National Collections Program
Developing a Collections Management Policy

Components of a Collections Management Policy

Museums are so varied in their governing structures, social contexts, activities, and purposes that there is no single model collections management policy. The form and content of any policy statement rests with the individual museum and should be tailored to the museum's activities, discipline, nature of the collections, and organization structure. However, there are common issues that all institutions should consider in developing a collections management policy.
    Statement of Purpose (Mission statement)

    Policies governing the management of collections cannot be written without a mission statement for the museum. The mission statement provides a mechanism for focusing and directing the functions and activities of the collections, for setting priorities, and for determining resource needs. A mission statement helps guide priorities and decision-making.

  • Develop a clear, sensible mission statement which broadly describes museum's mandate with regard to collections; general purpose of the institution and collection

  • Identify all relevant legal documents, such as the museum's charter, bylaws, founder's gift instrument, pertinent statutes or laws pertinent

  • Define the goals and objectives of the museum as they relate to the collections

  • Usually drafted by the museum director, in collaboration with advisory boards, trustees and staff.

  • Primary Statement of Authority

  • Describe the operational authority of the museum.

  • Stipulate the role of any museum boards or committees, advisory commissions, director, and staff regarding the delegation of authority for collection activities.

  • Highlight the chain of command for decision-making.

  • Designate responsibility for extraordinary decisions.

  • Scope of Collections

  • Define the present nature and scope of the collections (e.g. subject area, geography, time period, object / specimen type, and history of collection) and intended use of the collections (e.g. study, research, interpretation/exhibition, education programs etc).

  • If the museum maintains more than one type of collection (e.g. accessioned collection, study collection, school collection), describe each type and its rationale, distinguishing any procedural differences, as appropriate, throughout the policy when guidelines may vary from one collection type to the next.

  • Documentation

    Policies should identify standards for the extent and quality of documentation, completeness and level of accuracy, and proper maintenance and management of legal and collection records.

  • Stress the maintenance of accurate and complete records regarding all collection-related decisions and activities.

  • Emphasize the need to fully identify the collections, and to document the history and activity which occurs while an object is in the museum's control.

  • Establish standards for the nature and quality of both the data collected for collection objects and the information maintained as part of the collection record.

  • Stipulate what information or data is required to record specific activities and who is responsible for the creation and maintenance of such records.

  • Collection records should be accurate, timely, complete and securely stored.

  • If possible, duplicate records should be maintained at a site separate from the originals as a security precaution. Backup of automated data.

  • Accession records should include a descriptive catalog record, documentation of legal ownership or possession, reflect the prior ownership of each object and all activity of such object (e.g. loan, exhibit, location, restoration, deaccession).

  • Records of objects on loan to the museum should reflect all activity of such objects while under the control of the museum.

  • Record systems should identify objects by a unique museum number (e.g. accession number, loan number).

  • Who has access to records, and who is responsible for monitoring and documenting such access?

  • Are changes or deletions to records documented, thereby providing an audit trail? Who is responsible?

  • Who is responsible for creating and revising forms and reviewing legal terminology on agreements and contracts?

  • Acquisition

    The major purpose of an acquisitions policy is to ensure that the growth of collections is in harmony with the mission, goals, resources, and priorities of the museum.

  • What is the purpose of collecting?

  • Stipulate the responsible official, the chain of command, and the documentary procedures for acquisition activity.

  • State clearly the procedures to be followed in the acquisition and accessioning process, what records must be produced and maintained and by whom.

  • Describe acquisition methods (e.g. gift, bequest, purchase, exchange, transfer, field collecting).

  • Establish the criteria for evaluating and determining whether an object should be added to the collection (e.g. consistency with museum's mission and collecting goals; quality, rarity, intellectual value; provenance; ability to properly care for and store; research and exhibition use; restrictions on use etc).

  • Does the museum accept gifts accompanied by donor restrictions? If so, stipulate the responsible official to approve such restrictions.

  • Is the provenance of the object established? Were the objects collected and obtained legally and ethically? All local, national and international laws, treaties, and conventions applicable to an object should be observed and documented. State the museum's policy on such issues and specify who is responsible of deciding if provenance is satisfactory.

