Part 2: Meeting stewardship obligations

Management of heritage collections in local museums and art galleries.

Museums hold and manage heritage collections in trust for the public. Their stewardship obligations require them to account for these collections, and ensure their proper care and documentation.

Stewardship is the careful, sound, and responsible management of collections entrusted to the care of the museum, held in trust for the public, and made accessible for the public benefit. Responsible stewardship ensures that the objects the museum owns, borrows, holds in its custody, or uses are available and accessible to present and future generations. A museum has legal, social, and ethical obligations to provide proper storage, management, and care of collections in its possession.

In this Part, we summarise our key findings, and note a lack of standards for collection management. We discuss how the 13 museums that we audited recognise and meet their stewardship obligations. In particular, we discuss whether each museum has:

  • a clearly defined purpose;
  • a clear relationship between its purpose and desired community outcomes;
  • complied with codes of ethics and legal requirements;
  • effective ways of working with Māori; and
  • standards in place for managing its collection.

Key findings

All audited museums had a clear purpose that defined the scope, context, and focus for developing their collections. This purpose was consistent with, and supported, the community outcomes sought by its associated local authority.

Museums have an important stewardship responsibility as custodians of heritage assets on behalf of their communities. The museums we audited were aware of, and committed to, these responsibilities.

Responsible stewardship requires museums to be conscious of, and to demonstrate, their commitment to meeting the legal and ethical obligations essential to professional museum practice. Collections policies and practices provided evidence of this commitment.

Many museums hold Māori taonga of significant cultural, spiritual, and historical value to their original owners. Guardianship of these collections imposes a special set of obligations on museums, requiring access to advice on protocols for dealing with Māori objects.

The audited museums recognised their obligations as guardians of Māori taonga. Where relevant to their collections, most had formal structures or arrangements (such as Māori committees, groups, or advisers) that provided for effective participation of Māori in museum planning and decisions. Museum staff were making good use of these arrangements to consult, engage, and seek advice on a wide variety of matters relating to the day-to-day management of their Māori collections. Relationships between museums and Māori advisers or advisory groups were positive.

Although there are various generally accepted, published standards for aspects of collection management, museums had not explicitly defined or adopted these in their policies and procedures.

Issue for consideration

Museums and art galleries need a set of workable standards relevant to the various aspects of collection management. These standards need to:

  • be relevant for both smaller and larger museums and art galleries;
  • support the principles of professional practice;
  • provide benchmarks for the objective assessment of performance over time; and
  • serve as the basis for meaningful reporting to stakeholders about stewardship.

Such standards could most effectively and efficiently be drawn up by a working group from the sector. As a starting point, such a group could usefully draw on existing good practice guidance such as the requirements of the New Zealand Museums Standards Scheme and schemes used overseas for museum accreditation.

Defining a clear purpose

The purpose of a museum defines its special character, enabling it to build a coherent collection from which to deliver a range of services to its communities and the wider public. A museum’s stated purpose should define the way in which it will use and develop its collection.

We assessed whether the stated purpose of each museum we audited defined the scope, context, and focus for managing that museum’s collection. We examined documents such as strategic plans, mission statements, and collection policies, to establish the stated goals of the museum. We expected each museum to have clearly defined the scope of its collecting activity for:

  • the geographic region of interest (such as Rotorua or South Canterbury);
  • the field of interest (such as a particular artist, species, field of research, or aspect of local history); and
  • a particular period of time (such as objects from a particular decade or art works from a specific era).

All museums had a clearly stated purpose that described the scope, context, and focus for developing the collection. For each, the collecting focus was defined for a district or region, field of interest, and time period. These statements of purpose provided a clear framework for using and developing each collection.

Relationship between the museum’s purpose and desired community outcomes

We assessed whether there was a clear relationship between each museum’s stated purpose and the community outcomes sought by its local authority.

