Part 3: Policies for collection management

Management of heritage collections in local museums and art galleries.

In this Part, we discuss policies for the management of heritage collections and their future development, and associated procedures, processes, and practices. We summarise our key findings and raise issues for consideration from our assessment of:

  • the origins and development of collections;
  • policies and procedures for managing and developing collections;
  • acquisition policies and criteria;
  • processes for deciding what objects to add to a collection; and
  • policies and practices for removing objects from a collection.

Key findings

Museum collections have their origins in a variety of sources and contexts. A museum faces the challenge of interpreting the significance of its collection for the present-day public and defining a coherent collection development strategy for the future.

All museums had policies for managing their collections. These policies were comprehensive and covered the matters needed for ongoing management and future development. However, we found no evidence of formal consultation between museums, either regionally or more widely, about the focus and direction of collection management and development.

Museums had defined criteria for adding objects to their collections. Key considerations are significance, consistency with the acquisition policy and collecting plan, and the potential to use the added object for the activities of the museum. Processes were well defined to ensure that relevant factors were considered before objects were accepted into museum collections.

Art galleries had well-established processes for considering and approving proposals to buy new art works. However, the reasons for purchasing individual art works were not always well recorded, nor were acquisition processes always followed.

Museums had policies for de-accessioning, but none were planning to rationalise their collections.

Issues for consideration

Museums have inherited collections from a wide range of sources and contexts, and in different media. To make the best use of these collections, museums will need to devise collection management strategies around key themes and subjects. They will need to use those themes and subjects to interpret what they currently hold and to define objectives for developing the collection into the future.

Museums would benefit from consulting with other museums on the focus and direction of their collection policies and plans, so as to promote collaboration and make the best use of the network of collections throughout the country.

All museums should draw up training plans to extend staff skills and maintain good practice.

Decisions by art galleries to buy objects or art works should be clearly documented and follow proper procedures, so that the process is seen to be fully transparent and provides evidence that the purchase is relevant to the collection and represents value for money.

Some museums have greater security of funding, more staff, staff with a greater range of specialist skills and experience, or enjoy superior facilities for display and storage. Some collaboration is occurring, but there is an unmet demand for advice and support, particularly for the smaller museums.

Origins and development of collections

We assessed what museums held in their collections, the origin and evolution of collections, and what challenges that posed for development of the collection.

The collections in our museums have not evolved in a planned, systematic fashion. Instead, they are largely the product of past collecting practices and curatorial preferences, evolving social and cultural tastes, and the origins of the institution. The collections in the museums we visited often held objects or groups of objects from varied and sometimes exotic sources. Some of those objects, such as objects from overseas, may not readily fit with the current stated purpose of the museum.

Collection strategies

To establish a collection strategy, a museum needs to decide on key themes for future development, and use those themes to define objectives and collecting plans for specific groups of objects within the collection.

Past collecting practices create a challenge for museums. Museums need to identify a coherent, unifying focus for their collections through a systematic and imaginative assessment of the collection’s significance in the context of the museum’s current purpose and activities. For many, the first step is to assess and document what they hold. We discuss documenting and managing collection information in Part 5.

The work undertaken by one museum – building on a comprehensive inventory of its collection – was a useful approach to interpreting and making best use of what it held in its collection (see Figure 4). The museum set up a collection strategy that provides a possible model for other museums. The strategy can also be used for developing the collection, and for guiding the collection’s use, access, storage, and conservation.

Figure 4
Example of a collection strategy

The museum’s collection strategy was based on 7 collecting themes, each defining a field in which the museum has decided to build its collections. These 7 themes have been divided into a set of collecting units (such as a collection of manuscripts relating to a key area of historical interest). Using a common format, the museum had evaluated the significance of each unit, assigned each unit a priority within the broad collection group, specified acquisition objectives and criteria, and assessed storage requirements.
The collecting units provided the basis for a set of collecting plans. The collecting plans provided a practical link between themes and units, and objects in the museum’s collection. They also provided a basis for ensuring that collection development was strategic and relevant. The museum had a programme to strengthen its collection by buying significant items that filled gaps in its collection, or that would directly contribute to future exhibition plans. Consistency with these collecting plans is one of the criteria the museum uses when considering a possible acquisition.
The museum’s themes and units approach has also enabled it to better design its collections information system to meet its objectives for use, access, and conservation. By building classifications for use into the collection structure, the museum aims to promote rational collection development for the future; promote appropriate use of, and access to, the collection; and provide a means for setting priorities for conservation.

