Part 4: Staffing

Management of heritage collections in local museums and art galleries.

In this Part, we discuss how museums are staffed and organised to give effect to policies governing the management and development of collections. We summarise our key findings and raise issues for consideration from our assessment of:

  • the job descriptions and training of staff with collection management responsibilities;
  • the use of volunteers and temporary staff;
  • organisation of responsibilities to manage collections;
  • how staff work together on activities involving the collection; and
  • how museums work together, and share expertise and resources.

Key findings

Job descriptions clearly identified the collection-related responsibilities of staff, and those staff had relevant skills and experience. They also received relevant training and opportunities to broaden their competencies. However, not all museums had formal training plans.

Volunteers and temporary staff are indispensable resources for museums. Some museums rely heavily on them to supplement permanent staff. Many volunteers carry out valuable collection work, helping to look after, and build up knowledge about, the museum’s collection. Not all museums had policies and procedures for managing their volunteers.

Museum staff work together well on collection-related tasks.

A central registry, or staff assigned to collection responsibilities, promotes consistent practice, oversees collection tasks, and provides a focus on the collection. Competing tasks – particularly the exhibition programme – can easily take priority over, and leave little time for, collection work.

Issues for consideration

Volunteers make a significant contribution to the work of many large and small museums. This contribution needs to be acknowledged through appropriate systems and procedures for recruitment, training, supervision, and recognition.

Museum staff have a range of responsibilities, and analysing how they spend their time can ensure that adequate priority is given to collection management tasks.

Job descriptions and training for museum staff

We assessed whether job descriptions defined collection management responsibilities, and whether collections staff received appropriate training.

Job descriptions

We looked at job descriptions for registrars, collections managers, and curators, to see whether:

  • the skills and experience sought were relevant to the tasks associated with managing the collection; and
  • collection management tasks were identified as important requirements of the position.

In general, job descriptions clearly defined the collection-related responsibilities and skills required of staff.

Collection management staff – even in the smaller centres – generally had relevant backgrounds or qualifications, including librarianship, museum studies, science, or arts and history, along with experience in museum or art gallery work. Their job descriptions identified collection management responsibilities.

In the one museum where responsibilities were not formally defined, we recommended that this task be given priority.


We asked museum staff what training they received. We also sought evidence that museums had a plan that set out the training required for specific positions, and that appropriate courses or workshops were scheduled to meet those requirements.

Staff received relevant training and opportunities to broaden their skills. They could participate in workshops with other museums, and be trained in object handling or in using the museum’s database. One museum recognised the importance of training by making attendance at specific courses an important performance measure for its curators.

We also considered the need for training in careful handling, which is a crucial element of collection care. Any handling can cause damage, and poor handling will quickly lead to an object becoming unusable.

All museums trained their staff in the careful handling of objects during induction and, sometimes, through periodic refresher training. We saw staff handle objects with care.

In our view, all museums should have training plans for staff to extend their skills and maintain good practice. However, only 3 museums had formal training plans for these purposes.

One museum’s in-house training schedule for its staff covered a range of museum processes related to the collection. These processes included using the electronic collections database, accessioning, labelling objects, handling objects, mounting objects for exhibitions, and maintaining security. The museum registrar provided training on various aspects of collection management, such as using the collection database and object handling.

Another museum’s in-house training plan was based on systematic assessment of training needs throughout the organisation, ensuring that training was consistent with the needs of each role.

Using volunteers and temporary staff for collection-related work

Volunteers and temporary staff are resources indispensable to the museum sector. We assessed how volunteers and temporary staff were used for collections-related work, including how they were recruited, trained, supervised, and rewarded.

How museums use volunteers and temporary staff

Volunteers work on a range of collection-related (and other) tasks in museums, and may also greet visitors and help with public programmes. Some volunteers also go on to work in museums as permanent employees.

Museums also use temporary staff – under schemes such as the Government’s Task Force Green programme – to supplement their core staffing. Like volunteers, these people often carry out collection-related work, but on short-term contracts. Museums may also receive project funding from agencies such as the Lottery Grants Board to employ staff to carry out specific tasks for a short term.

Seven of the 13 museums we audited were using volunteers for collection-related work. Volunteers were most often used in museums rather than art galleries.

