Collections Management Policies for Small Museums

A Collections Management Policy can fix this! (Well, it can keep it from getting worse…)

Anyone perusing my posts will quickly notice a pattern: I’m often writing about disasters, especially collections disasters. This isn’t that unusual at a small, all-volunteer museum, but outside cowardly anonymous blogs like this one, most museums never talk about their Fiasco of the Week.

Yes, it’s embarrassing that objects are marked wrong or not at all, that so much documentation about our donations is missing, that so many of our actual objects are missing, that I’m buying curatorial supplies out-of-pocket because we have no budget, that about 1/4 of our collection is crap that never should have been accepted in the first place, and…well, the list goes on.

(Psst…if you’re so small or unorganized that you literally have no accessions system at all, just a jumble of stuff no one’s ever really tried to organize, you are not alone. DON’T PANIC. See the paragraph below about not having a time machine).

Listen, you can’t change what happened in the past. You do not have a time machine. So buck up, stop obsessing over the sins of the past (even if the sins are yours), and start thinking about changes for the future. And if you’re a really small museum, the first step in that direction is developing a Collections Management Policy.

A collections management policy is a wonderful, wonderful document that will greatly improve the quality of your curatorial life. It lays out exactly what, from this moment on, you will be accepting and not accepting into your collections, who gets to make those decisions, who has access to your collections, and how the collections will be cared for.

(For a sample policy, see the Met’s policy here. Also see the American Alliance of Museum’s guidelines here).

Just think: The days of Old Lady Tour Guide Jane accepting every colorful rock some kid finds in the park and accessioning it into your collection will be over…over! No more 19th century ballroom gowns donated to your science museum, and…this is the exciting part: Collections Management Policies specify a deaccessioning process that will let you legally and ethically get rid of all the crap in your collection!

Sold yet?

Okay, you want to do this. But where do you start?

My small museum never had a CMP (Collections Management Policy). That’s pretty clear from the mess that is our collection. So I decided to develop one…and then panicked at the prospect. I was at this stage for many, many months and have now gotten some professional guidance. So I present…

FIRST STEPS: DEVELOPING A COLLECTIONS MANAGEMENT POLICY:

(Full disclosure: I’m doing all this as I go, so I’ll post the steps as I complete them. Also, I didn’t develop these steps, I’m just following them. I’ll amend or add on as I see fit though–yay anonymous blogging!)

These first steps may seem mostly like common sense, but I promise, it’s a fantastic way to ease into this process. You must take this one step at a time.

Open a Word document, and type up the following information:

  • Your museum’s mission statement
  • Your museum’s components (library? tours? special events?)
  • The Chain of Authority in your museum. This is a biggie. Make a pretty little flow chart, top to bottom. Start with your Board of Directors, and go all the way down to individual staff members like the curator and educational director.
  • Who primarily works with your collections?
  • Who do you want to have the final say in all collections decisions?
  • How many objects do you curate? How many documents in your archive?

When you’re doing this, try to write it out as it exists now and not in your dream museum. This document can be amended later, I promise. The one recommendation I would make is that if you don’t have a Collections Committee on your board, propose to form one. That’s not a requirement though. Just write all this out as it goes day to day.

When I did this, I was surprised by how uncertain I was about the chain of command at my museum. As I’ve written before, our board is practically non-existent and has been a certifiable “mess” for several years now. In practice, I make almost all decisions about acquisitions, with the Executive Director interfering obnoxiously every once in awhile. That scares me. I’m not really qualified to be doing that, and I realized that I probably haven’t been asking for input into these decisions nearly as often as I should, largely because no process is in place for me to do that. The CMP is going to change that.

I was also surprised by the size of our collection. I actually went through our accessions book and hard-core counted everything. If someone had asked me before this how many objects we had, I would have said about 8,000. It’s more like 4,000, and that’s including a large archaeological collection.

Get all this info together, and you’ve taken the first step!

If you read the CMPs of large museums, they’re usually really long and complicated. Yours doesn’t need to be exactly like this, or even anything like this. You can personalize it for your museum. There are several things that you really should include in there (more on that in later posts), but this is about making your life easier.

To be continued…

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