Under section 10(b) of the Local Government Act 2002, one of the purposes of local government is –

To promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities, in the present and for the future.

Cultural well-being is not defined in the Act. The Ministry for Culture and Heritage1 has proposed the following definition –

The vitality that communities and individuals enjoy through:

  • Participation in recreation, creative and cultural activities
  • The freedom to retain, interpret and express their arts, history, heritage and traditions.

We expected strategy documents published by local authorities (such as annual plans and Long-term Council Community Plans) to show how local museums furthered the cultural outcomes sought for the community.

Cultural outcomes were clearly stated by local authorities, and we were able to see how, in each case, the activities of each museum promoted those outcomes.

However, measures used by museums and local authorities to report on the performance of museums failed to demonstrate fully how those outcomes – especially outcomes about the stewardship of collections – were being achieved. We discuss performance reporting by museums in Part 6.

Compliance with codes of ethics and legal requirements

All museums are expected to comply with recognised codes of ethics, and their operations are governed by various pieces of legislation. We examined whether legal, ethical, and other stewardship obligations were clearly articulated by each museum, demonstrating a commitment to manage objects of cultural, historical, and spiritual value to the community in a responsible way.

Codes of ethics

The professional practice of museums and the behaviour of their staff are governed by widely recognised codes of ethics. These codes have an important bearing on the way museums manage their collections. A code of ethics sets out the legal and ethical responsibilities of a museum for the objects it holds on behalf of its community, and for the way museum staff carry out their work.

The 2 codes most relevant to, and recognised by, New Zealand museums are those produced by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and Museums Aotearoa.

The ICOM code of ethics outlines standards for the museum profession, in the form of principles supported by guidelines of desirable professional practice. The code notes that museums hold collections in trust for the benefit of society and its development.

The Museums Aotearoa Code of Ethics expands on the ICOM definition and provides requirements for museums, their governing bodies, and their professional staff. It describes the responsibilities that governing bodies and museum staff owe to the collection and to the public who support, fund, and visit the museum.

The collection and its care are placed in the context of the museum’s stewardship obligations to hold objects in trust for the public –

There is a strong presumption that objects once acquired will remain in the museum in perpetuity, maintained in at least the same condition as at entry and held in trust for the public.

In our examination of museum strategies and in discussions with staff, we looked for evidence that museums were aware of, and committed to, these ethical principles, and were committed to responsible stewardship.

Principles of responsible stewardship

All museums recognised their stewardship obligations. They were aware of, and committed to, their legal and ethical obligations as custodians of assets on behalf of their communities. Some referred expressly to such principles or ethical responsibilities in their mission statements or collection policies.

A commitment to responsible stewardship provides the public with confidence in the ability of the museum to manage valuable community assets on its behalf. It also provides past, current, and prospective donors with assurance that their gifts will be well looked after.

There is a close relationship between stewardship and collection care. In one museum this relationship was set out through a clear hierarchy of strategic objectives, key result areas, issues, and actions. These relationships are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3
The relationship between stewardship and collection care

Figure 3.

Compliance with legislation

Museums generally recognised, where relevant, their responsibility to comply with applicable legislation and conventions. Relevant legislation includes the Antiquities Act 1975, the Wildlife Act 1953, and the Trade in Endangered Species Act 1989. We discuss the implications of the Copyright Act 1994 for museums in paragraphs 2.35-2.42.

Defining legal status of objects

We assessed whether museums had in place procedures and documentation to define the legal status of objects in their collections – a vital element of responsible stewardship. As well as defining ownership, the legal status of an object will commonly determine the way in which it can be used by the museum – for example, for display, reproduction, conservation, loan, or disposal.

In some circumstances, the legal status of objects can be complex – especially where poor records exist of past accessions, or where the terms of loan agreements are uncertain. These situations can create difficulties in establishing current ownership. One museum told us how poor records had created difficulties in responding to requests to return objects to the families of past donors.