The main reasons given for not using volunteers were the time commitment associated with supervision, and the difficulties in finding volunteers who were suitable.

One of 2 small museums we visited used the equivalent of 1.6 full-time staff in volunteer hours each year. The other museum, with 3 full-time staff, was using 720 volunteer hours a year. In both museums, volunteers and temporary staff were making a significant contribution to collection management by rehousing and reorganising collections, preparing storage units, and creating finding aids to enhance public access to archives and other collections.

Larger museums also benefit from the use of volunteers. One had 54 volunteers, and many of them were carrying out collection-related work. The number of volunteers was the same as the number of full-time equivalent staff. The museum estimated that this volunteer commitment equated to the saving of some $250,000 in staff salaries.

Some museums had created positions of honorary curator to acknowledge a volunteer’s ongoing contribution and commitment to the work of the museum. Unlike other volunteers, honorary curators may have particular relevant qualifications and work on research projects as well as other collection-related tasks.

Reliance on volunteers and temporary staff

In our view, museums would be making much less progress in rehousing and documenting their collections without volunteers and temporary staff. Many museums rely on the work of these people to carry out a variety of core collection management work, performing many of the tasks of a collections assistant, data entry operator, or assistant registrar.

Volunteer and temporary staff are also helping museums build up valuable knowledge about, and make better use of, their collections.

Volunteers in one museum were preparing indexes, biographical files, map boxes, collection guides, and listings of archival records, as well as compiling retrospective catalogue information. In another, a temporary worker had catalogued and rehoused a collection of architectural plans, some of which are now on display.

Policies and procedures for engaging and managing volunteers

In our view, all museums should have formal policies and follow proper procedures in engaging and managing volunteers. We expected museums to have a volunteer policy, a process for engagement, and an agreement or contract with their volunteers. We also expected volunteers to be given training and supervision in their work.

Of the 7 museums that were using volunteers for collection-related work, 5 had policies governing their engagement and conditions of work. Our discussions with a range of museums indicate that smaller museums are less likely to have these policies.

We talked to volunteer co-ordinators in the museums we visited. Where possible, we also asked volunteers about how they became volunteers and about their work in the museum.

The processes followed by 2 museums for engaging volunteers were particularly well-defined and comprehensive. Processes for recruiting and managing their volunteers were clear, and were closely aligned with those for their permanent staff. These include a formal application process, carrying out reference checks, assessing the suitability of the applicant, entering into an agreement with the volunteer, arranging induction and training, and giving the volunteer an opportunity for feedback and review. The work of volunteers was well supervised, with volunteer co-ordinators acting as points of contact and being responsible for administration associated with their engagement.

Volunteers we spoke to were positive about their work, and about the support and recognition provided by their host museums.

Organisation of responsibilities to manage collections

There are a number of ways in which museums can organise collection-related tasks. We examined arrangements in each of the museums we visited to see which job responsibilities and organisation structures promoted effective collection management.

Seven museums – principally the larger institutions1 – had a dedicated registry or staff positions responsible for many of the tasks related to managing the collection. The benefits of centralising the function were consistency of practice, oversight of information systems, and a shared focus.

An alternative arrangement was for all collection management tasks to be assigned to curators. However, this arrangement can lead to other tasks taking priority over collection tasks.

Competing tasks – especially the pressures of preparing and delivering exhibitions – can easily take priority over collection work. One museum had no registry or collection staff. The curators’ collection-related tasks were one of a number of responsibilities, and they faced competing priorities with their other work – carrying out research, dealing with enquiries from the public, planning exhibitions, and preparing or delivering other public programmes. They were also on a roster to supervise and assist in a public research centre.

The curators told us they were able to give only limited attention to collection work – such as completing an inventory, photographing the collection, or catching up with cataloguing tasks – and some accessioning had fallen behind. At the time of our audit, they were recording the time spent on their various tasks. Results from this exercise confirmed the difficulties faced by the curators in giving adequate attention to their collection management responsibilities.

Analysing and addressing work priorities

It is important to monitor and analyse how museum staff spend their time to ensure that adequate priority is given to collection management tasks.

One museum we visited had assigned a weighting to the various objectives for their staff. This established clear expectations about how staff should manage their time, and which tasks should be given priority.

