find the best process to select, protect and display the collections. Ultimately, good museum management begins with a profound care and appreciation for the collection. However, museums differ from one another based on their concept, location, mission, and many other external and internal factors that shape their operation.

Because each museum is unique, there is a great deal of difference in the way museums manage their collections. Good collections management in a museum considers many aspects, such as handling and transporting artwork, digitizing and documenting collections, conservation, cataloging, and much more.

For some museums, collections management encompasses all aspects of their operations. Other museums have a functional collections management process but do not have a collections management policy or procedure.

In this article, you will learn more about the different aspects of managing collections at a museum, collection management policies, collection management software, and how to implement all of them at your institution.

What Is a Collections Management Policy?

Collections management policies are a set of rules that allow a museum or other institution to outline how the organization manages its collections. The policy serves as a guide for staff and, more importantly, as a public statement of the museum’s professional standards for the objects in its care.

These policies educate staff on handling and caring for the collection and answer questions such as protocols for removing or lending objects from the collection to avoid missteps. Adopting a collections management policy prevents future mistakes and helps rectify those of the past.

The museum’s mission statement is the first aspect with which any collections management policy should begin.  This statement outlines the museum’s purpose and goals, its responsibilities to its visitors or audience, and its collection. Mission statements should be consistent with the American Alliance of Museums standards for all museums in the United States. 

There are three vital interrelated elements to managing a museum’s collections: 

  • Collection Registration: provides a core institutional responsibility for the many objects, artifacts, specimens, samples, and documents that the museum holds in trust for current and future generations of humanity.
  • Preservation of collections: a significant and active aspect of collections management that underpins all other museum activities.
  • Controlled access to collections: through exhibitions or research, it fulfills the museum’s mission of education and outreach while protecting the collections.

Key Aspects That a Collections Management Policy Should Cover

In addition to the museum’s mission statement, the introduction should include a selection of criteria that outlines the organization’s priorities for acquiring new objects for its collection. The rest of the policy generally covers the following.

Acquisition

Acquisition refers to the process of obtaining objects or collections for a museum. Objects may be obtained, for example, through fieldwork, a gift or bequest, or a transfer from another institution. Museums should include in their acquisition policies the principles set forth in the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums.  

  • Acquire objects or specimens only if the museum is satisfied that it can obtain a valid title. 
  • Objects will not be acquired if their recovery may have involved the unauthorized, unscientific, or intentional destruction or damage of monuments, archaeological or geological sites, or natural species and habitats. 
  • Collections of human remains and material of a sacred nature will be acquired only if they can be safely preserved and respectfully maintained. 
  • Museums must ensure that biological or geological specimens that have been collected, sold, or transferred have not been acquired illegally, in violation of local, national, regional, or international laws or treaties relating to wildlife protection or natural history conservation. Museums must be confident that the object has not been illegally transferred from another country prior to acquisition. 

Although museums often depend on donations and bequests to acquire new objects, they encounter situations where an important piece is only available for purchase. If an acquisition fund is established, the rules governing its use should be part of the collection management plan.

Quick Tip: Donations play an important role in the museum development process. Benefits can include an income tax deduction for the fair market value of the object at the date of the gift, elimination of capital gains tax on appreciated assets, an estate and gift tax deduction, and the creation of a lasting legacy for the donor with the museum. Using an online ticketing platform that integrates a fundraising solution like DonorPerfect will greatly benefit you.

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Record keeping

Any work of art, scientific specimen, or historical object brought into a museum must be immediately identified by clear and precise means. Its entry and subsequent use must be accurately and permanently recorded. An object is only as valuable as the information that accompanies it.

Accurate and usable records of the objects in a collection are the cornerstone of a responsible collections management policy. A record must be kept for most transactions associated with an object. The first record generated is the accession record. In addition, for better traceability of objects, a legal document attesting to the transfer of ownership, such as a deed of gift or bill of sale, should accompany each acquisition and be part of the permanent record.

