Collections Management: Sailing the Storm-Riven Seas on a Shoestring Budget

Like most small museums, we’re broke. Not “we only made $2 million last year instead of $4 million” broke. I’m talking “$4,000 to our name at any give moment” broke. That’s been the situation, to some extent, for over a decade. Last year we ran out of heating oil in February and had no money to re-fill the tank or even to pay our outstanding bill from the previous fall’s fill-up, and if you remember last winter in the Eastern United States, you’ll realize that February through late April was a rather…uncomfortable situation for everyone. We’re that broke.

Why am I ranting about this now? Because it’s become clear to me that something has to be done about our curatorial office, and in this fiscal environment, collections are unequivocally LAST on everyone’s list of priorities. That’s great for everyone else, but the curatorial office is my primary responsibility, and as I learn more about basic professional collections management, I become more and more embarrassed to even TALK about the state of our collections, never mind let any new volunteer see them.

How bad is it? Well…it COULD be worse. As far we know, we don’t have infestations and nothing is deteriorating too badly (no, I’m not a trained conservator, or, at the moment, a trained ANYTHING, so all of this is on common sense alone). This is lucky for us, since the little hygrometer a staff member paid for out of his own pocket consistently shows 80% humidity in the office (standard museum practice: 30-60%) and the temperature in the office fluctuates between 43 degrees in the winter and probably in the 80s in the summer (standard museum practice: 50s to low 60s). We have no light controls in the office, but most things are boxed and so have basic protection from the sunlight, with the notable exception of a really nice feathered outfit whose safety I currently fear for.

So, okay, that’s not too bad. But we have no–literally, no–archival packing material or boxes. We use cardboard and plastic, with probably acidic tissue paper or even (gulp) bubble wrap to keep things from breaking (FYI: never, ever use bubble wrap with museum collections if you can help it). We have a ton of (pardon my French) SHIT that the previous administration accepted for no good reason and that should probably be deaccessioned. Did I mention the accession book, which I digitized from a hand-scribbled notebook when I first got there, is on an Excel sheet on my personal laptop since we don’t have a working computer in the office? Fantastic, right?

More concerning is the fact that we don’t have a collections management policy. That one I’m working on. A wonderful local organization gave us permission to adapt from their almost perfect policy. We’ve never had a full, professional inventory done on our collections, but I did do a partial one years ago (when I was a teenager who’d never even heard the word “inventory”), and I can tell you that we’re a goldmine of old loans, found-in-collection gems and bullshit, and a missing-in-inventory list long enough to be concerning.

The bellyache of all this is that every time I take steps to improve things, I run against three issues:

1.) Nobody Gives a Shit About Collections: Nobody on staff is a trained museum professional. Nope, not one. We’re all volunteers, remember, and a few of us have been wondering for over a decade what exactly we’re doing here. Most of us are working very hard just to keep this place open day to day. Trying to justify pooling with another museum to purchase archival materials for long-term preservation can be a little…challenging. We can see the exact level of our heating oil (right now: 0.00%) but it’s much harder to calculate the exact rate of decay in an off-gassing cardboard box holding a feathered textile.

This is related to the fact that…

2.) Nobody Understands the Collections: Collections are the backbone of all real museums. But at my museum, we have an absent “curator” who only shows up when I call him, and other than that, I and any volunteers I specifically recruit are the only ones working with the collections. The other staff members don’t have a true understanding of how big a deal it is that we hold all this stuff in the public trust, a trust that we’re currently violating.

Also, to circle back…

3.) We’re Broke: Even when I get people to understand that we have an obligation to fix this, they say “well, how are we going to pay for it?” I don’t know. There are some grants out there, but they’re hard for a small, volunteer non-profit to get. For one, many of the private grants that used to cover collections care have dried up or changed their mission to focus on education for inner-city kids or some other trendy thing that will get them more press and donations. What’s left, with a few exceptions, are federal grants (like Museums for America) that come with all sorts of strings attached, can be complicated to prepare and oversee, and are highly, highly competitive.

But…there are resources out there!

I have found some good resources over the years that have helped me, though. One of them is the Connecting to Collections community hosted by the non-profit Heritage Preservation (www.connectingtocollections.org). The amount of really high-quality information they offer for free is greatly appreciated, and I hope they know that. There are also Museum Registration and Fundraising guides out there that are probably available through your library. It was after reading one of these guides that I realized for the first time what my job title actually is, after years of doing it: Hello, World, I’m the Registrar! It helped to know that what I do is valued in museums outside of my little one, and is important enough to have its own committee within the AAM, which brings me to the next resource: The Registrar’s Committee of the AAM (rcaam.org), with all kinds of useful documents, templates, and resources.

Some of these resources have given me the confidence to approach our non-collections staff about the importance of these issues (and they are important–VERY IMPORTANT). It’s also alleviated some of my anxiety about not being a professional (yet!). I can at least know what the professional guidelines are and do my best to follow them.

When it comes to collections, I have learned this: However bad it is, it’s almost certainly not the worst. Yes, somewhere out there, there is a museum whose collections are in worse shape than yours. You can bet on it. So when you’re tempted to just give up in the face of a long uphill battle (in many cases, really more like scaling the face of a cliff), remember to take a deep breath and put things in perspective. This CAN be fixed. Just take it one small step at a time! Sooner or later, you’ll start noticing that the small things you do are making a difference. And that makes it all worth it.

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