Work associated with organising exhibitions and loan administration can make heavy demands on the time of collections staff, leaving limited scope for other collections tasks. Like many others, one museum needed to carry out significant work to consolidate and document collection records, and to build up its database. The existing registrar’s time was fully occupied with exhibition work. This situation led the museum to create an additional registrar’s position to undertake exhibition work, freeing up the existing registrar to make progress with the backlog of cataloguing and associated work to build up the collection database.

How museum staff work together on collection-related activities

Many collection-related activities require museum staff to work together. We assessed whether staff were working effectively together on tasks related to collections, by asking collections and exhibitions staff, conservators, and curators how they were involved in activities such as accessioning, planning and delivering exhibitions, and loans administration.

Overall, museum staff are working together well. Staff were collaborating effectively in all aspects of collection-related work. Examples of collaboration included the co-ordination of accessioning tasks, the formation of museum-wide teams to plan and deliver exhibitions, and liaison between conservators, curators, and registry staff on matters relating to inwards or outwards loans.

We observed good illustrations of systems that supported effective collaboration. In one museum, protocols, procedures, and project planning documentation for exhibitions recognised the importance of collaboration between collections and exhibitions staff. An exhibition spreadsheet listed tasks associated with preparing, mounting, and dismantling an exhibition, and associated responsibilities and deadlines. A related form ensured that there was appropriate involvement of collections staff by requiring that object documentation be provided, and that information about the care of objects be displayed.

The checklist used by one art gallery to accession new art works helps it meet its target of accessioning items within a month of submissions being approved. It is also a valuable management tool for ensuring effective collaboration between all art gallery staff – registrars, curators, conservators, the photographer, and others – in carrying out the necessary accessioning tasks in a timely and effective manner. Using the accessioning checklist, registration staff are able to monitor progress (and identify outstanding work) for the various tasks associated with accessioning, such as completing condition reports, data entry, labelling, and photography.

How museums work together and share expertise and resources

There are wide variations in capability from one museum or art gallery to another. Some have good facilities, have greater security of funding, and are able to employ the necessary numbers of staff with relevant skills and experience. Others lack appropriate conditions for proper storage and display, and face uncertain funding. They make do with short-term and temporary workers and volunteers who lack the experience and knowledge to set up systems and processes for sound management of the museum and its collection.

We assessed how museums were working together to share resources, expertise, and experience.

Providing advice and support

Some collaboration and sharing of resources is occurring, but there is an unmet demand for advice and support. Examples of collaboration and sharing of resources include:

  • museums passing on unwanted equipment – for example, shelving and computers – to smaller museums with limited resources for buying new equipment;
  • the smaller museums or art galleries seeking conservation advice from the larger institutions; and
  • joint training workshops (sometimes organised by National Services Te Paerangi).

Some regional or district museums took a more active support and leadership role than others – for example, by convening a regional museum group. However, the involvement of the larger museums or art galleries varied. Our discussions with small museums and art galleries identified a strong demand for advice and support.

In its strategy for the museum sector, Museums Aotearoa notes that some larger museums have co-ordinated regional museum groups and provided support to the smaller museums. However, it also notes “…some museums are finding it difficult to know where to find practical advice on day-to-day issues that arise during the course of their operation”. Our findings support this view.

We were told that there is a need for a funded regional liaison service to provide advice and support. This was a particular concern for smaller museums with limited resources and special local requirements.

Some staff in small and larger museums referred positively to the work of the (disestablished) Museums Liaison Service. Formerly funded by the Lottery Grants Board, this advisory service was provided by 4 liaison officers working from the 4 main regional museums. The main benefits of the service were:

  • access to realistic, practical, on-the-spot advice suitable for smaller museums and the constraints they face;
  • a link with funding bodies and government agencies; and
  • a source of best practice that drew on a variety of experience in dealing with a wide range of other museums.

Some advice and support continues to be available, but it is provided without funding and on an occasional basis as resources allow.

We note that Museums Aotearoa’s strategy proposes a new programme to provide practical support for small museums. We agree that this concept merits serious consideration.

1: In smaller museums, these tasks are likely to be undertaken along with other duties.

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