These documents act as proof of ownership of the collection. Therefore, its best to keep a copy in a separate, secure location. Certain information is required to complete an acquisition record: the source, the date of acquisition, and a brief description of the object acquired.

Once you have created an acquisition record, you must also number or mark the object. Most modern numbering systems use a significant three-part number. There are several types of numbering systems, including entry numbering, accession numbering, title transfer numbering, exit numbering, temporary numbering, photo numbering, and retention numbering. You can learn more about numbering systems for your collections here.

Registration is the system by which museums control their collections and the data attached to each object. The registration system is under the purview of either the registration department or the curatorial department. Registration staff must have sufficient space and equipment to ensure the safe handling and storage of objects and enable the necessary records to be made, maintained, and protected. Training of staff in the proper handling of artifacts is essential.

Provided all the necessary steps are taken to maintain the collection, keeping the records up to date and accurate will be easy. Also, if the collection transactions are carefully recorded, all necessary steps will be followed, and none will be neglected. Record keeping is the backbone of responsible collection care.

Inventory

An inventory is a list of objects that museums have included in their collections, either permanently or temporarily. An accurate inventory of collections serves as the basis for everything a museum does, such as programming, exhibitions (online and in-person), research and publication, and conservation.

Inventory is an important task facing museum professionals as it is a process that ensures the security of the collection. The inventory is a tool for protecting the museum’s collections and should be done regularly. It usually includes several elements such as spot checks of the collections and procedures to follow if items in the collection appear to be missing.

Loans

Loans are temporary transfers of objects from one institution to another without transfer of ownership. Museums borrow objects and specimens for two reasons. The first reason is a short-term loan to enhance research or a special exhibition. The other is a longer-term loan to fill a gap in an exhibition series. It is, therefore, in a museum’s best interest never to accept a loan without a written contract specifying the rights and responsibilities of each party. The institution that agrees to lend its objects must establish the security rules for its collection, and the borrower must abide by the predetermined conditions. Today, the duration of a loan is usually no more than one year. However, it is crucial to ensure that the loan agreement includes all of the following:

  • Name and address of the person or organization making the donation
  • Signature of the person responsible for the loan
  • Name and address of the location where the object will be kept
  • Accession number
  • Description of the borrowed object
  • Exact dates of the loan period
  • Purpose of the loan
  • Insurance requirements
  • Packing and shipping specifications
  • Any special conditions, provisions, or restrictions such as security measures, lines of credit, photographic privileges, etc.

Deaccession

Deaccessioning is the act of legally withdrawing an object from a museum’s collections. Given the sensitive nature of this operation, these issues must be addressed extensively in the collections management policy, and the Board must make the final decision regarding deaccessioning of Trustees.

Deaccessioning is a complex legal and ethical issue that can raise apprehension, controversy, and misunderstanding surrounding its practice. A museum may consider removing an object from its collection for different reasons. Perhaps the museum cannot adequately care for the object because of its particular storage or conservation requirements. In other cases, the object is a duplicate with no added value as part of a series. Sometimes the object is no longer consistent with the museum’s mission or collecting objectives. There are many other reasons a museum may have to eliminate certain collections.

Object Cataloging 

Cataloging is the compilation and updating of key information, formally identifying and describing objects. It provides a permanent record of all objects in the collection and specific information about each object. The cataloging worksheet is the most frequently used document in collection management. While the format of this worksheet may vary from one museum to another, there is some basic information that any cataloging worksheet must have:

  • The registration number
  • Object name
  • Title 
  • Description 
  • Distinguishing marks
  • Dimensions
  • Condition and completenesses 
  • Place and date
  • Provenance
  • Statement of significance 
  • Handling, storage, and display requirements 
  • Acquisition details

Using a Collection Management Software

A collections management system (CMS), sometimes called a collections information system, is software that helps museums, art galleries, and other businesses with large collections better monitor and maintains those collections. Implementing a digital strategy for your institution using a CMS allows the user to sort and manage collection data more efficiently than with a manual system.