Museums were aware of the need to define the legal status of objects in their custody and the associated management obligations. Our enquiries showed that the legal status of their collections was generally well defined through registration policies and procedures, and documented in records such as certificates of title and donor receipts. We discuss the use of documentation to support proof of ownership in Part 4.

Copyright obligations

Museums are legally responsible for ensuring compliance with copyright obligations that apply to the use of objects in their collections.

Copyright protects an original work from being copied without the permission of the copyright owner. This legal requirement affects museums in a number of ways, and a wide range of objects held in museums are protected by copyright. These include archives, visual and graphic works (such as paintings, prints, and other art works), and sound recordings.

We sought evidence that museums had policies about applying copyright to objects in their collections. We examined whether agreements with donors or vendors, and loan agreements (including exhibition documentation), contained copyright conditions. We also assessed whether proposals to publish art works or allow reproductions took account of copyright considerations.

An understanding of copyright principles is fundamental to many activities associated with using a museum’s collection. Copyright implications arise commonly:

  • when a request is received to photograph or reproduce an object, photograph, or art work in the collection or on outwards or inwards loan;
  • if a museum proposes to publish the image of an object on the Internet; or
  • through the process of documenting the collection and creating catalogues or other printed material, such as posters and cards.

Museum documentation needs to specify clearly how the museum will ensure that the legal rights of copyright owners are protected. This is an important collection management responsibility. Copyright issues are becoming more significant as museums make their collections more accessible to the public.

All museums we audited were aware of their copyright obligations. Agreements with donors or vendors to acquire items for the collection, and loan agreements, contained appropriate copyright provisions. This was particularly important for museums with significant collections of photographs, and with paintings and other art works.

Te Papa has compiled a manual, The Copyright Act 1994: A Manual for New Zealand Museums, which outlines how the Act applies to museums. The manual is available from National Services Te Paerangi, which has also published a resource guide on the subject.

Getting copyright permission to publish art works online can be a time-consuming task, particularly for large collections. It needs to be built into project planning. One art gallery employed extra staff for this and associated tasks. It had also consulted closely with the Māori community when preparing images for web publication. The process had taken a number of months as these and other issues were progressively resolved.

Working with Māori

Museums are guardians of taonga of cultural, historical, and spiritual significance to Māori. This guardianship responsibility imposes a special obligation to recognise traditional Māori ownership of taonga in museum collections, and, as caretaker, to ensure that taonga are treated appropriately. Special considerations may include:

  • storage arrangements;
  • security;
  • the design of displays;
  • observing protocol;
  • providing access to the collection by iwi, hapū, and whānau; and
  • dealing with requests to borrow objects.

We assessed whether each museum had structures or arrangements enabling it to discharge its responsibilities as a guardian of Māori taonga, and to promote consultation with local iwi and other Māori on matters relating to managing Māori taonga. We also sought evidence that Māori are involved in managing, using, accessing, and interpreting objects of cultural, historical, or spiritual significance to them.

Māori committees or advisory groups can play a useful role in endorsing museum policies and procedures for managing Māori taonga. They can also assist and guide the museum in dealing with issues about the repatriation2 of Māori taonga.

Where relevant, we asked Māori representatives of museum advisory committees or liaison groups about their relationships with the museum, and their involvement in managing Māori taonga on behalf of local iwi and other Māori.

Responsiveness to Māori taonga responsibilities

Most of the museums we visited had collections of Māori taonga, and all had recognised that they had special responsibilities to ensure that the Māori taonga were treated appropriately, in a culturally sensitive manner. This might involve setting aside an area for the display or storage of Māori taonga, or by putting in place special security measures for the custody of prized Māori artefacts. Spiritual ceremonies commonly accompany significant events relating to Māori taonga.