  • If an acquisition is to be by purchase or exchange, when should an independent appraisal or outside consultation be sought?

  • Does the museum accept donated objects that are not accessioned into the collections? For what purposes? (Resale, exchange, decoration, exhibit props, education programs) Who decides? Are donors informed?

  • Deaccession / Disposal

    If a museum deaccessions, there must be a policy in place that addresses legal issues, ethical concerns and professional standards. Deaccessioning can be a sensitive activity and a sound deaccessions policy helps to anticipate and address concerns.

  • Deaccessioning procedures should be designed to insure thoughtful, well-documented consideration of each proposed deaccession and disposal.

  • Stipulate the responsible official, chain of command, and documentary procedures for deaccession and disposal of collections.

  • State who has the authority to initiate and approve deaccessions and disposals; what records must be made of the process; when the records are to be created and by whom; and when the type and value of the object under consideration may dictate such additional precautions as a higher level of approval than ordinarily required and the need for outside appraisals.

  • Establish appropriate criteria for deaccessioning (e.g. no longer relevant to museum's purpose, beyond the scope of the collections, inferior quality, deteriorated beyond usefulness, repatriation etc). Does the museum require a repatriation policy?

  • Establish suitable methods of disposal (e.g. donation, transfer, exchange, sale [public auction, restricted sale], return to donor, destruction).

  • Should preference be given to keeping the object in the public domain by placement in another not-for-profit institution?

  • Should efforts be made to keep the object in the community if it has significant local or historical interest?

  • Should the original donors be notified of the intent to deaccession?

  • How are funds realized from deaccession sales to be used? Consult professional codes of ethics.

  • Are staff, trustees, and/or volunteers permitted to acquire deaccessioned objects? Consult professional codes of ethics.

  • Deaccession policy should require confirmation of clear title to verify the museum is free to deaccession.

  • Complete and accurate deaccession records should be maintained in perpetuity. Who is responsible?

  • Access

    The museum must balance access for use and preservation of collections. Besides loans, the policy must address issues such as research and study, photography, sampling, reproduction, and use of collection data (manual and electronic). The policy should affirm access to the museum's collection and collection information under controlled conditions.

  • Stipulate the responsible official, the chain of command, the documentary procedures for access to collections.

  • Define "legitimate" uses of the collections

  • Define access to the physical collections as well as collection related information.

  • Establish policies and procedures for requesting access to collections and evaluation criteria.

  • Establish staff responsibility to protect, control, and provide access to the collections and collection records.

  • Are sensitive or restricted data such as appraised values, donor names and addresses, and collecting localities secure?

  • Do access procedures ensure safe handling and security of the objects?

  • Does the museum have the ability to accommodate access requests?

  • When can access be denied and by whom?

  • Review freedom of information and/or privacy laws regarding access to public records.

  • Preservation

    The policy should emphasize the importance of proper storage, handling, conservation, exhibition and adequate documentation of such activities.

  • Stipulate the responsible official, the chain of command, and the documentary procedures for collections care and maintenance.

  • Establish staff responsibility and internal controls for physical care, handling, security, and maintenance of the collections.

  • Establish minimum standards of physical care and schedules for collections maintenance

  • Are the collections, whether on exhibition or in storage, adequately protected against fire, theft, vandalism, and natural disaster? Are there established procedures for handling such emergencies? Who in the museum has oversight responsibilities in these areas? How are such activities monitored and documented?

  • Who is responsible for monitoring conservation needs and who has final authority to approve conservation recommendations?

  • Who is responsible for arranging, supervising, and undertaking packing and shipping of objects? Are condition reports completed?

  • Who is responsible for collections storage, access to storage, and control over the movement of objects within the museum as well as entering and exiting the museum (loans).

  • Inventory

    A current, reconciled inventory of collections is the primary tool for maintaining accountability and providing access to collections. Regular, periodic comparison between inventory records and the physical collections is necessary for prudent collections management.

  • Effective collections management demands that an established inventory system be in place if intelligent decisions are to be made regarding collection use, growth, storage and security.

  • Stipulate the responsible official, the chain of command, and the documentary procedures for collections inventory.

  • Establish an inventory process appropriate to the character of the collections.