For a museum or art gallery, it’s important to have a record of each piece in the collection that contains its location and other pertinent information, such as how it was obtained or its state of preservation or restoration. Collections management software allows these institutions to digitize records, making it much easier to quickly find information about specific objects and update it as needed. Investing in such software will minimize errors. 

Examples of Collections Management Software 

To be considered in the collection management category, software must be able to create records for each object in the collection. It must also provide a way to easily search and update records, track preservation and restoration efforts, and allow users to catalog objects as they wish. Below are some examples of the best collection management software.

Re:discovery Software

Re:discovery Software is collection management software that integrates with your workflow and makes managing and accessing your collection simple and productive. Re:discovery Software is suitable for cultural institutions such as art, history, and science museums, private and corporate collections, archives, universities, research libraries, non-profit organizations, archaeological sites, government agencies, etc.

Collector Systems

Collector Systems is also a collection management software that provides sophisticated tools to easily manage standardized records in archives and historical collections. The software offers modules geared to the requirements of natural history collections to keep all your data organized and accessible, with built-in tools for complete and accurate taxonomic classification.

TMS Suite/Gallery Systems

TMS Suite is a platform of collection management software designed by Gallery Systems. It offers full native integration, reducing the cost and time required to add new functionality to your collections management system. These industry-leading products provide comprehensive support for organizing, maintaining, and sharing your collections. The TMS Suite allows you to manage all facets of your collections with an initial collection management system and the foundation of the TMS Suite, providing seamless management of object cataloging, shipping, exhibitions, and more.

Axiell

Axiell enables institutions to manage, protect and share their collections and the knowledge they generate. From managing the data and information around museum and archive collections to purchasing, this collection management software provides software that helps museums operate in a digital world and share their knowledge with researchers and the public.

Leverage Your Collection Management With The Best Online Ticketing Software 

The ultimate goal of museums in conserving their collections, art objects, or any other valuable objects is to present them to the general public. There is no point in preserving collections without encouraging visitors from all over the world to come and discover them. Since museum tours account for a large part of a museum’s revenue, using an online ticketing platform is essential to selling more tickets, optimizing marketing strategies, and gathering enough data on visitors.

You Might Also Want To Read: How To Run Museum Tours: A Guide for a Changing Landscape

It allows the organization to provide a better customer experience through membership, loyalty programs, self-checkout kiosks, and more, regardless of volume. A timed-ticketing software will enable organizations to sell tickets in advance to avoid crowding and meet capacity restrictions. Retail features also allow museums to sell items at their gift shops and quick-serve restaurants. And an online platform makes it easy for guests to buy tickets and merchandise directly from your website.

KORONA Event is a ticketing and POS system designed for museums and art galleries. The software offers museums a truly all-in-one system combining your POS and online ticketing platform instead of requiring several different solutions for various operational aspects of your institution. Click on the button below to learn more about KORONA Event’s features and pricing.

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Frequently Asked Question About Collection Management  

1. What is a collection management process?

The collection management process begins first and foremost with establishing a clear and precise collection management policy. Next are methods of organization and staffing, budgeting, marketing, and promotion. 

2. What is museum collection storage?

The museum’s collections storage units provide storage space for the museum’s objects, archival materials, and specimens. They are designed to give maximum protection to the museum’s collections. Museum collection storage units contribute to properly preserving the museum’s valuable objects. However, collection storage is more than just a physical facility. It reflects the museum’s exhibition, education, and research roles and programs. 

3. How do museums protect their collections?

Museums protect their collections in various ways. The inventory rules contained in the collections management policy contribute significantly to the preservation of collections. Maintaining a record of what is inside and on tour helps protect a museum’s collection from loss. Also, more climate control is an essential part of safeguarding collections. Many works of art are contained in special climate-controlled glass cases, which protect them from temperature extremes and humidity in the air, which is essentially a byproduct of breathing. 

4. What is a museum collections plan?

The collections plan provides direction for the museum’s collecting activities, guides decision making, increases intellectual control over the collections, and assures adequate resources for collections maintenance.