Management of heritage collections in local museums and art galleries.

Museums and art galleries are an important part of our society, and their collections represent a significant – and often irreplaceable – public inheritance. (For ease of reading, we generally use the term “museum” to refer to both museums and art galleries.) The responsibilities of museums to their communities, and the roles they play in our society, demand responsible management of those collections.

The Local Government Act 2002 requires local authorities to promote the cultural well-being of their communities. Funding of museums is one important way in which they meet this requirement. It is important that ratepayer funds are well spent, so that heritage collections are well cared for, documented, and accessible to the public.

During 2005, we carried out an audit to examine how well museums manage heritage collections and fulfil their stewardship obligations using public funds. This involved audits of collection management at 13 local1 museums and art galleries. The audits were undertaken using good practice criteria based on generally accepted principles of sound collection management. We sent each museum a report of the audit findings that confirmed good practice and, where relevant, raised matters of concern or suggested where improvements could be made.

We also identified many examples of good practice for wider use in the museum sector.

The second part of our audit involved examining a selection of funding arrangements between councils and private museums. We focused on the accountability requirements for stewardship of the collection, and the nature and extent of monitoring to ensure the local authority’s interests were met.

Our overall assessment of collection management

We were generally satisfied that museums had in place the necessary components for sound collection management. This included having a clear purpose; collection policies; documentation for registration, cataloguing, and the administration of loans; and systems and facilities for keeping the collection stable and secure.

Museums hold their collections in trust for their communities. Boards of management, museum directors, and their staff were conscious of, and committed to, this stewardship responsibility.

While our audit findings were generally positive, we nonetheless found room for improvement in policies or practices. Where appropriate, we made recommendations to the museums we audited in our feedback reports. We identified broad issues and concerns from our analysis of practices in those museums.

Issues for consideration by museums and art galleries

Our audit identified 6 broad issues for consideration:

  • standards and measures for reporting on performance;
  • collection development;
  • documenting the collection;
  • quality of collection facilities;
  • asset management planning; and
  • the governance and funding of smaller museums and art galleries.

Standards and measures for reporting on performance

Museums need to work together to draw up agreed collection management standards and related performance measures. Relevant and measurable standards for collection management would enable museums to argue convincingly for resources, plan for the best use of those resources, and provide stakeholders with evidence of responsible stewardship. Standards need to be relevant for both smaller and larger museums, support the principles of professional museum practice, provide benchmarks for the objective assessment of performance over time, and provide the basis for meaningful reporting to stakeholders about stewardship.

Collection development

A museum collection is the product of past collecting practices, and may not easily fit with the museum’s current purpose. Museums face the challenge of building on their unique strengths by interpreting the significance of their collections in the present day context, and defining a coherent collection development strategy for the future. Consultation between museums on strategy and collection planning would promote a collaborative approach to collection development within the sector.

Documenting the collection

Many museums face the time-consuming task of collecting, consolidating, standardising, verifying, and maintaining object information from records that are often fragmented, incomplete, and unreliable. The scope of this work is broad. It covers research, digitisation, collection inventories, and data entry. With better knowledge of what they hold, museums will be better able to share information, deliver better services to their communities, take better care of their collections, and make them more accessible to the public. Limited progress is being made on this work, which is hampered not only by short-term funding and competing priorities, but also by a lack of the necessary disciplined and realistic project planning by museums.

Quality of collection facilities

The quality of collection facilities varies from one museum to another. With funding from ratepayers and other sources, many had recently upgraded their storage and display facilities or were planning improvements. Ongoing funding will be needed to bring all museums up to a commonly accepted standard. Better facilities will also widen the network of district and regional museums able to bring to their communities exhibitions of objects or art works of regional and national importance.

Museum archives are a particularly rich source of information about the history of their local communities, and are a well-used and valued resource. Ongoing funding is needed to preserve those archives for future generations and to ensure continued public access.

Asset management planning

Poorly designed or maintained buildings and facilities put collections at risk. Museums – and their governing bodies – need to give more attention to formal asset management planning for their buildings and facilities. This will safeguard their collections and support the delivery of museum services. Asset management planning incorporates risk management, setting service levels, and defining asset standards, and provides a framework for future maintenance and renewal.

The governance and funding of smaller museums and art galleries

Capability within the sector varies widely. Some collaboration occurs, but there is an unmet demand for advice and support. We noted risks to the financial viability and performance of some smaller museums and art galleries. We also noted resource constraints on their ability to meet professional standards and improve the quality of services to their communities. In our view, these limitations raise fundamental questions for the local authorities concerned about long-term governance and funding relationships.

Priorities for funding and allocation of resources

We found evidence of a positive commitment to the professional management of collections. This was generally supported by the necessary collection policies and practices, and museums were seeking to take advantage of available methods and technologies to improve the quality of collection information.

However, museums rely to some extent on a variety of uncertain funding sources from the community and in the form of voluntary support. This may, for some, limit the ability to take a more active approach to collection management and development, and to make significant progress with ongoing projects.

We identified some areas where funding for additional staff would bring benefits. The 2 priority areas for such funding are:

  • improving the quality of collection information; and
  • strengthening record-keeping capability.

Quality of collection information

Additional staff would enable museums to perform a variety of tasks that are often not given high priority when resources are limited. These include addressing backlogs in cataloguing, carrying out periodic inventories, entering paper records into electronic databases, and maintaining collection records. The value of a museum’s collection lies in the information about the objects it holds – their origins and associations. Additional staff would enable museums to enhance the quality of this information. This would allow museums to deliver better services to their communities, use available technology to integrate museum processes and make the collection more accessible, and create the necessary basis for a collection development strategy.

These tasks are time-consuming. They are often currently undertaken by temporary staff or volunteers. If significant progress is to be made in the short term, dedicated staff will be needed to tackle this work in a systematic and intensive manner.

Record-keeping capability

A second priority is to strengthen record-keeping capability. Not all museums have a dedicated registry function. Instead, this role is just one of many different tasks and responsibilities staff undertake. For such institutions, which are often smaller museums, extra staff would lead to more comprehensive and reliable information about the collection, and more focused attention on the range of tasks needed to support good collection management. These tasks include cataloguing, research, inventories, and database management.

Obtaining more funds

The responsibility for seeking additional funding rests with museums, and requires them to prepare a comprehensive, fully costed business case. This should set out the scope of the proposed work, the outcomes sought, the resources required, the standards to be met, and the timetable to be followed. Evidence of a commitment to disciplined project management and accountability would be an important factor in obtaining the necessary funding.

Local authority funding of private museums and art galleries

Our examination of funding arrangements identified weaknesses in accountability relationships. The purposes of funding were generally well defined, but few contracts made stewardship a priority. Reporting of performance and stewardship was weak, performance measures were neither comprehensive nor relevant, and the relationships between local authorities and museums were sometimes distant and often informal.

All local authorities need to seek active assurance about performance and stewardship through their funding contracts. They also need to monitor achievements by requiring regular reporting against objective measures relevant to management of the collection.

1: As opposed to national.

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