How to Write a Museum Collection Management Policy

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According to the American Association of Museums a museum is defined as "a legally organized nonprofit institution essentially educational in nature, with professional staff, which owns or utilizes tangible objects, cares for them and exhibits them to the public on some regular schedule." Before a museum can acquire the tangible objects that make up a collection, a written Collection Management Policy needs to be created that defines the focus of the museum, its audience, legal and ethical concerns and a foundation for how objects are acquired.

  • Begin by writing a mission statement that communicates the purpose of the museum, who the audience is and what it does.

  • Define the scope of collection. By outlining in advance what the museum will and will not accept into the collection will help keep the focus on the mission of the museum.

  • Think through your institutions acquisition and accession policy. Two concepts that are frequently confused are the act of physically acquiring the object and the process of legally obtaining title to the object for the museum collection. This section of the collection policy also establishes priorities for accessions and mandates the process and documentation for accepting collections.

  • Include how will the museum handle deaccessioning. Although a museum makes a commitment to preserve an object when it is accessioned into the collection, there are times when an object needs to be moved to another repository or disposed of. This is called deaccessioning. This section of the policy should define acceptable methods for disposal based on museum ethical guidelines and local laws.

  • Outline the procedures for taking on a loan and for loaning out objects from the museum collection. This section should also include guidelines for how to handle unclaimed loans.

  • Documenting the collection through accession records, inventory and cataloging are needed to maintain intellectual control over the collection. Pre-determine who will be responsible for documentation, the level of control and what type of backup system your museum will have for its records.

  • Define your institutions preservation plan. Storage, temperature, relative humidity, pest control, conservation, handling of objects, disaster planning and location inventories are all integral and expensive commitments that are necessary to protect the collection from deterioration.

  • Create a policy for access to the collection. Legal issues, staff size, space, level of control, preservation, users and exhibition are all factors that contribute to different levels of access or use of collections. If an object is fragile the museum may limit access. Some donors might ask that certain information about the donation be kept private.

  • Write out the museum's commitment to maintaining a legal and ethical environment. There are many laws that protect cultural property and people's rights. To name a few: the Endangered Species Act protects certain species of animals and plants, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict protects culture property during war time, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act protects the cultural objects and burial sites of Native Americans. Ethical concerns include conduct of employees, conflicts of interest, selling items from the collection or restoration of certain objects.

Tips & Warnings

  • Making a commitment to these practices in the Collection Management Policy will send a message to the staff, board, funding sources and the community that anything that comes into the collection will be cared for.
  • Think ahead about your institution's commitment level when it comes to intellectual property rights. Just because a museum owns, for example, a collection of photographs does not mean it automatically owns the copyright, which can limit how the museum can use them. When a collection comes into the museum it is important to document any transfer of copyright, patent or trademark.

References

  • American Association of Museums
  • Things Great and Small: Collection Management Policies, John E. Simmons, 2006
  • The New Museum Registration Methods, Buck and Gilmore, 1998
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