To provide a stronger focus on these custodianship responsibilities, some museums had set up, or were seeking to set up, a curator position with special responsibility for dealing with the stewardship of their Māori taonga collections. Various benefits were seen in creating such a position, such as:

  • forging a closer relationship with the Māori community;
  • promoting the bicultural identity of the museum, strengthening the cultural values of the museum, and demonstrating a commitment to partnership between the museum and the Māori community; and
  • providing a dedicated resource to focus on matters relating to the management of Māori taonga, such as research and interpretation, display, loans, access, security, and storage.

Structures for consultation and advice

The museums we audited had set up effective structures to work with Māori.

In most cases, arrangements were in place to support the museums in discharging their guardianship responsibilities, and to serve as sources of advice to staff on managing Māori objects in ways that were sensitive to cultural and spiritual needs.

Museums need ready access to practical guidance. One museum had positive relationships with the local Māori community, but no ready access to advice on handling Māori objects. This had led to uncertainty about the protocols to follow when moving objects within the museum.

Committees or designated liaison people provided useful channels for communication with iwi on matters relating to objects in the care of museums. Museum staff were making good use of advisers for guidance on matters relating to management of their collections, such as loans, interpretation, storage, and display. Relationships were positive, with effective consultation and engagement with Māori communities.

Some museums were also working with local Māori on projects to build up information about their collections, or had employed expertise to strengthen staff knowledge about their Māori taonga collections and the conservation of those collections. For example, at the time of our visit, one museum was working with a local iwi on historical research, using photographs from its collection.

In a joint initiative with local Māori, another museum had identified the conservation needs of important Māori taonga. The museum used this project as an educational opportunity, and to improve access to this part of its collection. The museum had a significant collection of around 80 cloaks and more than 100 kete, in a range of styles, techniques, and materials. In 2002, the museum, in consultation with its Māori advisory group, had employed a Māori textiles conservator to assess and photograph part of this collection. The cloaks were re-housed in improved storage facilities, and the museum started a project to provide increased access to the collection. Through a week-long workshop, it also provided the opportunity for people to learn about woven Māori textiles and conservation techniques.

Māori taonga are also held by iwi, or may be returned to their original iwi owners. Te Puni Kōkiri has noted that, increasingly, some iwi may be looking to manage their Māori taonga in a more active way. However, this raises various issues, such as:

  • the design and cost of storage;
  • security;
  • training; and
  • management plans.

There may be opportunities for museums to offer advice on these and other aspects of ongoing management.

Standards for managing collections

Museums are accountable to their governing bodies, funding agencies, and the wider community for the responsible stewardship of the collections in their custody. Assessing the performance of the museum in meeting the requirements of responsible stewardship demands the use of specific and measurable standards.

These standards enable a museum to demonstrate its commitment to responsible stewardship and its achievements in meeting that commitment. Standards can be used for a range of purposes:

  • They enable the museum to establish where its priorities should lie and where it should target its resources. Standards are a tool for planning, and should form the basis for any bid for funding.
  • Reference to standards in museum policies, and in performance reporting to stakeholders, gives prominence to the importance of collection care. It also provides a means of benchmarking performance within the museum over time, and against comparable museums.
  • Along with corresponding indicators of performance, specific and measurable standards enable museum managers to measure the museum’s progress in improving the quality of its practices and procedures, and in meeting key objectives over time.

Using specific and measurable standards

We sought evidence that each museum was using specific and measurable standards to manage its collections, to monitor and report on its performance, and for resource planning and reporting on stewardship.

Museum staff referred to standards, and museum collections policies often contained loose references to “international” or “professional” standards. However, none of the museums we audited had specific and measurable standards for the management of their collections.

There are various generally accepted, published standards for aspects of collection management. Museums had not explicitly defined or adopted these standards in their policies and procedures (as appropriate to their individual circumstances).

The absence of meaningful, objective, and measurable standards was reflected in the variable use of meaningful measures for reporting on the key aspects of collection management (see Part 7).

1: See

2: Repatriation refers to the return of Māori taonga to their place of origin.

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