Collections review methodologies

A closer look at some of the different methodologies museums have developed to review their collections
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Rebecca Atkinson
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National Maritime Museum – Collections Reform Programme

The methodology behind the National Maritime Museum’s (NMM) collections review, launched in 2003, aimed to identify items for potential disposal. 

Lead curators and collections management staff initially categorised all collection objects based on proposed storage requirements, with a further category for items that potentially fell into one of the following criteria for disposal:

  • Falls outside the NMM’s collection development policy
  • Considered more relevant to the collection of another museum or heritage body
  • No maritime significance or associations
  • Poor quality or inaccurate with limited research and education potential
  • Duplication within the collection
  • In very poor condition and beyond economical conservation

Specific collections were then selected for further review according to the amount of potential disposal material identified and the storage space required for this material.

In order to ensure a thorough review and disposal process, the NMM produced a disposal flow chart detailing the complete disposal process and documentation to record each stage of the disposal. 

Three key collections have been reviewed so far – ordnance, furniture and ship models – and to date 66 items have been transferred to other museums or heritage bodies, or disposed on condition or health and safety grounds. Around 50 items are currently going through the disposal process.

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University College London – Collections Review Rubric

The main aim of the collections review at University College London (UCL), which started in the summer of 2007, was to identify all the material held by the university and the type and extent of collections. This ‘snapshot’ of the collections could then be used to develop an overall strategic plan as well as action plans for each collection.

Like many museums, UCL wanted the review to document collections care. However, the review also aimed to establish the current curatorial activity and standards (such as condition and documentation) and whether material was used for teaching, research or public engagement.

UCL developed an assessment rubric and accompanying survey form containing 13 headings. These related both to collections care and to the value, use or significance of objects.

  • Storage security
  • Storage room security
  • Environmental conditions
  • Storage space
  • Housing material
  • Condition
  • Documentation
  • Teaching
  • Ownership
  • Research
  • Public engagement
  • Historical and intellectual development
  • Uniqueness

Each heading could then be graded using five A to E review categories. Each review category contained a number of bullet points relating to different aspects of the collections and their care – this means that each review category is shorthand for a series of attributes rather than a straightforward rating system based on assumptions about the relative superiority or inferiority of objects.

Because of the large number of objects and collections – in total, nearly 380,000 objects were reviewed from 19 separate collections and 190 different stores were reviewed  – and the geographic spread of these across the university, the UCL collections review included review units based on storage types. So, collections were looked at on a drawer-by-drawer, shelf-by-shelf or even room-by-room basis rather than object-by-object

An assessment rationale was applied to the rubric to ensure that important and/or heavily used objects could be identified during the review. For collections management assessments, each review unit was reviewed by the lowest A to E grade that applied to it. So, if one object in a drawer of many required conservation care, the whole unit was graded as such.

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In contrast, for the use and significance side of the rubric, the highest applicable grade was applied. This approach not only highlights ‘star’ objects but also helps flag up important objects stored poorly or good storerooms used to house little used objects.

In order to assess the review, UCL inputted all of the data collected into an Excel spreadsheet and carried out some calibration work.

In order to make the information more manageable, the review categories were colour coded – this made it easier to pick out ‘hotspots’ and write recommendations accordingly.

UCL also assigned a level of significance to each recommendation in order to write prioritised action plans and decide appropriate deadlines.

Renaissance North West – What’s in Store?

Renaissance North West’s ‘What’s in Store?’ collections review report is based around the results of two pilot reviews at Salford Museum and Art Gallery and Gallery Oldham.

Two objectives behind the reviews were to promote peer reviews of collections and to promote responsible disposal.

‘What’s in Store?’ includes a standard guidance methodology written for a collections level assessment. It suggests museums establish the timescale, budget, staff roles and function of specialists before embarking on a review. The anticipated outcomes should also be outlined.

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The methodology recommends museums conducting collections reviews assess five areas:

  • Curatorial – includes the quality and history of objects
  • Use – how objects have been used up to the present and considers any potential new uses within the museum and at other venues
  • Significance –the relationship objects have with the museum, communities and the wider environment
  • Collections care – how well objects have been cared for and how standards could be improved
  • Museum context – how well the objects fit into the museum’s plans and policies

Once the above data has been collected, the results should be considered and discussed by a working group, and compared to the anticipated outcomes outlined at the start. This can pave the way for the development of action plans and potential disposal.

Renaissance East Midlands – Reviewing Significance

In November 2009, Renaissance East Midlands commissioned consultant Caroline Reed and a team from UCL to develop a methodology for reviewing the significance of key museum objects and whole or part collections across the region.

The aim was to tackle the issue of assessing collections’ significance in a structured way that could be used to inform strategic planning for collections’ development, management, use and interpretation. Assessing the importance of collections to small, specific or local communities as well as to regional, national and international audiences was a key objective.  

The Reviewing Significance Framework is split into two strands that can be used in tandem or separately at different stages. The first, the significance assessment process, is based on the Australian ‘Significance: a guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections’ model. The second strand, the collections review process, is based on UCL’s collections reviews rubric (see above).

1. Significance assessment process

The Australian Significance model enables curators to produce a statement of significance for objects and/or collections. This should assess and describe the value of an object for past, present and future generations in terms of four primary criteria: historic; aesthetic or artistic; social or spiritual; scientific or research potential.

Five comparative criteria act as modifiers in order to evaluate the degree of significance for the primary criteria. These are: provenance; rarity; representativeness (for example, of a particular category of object or activity, or of a way of life or theme that is relevant to the museum); condition, completeness, intactness or integrity; and interpretive potential.

Reviewing Significance simplifies this approach with a significance assessment grid. The assessment grid has six column headings:

  • Provenance/acquisition
  • Rarity/uniqueness
  • Visual and sensory impact
  • Condition/completeness
  • Historical meaning
  • Exploitability (research, education, profile raising, etc)

There are then six row headings of comparative criteria that highlight the nature of an object or collection’s significance in a variety of ways.

  • Key points/overarching points of significance
  • National/international
  • Regional or cross regional
  • Locally specific
  • Community/group
  • Organisationally or site specific

Each box on the grid has a series of ‘prompt questions’. The grid components are not intended to rate or score significance levels, but act as a reference tool.

Reviewing Significance also includes a statement of significance template. Each table on the template represents a column from the grid, allowing reviewers to record their initial thoughts on objects or collections in bullet points as they work.

2. Collections Review Process

The second strand of Reviewing Significance, based on UCL’s rubric, scores review units based on a collections management grid and a usage grid.

The collections management grid uses the following criteria:

  • Room security
  • Storage security
  • Environmental monitoring and control
  • Display and storage area conditions and management
  • Storage housing materials
  • Condition assessment
  • Ownership
  • Documentation

The usage grid allows the material to be assessed by:

  • Popular appeal
  • Public engagement
  • Learning support
  • Enquiry and research use
  • Significance

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