Policies and procedures for managing and developing collections

We assessed whether each museum had a comprehensive and focused collection policy.

A collection policy is a detailed written statement that sets out how the museum will manage and develop its collection to meet its strategic purpose. It should explain:

  • the purpose of the museum and its collection goals;
  • what is in its collection;
  • how it plans to manage and develop its collection; and
  • the standards it will follow in caring for objects in its custody.

The collection policy should:

  • show how the collection will be used and developed to achieve the purpose of the museum;
  • describe what the museum holds in each group of its collection, the significance of the group in the collection, and how it intends to use each collection group (such as through exhibitions or education);
  • set out how it will develop its collection, including criteria it will apply when deciding what objects to add to, or remove from, the collection;
  • specify the ethical and professional standards it will follow, and legislation with which it must comply, in managing the collection;
  • explain how it will care for the collection (such as the preventive conservation measures that will be followed, and special storage or display needs); and
  • outline the museum’s approach to lending and borrowing objects.

We examined museum policy documentation to establish whether it covered all necessary aspects.

Collection policies differed significantly in their coverage. Some museums dealt with aspects of collection management (such as procedures) in separate documents, and some policies described collection tasks, and the roles and responsibilities of staff, in more detail.

However, all the museums we audited had collection policies that provided the necessary strategic framework for collection management and future development, defining areas of interest, the scope of the collection, and the focus of planned collecting activity. Museum documentation set out how the institution would handle acquisitions, loans, and other relevant aspects of collection use and access.

Consulting with other museums about their collection policies

We expected museums to have drawn up their collection policies in consultation with other museums in the region, to ensure effective collaboration and efficient use of resources, and to promote the best use of their different collections.

Museums we spoke to were sometimes aware of the collection focus of other local museums, and would consider this in their own collection planning. For example, one collection policy noted the museum’s intention not to collect a group of objects known to be a special part of the collection of another museum in the region.

On occasion, one museum will offer to another museum an object that fits more properly within that museum’s purpose or existing collection. A variety of informal relationships existed between museums (see paragraphs 4.50-4.51).

None of the museums we visited systematically consulted other museums in their regions or more widely on their collection policies and plans. In our view, this would have important benefits, such as:

  • promoting the unique role of each museum in the regional and national network;
  • avoiding unnecessary duplication and competition;
  • aligning collecting interests and priorities; and
  • supporting planning for collaboration on public programmes, such as exhibitions.

Acquisition policies and criteria

Museums acquire objects by buying them, accepting gifts or bequests, or by active collecting, such as archaeological expeditions.

Museums constantly receive offers of objects from members of the public. Auctions also offer unlimited opportunities for museums to add to their collections. These factors make it vital for museums to have a disciplined process in place for deciding what to accept. Every museum should have an acquisitions policy that defines the criteria for what to accept or buy.

For each museum, we assessed whether acquisition practices were consistent with policies, and whether specified processes and acquisition criteria were followed.

Each museum had acquisition policies, with clear criteria for objects that it would add to the collection, to guide collecting activities, promote planned growth, and ensure alignment with its purpose. Criteria for acceptance – such as the condition of the object or its relevance to the museum’s purpose – were defined, as was the process for making decisions.

Museums need to take account of various factors when considering a possible acquisition. They need to be satisfied that the person offering the object (or the vendor) has proper legal title to the object. Other relevant factors are the condition of the object, and whether the museum has room to store it.

