Why do a collections review?

Rebecca Atkinson, 16.08.2010
More museums are undertaking collections reviews to improve their understanding of collections, make disposals or find new uses for stored objects

A collections review is more than just compiling an inventory of objects. Instead, it should aim to collect as much information about collections as possible, which can then be used to help your museum meet its objectives.

“Just doing a collections review as a documentation exercise is not enough,” says Sally Cross, collections co-ordinator for the Museums Association’s (MA) Effective Collections scheme. “It should be about using the information you collect to make positive changes.”

The impetus behind conducting a collections review will vary from museum to museum, but a desire to be more strategic with collections and the decline of subject specialist skills are two of the main reasons, says Cross.

“A museum may know it’s got a great Egyptology collection, for example, but if it doesn’t have a specialist curator then it needs to find a way to get a handle on managing this collection,” she explains.

For others, such as the Booth Museum in Brighton, a collections review can be used for advocacy purposes. The museum is currently reviewing its natural sciences collection using the What's in Store? methodology developed by Renaissance North West.

Click here to find out more about different methodologies

Richard Le Saux, senior keeper of local history and archaeology at Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, says: “We want to work with our stakeholders and partners to find new ways to use our collections and to demonstrate how our collections can help them achieve their objectives too.”


Another key motivation for carrying out a collections review is disposal. While attitudes are changing, there is still reticence to dispose of objects. A collections review is not only a strategic way to identify objects for potential disposal - it can also validate the reasons behind any decisions you make.

Disposal doesn’t mean throwing an object away. It might be that an object could be better used in another museum through an exchange or long-term loan. Alternatively, duplicate items could be used in outreach boxes or for handling sessions. Some museums, such as Coventry Transport Museum, are also looking at offering unwanted items to community or local interest groups.

“I’d love to say that if an object is in a collection then it must be important, but I know that’s not true,” says Jonathan Wallis, assistant head of museums at Derby Museums and Art Gallery, who has helped manage Renaissance East Midlands’ collections reviews programme. “Museum collections tend to include a lot of things they don’t need, or shouldn’t have, and these need to be identified and potentially disposed of.”

One of the key benefits of disposal is freeing up storage space. At a time when funding pressures mean some local authority museums are under pressure to reduce or scrap off-site stores, Cross says undertaking a collections review will show a willingness to tackle the problem.

Paul Fraser Webb, the consultant who developed Renaissance North West’s What’s in Store? methodology, agrees: “A collections review carried out in a methodological way will ensure that any disposals are done for the right reasons rather than financially motivated ones.”

A collections review will also enable you to focus your resources. The cost of storing and caring for objects that are not relevant to your museum is hard to justify especially when there is pressure on funding.

While it’s important to have objectives such as disposal set out before undertaking a collections review, keeping an open mind is recommended. Sarah Cooper, accreditation, standards and review officer at Renaissance North West, gives the example of one museum that asked the specialist reviewing its collection to do so purely on the basis of disposal.

“This limited what it could do at the end,” she explains. In another example, a review of prints at Gallery Oldham quickly established the collection was a lot more important than originally thought.

Ideally, a collections review should aim to show a range of positive outcomes. “A lot of museums really struggle to get the curatorial team onboard, but having access to their specialist knowledge is important,” says Cross. “Using the collections review to plan an exhibition or new display, or as evidence to apply for a small grant to improve stores, is a good way to do this.”

Caroline Reed, a consultant who has worked on Renaissance East Midlands’ collections reviews, adds: “A review can flag up collection care issues – having this information in a spread sheet is a really good communication tool that you can take to management or the council as evidence.”


Greater collections knowledge is undoubtedly the biggest benefit of a collections review, and this can be used in a wide variety of ways.

Renaissance North West forged a partnership with Liverpool University, with students sent to different museums to identify material connected to the archaeologist John Garstang. “As well as helping the museums find out more about these objects, we are also developing a touring exhibition,” says Cooper, from Renaissance North West.

Encouraging museums to share collections knowledge is one of the aims behind Renaissance North West’s work. By sending specialists to review other collections, Cooper hopes to encourage museums to plan exhibitions in partnership and look for loan opportunities.

Alongside its main collections review, the Booth Museum is also delivering a £10,000 Museums Association (MA) Effective Collections project to return natural science material to originating museums across the south-east.

“The Booth Museum became a repository for these objects in the 1980s and 1990s from other museums that had natural science collections but either no expertise in-house or a desire to dispose of these collections,” explains Le Saux. “This project isn’t about offloading material; it is about exploring how these collections can be put to use, to benefit the originating museums’ communities and help them achieve some of the objectives in their forward plans.”

The project is currently focusing on returning items to three museums – Bexhill, Worthing and Horsham – through outreach boxes and exhibitions.

Elsewhere, it is hoped that a MA Effective Collections review across five world cultures ethnographic collections within museums at Saffron Walden, Wisbech, Hertford, Bishops Stortford, and Time and Tide in Great Yarmouth, will result in joint displays being developed and long-term loans being promoted between partners.

Len Pole, a museum consultant and the world cultures collections expert working on the review, has identified a collection of fishing and whaling material in Wisbech that relates to an expedition to the north-west coast of America in the 1790s. With similar collections in American museums, Pole says such finds can be used to strengthen the way objects are held by the local community as well as on an international scale.

“The objective is to identify objects within these world culture collections that can be used to make better connections between the different museums and with different museum audiences,” he says.

Positive outcomes a collections review can deliver:

• Enhancing knowledge about objects and the collection as a whole
• Re-establishing the status of objects
• Prioritising collection care
• Disposals, transfers and loans
• Freeing up storage space
• New displays and exhibitions
• Forging partnerships with other museums


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Louise Price
MA Member
Curator, George Marshall Medical Museum
03.01.2013, 14:26
After finally completing a full inventory of our stored and displayed objects, we are about to embark on a collections review.We would be interested to hear from any other museums undertaking the same task at the moment, as while it may seem daunting, and a very big job for one Curator and a small team of volunteers, we are all thoroughly looking forward to the opportunity to weed out the objects which could, and will, be put to better use within our designated education collections or disposed of entirely. I also have to admit that I'm most looking forward to freeing up some storage space.In addition we hope that objects re-classified as 'educational' will be put to good use not only by our own museum, but those in Worcestershire as a whole.Watch the 'Find an object' space for plenty of activity from the George Marshall Medical Museum!

(Image: Garstang Egyptology review at Blackburn Museum. Credit: Claire Wood)