  • Establish an inventory plan which includes periodic comprehensive inventories and spot-check inventories.

  • Establish dates and time periods for regular, systematic inventory of collections.

  • What is the appropriate inventory schedule based on collections value, vulnerability, and significance?

  • Are inventory results reconciled with previously existing records? Who is responsible?

  • Are changes and deletions to inventory records properly documented providing an audit trail?

  • Do inventories include objects on loan?

  • Does separation of staff duties preclude the unauthorized removal of physical collections and the corresponding records?

  • Identify procedures to be followed if collection items appear to be missing.

  • Risk Management

    Prudent collections management requires identification and elimination or reduction of risks to the collection. Risk management requires thoughtful review of potential hazards including natural disasters, vandalism, theft, human error, mechanical or operational failure, and deterioration.

  • Stipulate the responsible official, the chain of command, and the documentary procedures for determining risk management and insurance conditions.

  • Who has the authority to contract for collection insurance and to approve deviations from established insurance procedures?

  • Identify when collections are customarily insured. Is insurance to be carried on the museum's collections when these collections are in the custody of the museum? Must incoming and outgoing loans be insured? If so, by whom and who pays?

  • Are objects left in the temporary custody of the museum insured?

  • Does the museum allow borrowers to insure collection objects? If so, does the museum require a certificate of insurance, copy of the insurance policy, and/or a loan agreement stating insurance conditions? Who is responsible for such documentation?

  • What records must be maintained regarding insurance and by whom?

  • Does the museum have a written disaster preparedness plan? Who is responsible?

  • Loans

    Lending and borrowing objects and specimens for exhibition, research, study, and educational purposes is an integral part of any museums mission to make their collections accessible to the widest possible audience. Objects are potentially at a greater risk while on loan. In order to reduce such risk, museums should develop policies which permit responsible use of the objects while ensuring their physical integrity and security by proper care and handling.

  • Stipulate the responsible official, the chain of command, and the documentary procedures for lending and borrowing collections. Same for temporary custody.

  • Establish the conditions under which the museum will lend and borrow collection objects.

  • Specify to whom loans will be made and for what purposes. Will the museum lend to organizations other then not-for-profit, educational institutions?

  • If unusual restrictions are placed on a proposed incoming or outgoing loan, who must approve the loan?

  • Does the museum use standard loan agreements

  • What procedures must be followed by staff in proposing and processing loans? What records are necessary, when must they be made and by whom, and who maintains them?

  • Establish time limitations for incoming and outgoing loans. Who is responsible for monitoring the status of all loans.

  • Who is responsible for arranging, supervising, and undertaking packing and shipping of objects? Who is responsible for obtaining necessary permits regarding national and international laws?

  • Provide a statement of guideline to ensure that there is a good faith effort to examine provenance of borrowed objects and whether material borrowed may require special permits. How are such issues resolved and by whom?

  • Define loan criteria: Can the object withstand the rigors of travel, climate changes, and the circumstances of exhibition? Who decides?

  • Does the museum require the use of a standard facility report?

  • Does the museum have a central processing point for incoming and outgoing objects?

  • Are the accession records of proposed object loans reviewed for restrictions? Who is responsible?

  • Staff Responsibility / CMP Revision

    Staff Responsibility

  • Ethics / Standards of Conduct

  • Policies setting forth a code of ethics provide a mechanism for insuring proper behavior and obligations with respect to the standards established by the museum community and discipline, and adherence to laws and regulations.

  • Stipulates standards of conduct or code of ethics of the museum

  • References professional codes of ethics

  • Personal Collecting

  • Stipulates museum's policy regarding personal collecting by staff and/or trustees

  • May staff members acquire, collect, and own objects of the same or similar nature as those collected by the museum? In competition with the museum?

  • Should staff members disclose to management their collecting activities?

  • Appraisals / Authentication

  • Stipulates museum's policy regarding appraisals for donors and the public

  • Stipulates museum's policy regarding authentication

  • Monitoring and Revising Collections Management Policy

  • Stipulate the responsible official, procedure, and schedule

  • Definitions

  • Include a glossary of terms utilized in the policy document.

  • Appendices

  • Attached relevant documents (charter, founding legislation, associated policies)


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