Significance of an object

The most important factor for the museum to consider is whether the object will add value to the object’s collection. This question can be answered by considering its significance.

Significance is about the context of an object – whether the object is rare or representative, and its provenance, meaning, and patterns of use. The context may have cultural, historical, aesthetic, or scientific aspects. Assessing significance involves making a judgement about the value that an object will add to the collection, and whether acquiring the object will help the museum meet its purpose and promote its activities. Figure 5 shows the form used by the Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust to consider acquisition proposals. This illustrates how significance and relevance to the collection are the main criteria.

Figure 5
Example of a form used to consider acquisition proposals

Figure 5.

Figure 5 (continued)

Figure 5 continued.

Figure 6 shows the acquisition justification form used by another museum. This form highlights other important factors a museum should consider when deciding whether to add an object to its collection, such as:

  • whether the object is consistent with the acquisition policy and collecting plan;
  • how it will contribute to museum activities, such as research, exhibition and education;
  • any special conservation or storage requirements; and
  • compliance with legal requirements and other obligations, or special conditions that may restrict the museum’s use of the object.

Figure 6
Example of an acquisition justification form

Figure 6.

Processes for deciding what objects to add to a collection

Museums and art galleries have different approaches to collecting. We therefore discuss their practices separately.

Museums’ approach to collecting

Most museums we audited were collecting passively, adding to their collections mainly through gifts, donations, or bequests. There were various reasons for this approach:

  • Most museums had limited space to house a significant number of additional objects. Moreover, most had yet to carry out the collection-wide inventory necessary to plan future storage needs.
  • The budgets available to most museums for buying objects were small, and, unlike art galleries, museums are less likely to have major sponsors or stakeholders able to assist with funding. As a consequence, most additions to collections were by way of gift or donation.
  • Museums were facing a backlog of work to build up and maintain their collection catalogue records, and to transfer manual records into an electronic database. One museum had introduced a moratorium on new acquisitions to enable attention to be given to this work.

Only one museum had a significant active collecting programme. The museum had the benefit of surplus storage capacity, which enabled it to target gaps in its collection and build up areas of interest through vigorous collecting activity.

Decision-making processes

The numbers of objects added to a museum collection can vary significantly from one year to the next. For example, one gift or bequest can involve a large number of individual objects, documents, or photographs. A disciplined approach to collecting is vital to ensure that new objects add value to the collection, are consistent with the purpose of the museum, and can be cared for and housed.

We examined the processes followed by each museum to decide whether to accept objects into their collections. This decision-making process often involved consultation.

In the smaller museums, consultation was sometimes informal. In practice, decisions to accept an individual object into a collection (normally by gift) were made by individual staff (normally a curator or collection manager). These staff consider the acquisition criteria and, where necessary, consult with the director informally. In our view, this process was reasonable given the size of the museum and the scale of collecting.

The larger museums followed more formal processes, and applied relevant criteria, to assess whether objects should be accepted into their collections.

The 2 large museums had committees set up to consider whether objects or art works should be accepted into the collection. In one museum, this committee included the collections manager, museum director, curators, and the manager of museum programmes. This ensured that relevant staff throughout the museum were consulted.

Museums sometimes used standard forms for acquisition submissions. This helped to ensure that decisions to acquire objects were fully supported by strong reasons, and that the process was documented in a systematic way. The criteria used in the forms included significance, relevance to the collection policy and collecting plan, relevance to the exhibition programme and research, legal requirements, and storage capacity.

Art galleries’ approach to collecting

By contrast, art galleries develop their collections not only through bequests or gifts but also by buying art works on the market – often at auction or by negotiation with the artist.

Art galleries need to give careful consideration to justifying expenditure on buying art works to add to their collections.

The 2 large art galleries had significant acquisition budgets.1 Careful setting of priorities by the art gallery director and curators is required to ensure that expenditure represents value for money and contributes to the relevance of the collection. We examined:

  • each art gallery’s collecting plans;
  • the criteria used to decide whether to buy an art work; and
  • the processes followed to reach that decision.

The 2 art galleries used collection plans as a framework to expand their collections, by adding art works in a particular period, style, or subject, or art works by a particular artist. These plans could serve as a useful model not just for other art galleries, but also for museums.

One art gallery’s acquisition policy clearly defined the scope and focus of the collection, serving as the basis for considered collections planning. The art gallery’s Triennial Acquisition Plan for 2004-05 to 2006-07 set out areas of strategic emphasis for acquisitions in each of the 3 financial years. The plan targeted areas of focus for the collection for each year. It provided a solid framework for acquisition expenditure. It also provided enough flexibility to take advantage of opportunities to buy – from other funding sources – art works of major importance when they become available. Within these strategic planning areas the curators identify particular artists whose art works they seek to acquire.

The plan specifies estimated purchase costs for the targeted art works. Other funding sources (such as trusts) are approached to provide the art gallery with the means to make unplanned purchases not covered by the acquisition budget.

Purchasing procedures

With their more significant purchasing budgets, we expected the larger art galleries to have formal and thorough purchasing procedures.

In total, the 2 large art galleries we audited received annual funding from their local authority owners of $555,000 to buy new art works, with additional funding coming from other parties. We examined the purchasing practices of the larger art galleries for assurance that purchasing proposals were fully considered and decisions properly recorded.

Both art galleries had well-established processes and guidelines for considering and approving proposals to buy art works for their collections. Proposal forms required the relevant curator to provide detailed information about the art work and the artist, and to state the reasons for acquisition (for example, to supplement comparable and related art works in the collection). However, the proposal form used by one art gallery did not require a summary of pricing information (such as recent comparable selling prices and a description of the negotiations followed). We recommended that the art gallery amend its proposal form to include this information.

Proposals were considered at meetings of the art galleries’ acquisitions committees where the merits of the proposed purchase were debated.

Decision-making processes

The reasons for buying art works should be clearly supported and recorded. We examined a selection of acquisition submissions (and associated papers such as minutes of acquisition committee meetings) to determine whether they set out a clear rationale for decisions to buy art works. In particular, we looked for information confirming the reasonableness of the price sought, and evidence that the art work was consistent with each art gallery’s collecting plan.

Some acquisition submissions we reviewed either contained little or no information to justify the reasonableness of the proposed purchase price, or failed to show clearly the relevance of the art work to the collection.

Nor did acquisition documentation always record the debate on the merits of buying a particular art work. We found that, in some instances, decisions on proposed purchases had been made at informal meetings rather than at the scheduled meetings of the acquisition committee. As a consequence, the art gallery did not have a formal and complete record of the debate, nor of the main considerations that gave rise to the decision to purchase.

We raised these matters in our reports to the art galleries concerned.

Policies and practices for removing objects from collections

We assessed whether museums had policies for de-accessioning and disposing of unwanted objects from their collections, and whether they were rationalising their collections by applying those policies.

A de-accession policy provides a basis for the museum to decide what objects it no longer wants to keep, and outlines procedures that will be followed.

All museums had policies for de-accessioning. However, none was considering significant rationalisation of its collection. This is explained by a number of factors:

  • Many museums have yet to establish and document fully what they currently hold in their collections. Until this process is complete they will not be in a position to review whether objects or groups of objects fall outside collection policies, or have no ongoing value or potential use in the collection.
  • Codes of ethics and museum convention have created a strong presumption that objects, once acquired, will remain in the museum in perpetuity, and that they will be de-accessioned and disposed of only in exceptional circumstances.
  • As tastes and fashions change, objects or parts of the collection that may have been considered of little interest in the past may become relevant.
  • Ethical obligations to previous owners or donors demand that museums follow strict procedures for de-accessioning and disposal.

1: Both larger and smaller art galleries (which may or may not have acquisition budgets) rely on supporting bodies (typically Friends of the Gallery) and other funding sources, such as trusts or bequests, to provide additional funding when opportunities arise to add to a collection.

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