How to conduct a collections review
Taking a strategic approach to your collections review is vital in order to get the most out of it. While pre-empting the results could be limiting, going in blindly will probably see you wasting huge amounts of time, effort and resources.
“Unless you know why you’re doing a collections review, you’ll have a hard time setting one up, as the methodology depends on what you want to achieve,” says Subhadra Das, cultural property advisor for the University College London (UCL) collections review.
Ultimately, a collections review can raise as many questions as it answers, so having some clear goals set out in advance should help you keep focus. UCL recommends that museums establish the following as the first step in any collections review:
- What you want to know?
- Why you want to know it?
- What level of detail do you need to interpret the data meaningfully?
Different collections review methodologies
1. Choose your methodology
The type of information you collect will depend on the outcomes you hope to achieve and the approach you take, but generally speaking most reviews will cover:
- Current or potential use
- Curatorial value
- Relevance to the museum
However, most collections reviews dig much deeper than this often using a matrix or rubric system to answer different questions and score specific objects or sub-collections.
Jonathan Wallis, assistant head of museums at Derby Museums and Art Gallery, who has helped manage Renaissance East Midlands’ collections review programme, believes most museums will be able carry out collections reviews based on methodology that is already out there. This will largely depend on whether a museum wants a strategic overview of what it has got and why, or a more in-depth knowledge review.
Once you find a method that suits your aims, you can tailor it to ensure every section is applicable to your museum. Das says: “UCL’s approach was developed for a university museum, so questions around research and teaching might not be relevant. Instead, a local authority museum might want to include more about public engagement or local priorities, for example.”
Paul Fraser Webb, a museum consultant and former collection review consultant at Renaissance North West, urges museums to take a holistic approach to collections reviews. “It can be dangerous to only think about items in narrow terms, such as display. You should also consider the value of objects from an educational or research point of view, for example, and give a broad definition of the term ‘use’.”
Ensuring the collections review is done within a set timeframe is essential otherwise you risk the data you collected at the start of the process becoming irrelevant. Reviews that drag on also have a tendency to get left on the backburner – partly because people run out of steam.
While you shouldn’t underestimate the size of the job, in most cases it’s better to do something rather nothing at all, as long as you plan your review properly. “Undertaking a collections review doesn’t have to be a mammoth task,” says Sally Cross, collections co-ordinator for the Museums Association’s Effective Collections scheme.
“A snapshot of your stores in order to start making decisions can be done quite quickly as long as you accept that you can’t do all provenance research or tie up every bit of documentation in that time. If you do find more work is needed, then you know where you can prioritise if you undertake a longer review in the future.”
3. Initial assessment and research
An Egyptology collections review at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, carried out by Renaissance North West using its What’s in Store? methodology, included an initial assessment of the collection and archival material relating to it. This meant that the reviewer, Egyptologist Margaret Serpico, was able to carry out some research ahead of the actual review.
Fraser Webb, who helped develop the What’s in Store? methodology, says that one core aim of any collections review is to identify whether or not underused collections can be used to deliver the museum’s objectives. He recommends that forward plans, acquisitions and disposal policies and statements of purpose be read ahead of a review taking place.
4. Involve staff in the process
Including and consulting staff will make the process a lot smoother. One problem the reviewers at UCL encountered was curators attempting to organise their stores ahead of the review taking place.
Das explains: “Some people didn’t understand that the review was not intended as a criticism, or thought that if an item was given a low score, it would be disposed of indiscriminately. We had to really explain that we were trying to get a snapshot of the collection ahead of the decision process.”
1. Consider getting specialists in
Depending on specialist knowledge within the museum, it may be advantageous to give specialists access to collections rather than relying on documentation, which may be inaccurate or incomplete.
Len Pole, a museum consultant and world cultures collections expert, has worked as a specialist in collections reviews since the 1980s. He says: “Specialists have experience of a wide range of collections that exist in other museum, so they know what constitutes important items and how these might be linked to collections elsewhere.”
Sarah Cooper, accreditation, standards and review officer at Renaissance North West, adds that external reviewers have the additional benefit of neutrality. “They aren’t involved in the politics of a museum, and they won’t say ‘I collected it therefore we must keep it’.”
However, she says using specialists to carry out additional research on objects or artists probably isn’t a good use of their time. Instead, she recommends deciding what you want out of your specialist ahead of the review and getting volunteers to carry out additional work.
2. Don’t forget about in-house expertise
“Objects often have a lot of importance within a museum’s social history, and often it’s current and former members of staff who are able to best reveal this information,” says Cooper.
UCL also worked closely with curators during its collections review to draw on their primary knowledge about objects. They were also able to help with documentation.
1. Action plan
Once you have collected the information, you need to spend some time and effort turning this into something practical. Renaissance North West’s What’s in Store? collections review methodology recommends museums set up a small staff working group to consider the results of a review and develop an action plan. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a list.
2. Be transparent about what you’re doing
For UCL, the audience became part of the decision-making process through an exhibition Disposal?(19-31 October 2009). Objects earmarked for potential disposal were shown alongside a variety of other objects not normally on display, with visitors asked to vote on what the university’s museums should be collecting and what objects would be better off elsewhere.
Similarly, the National Maritime Museum's (NMM) collections review, which launched in 2003, and the resultant disposal process have both been based around transparency. Curatorial and collections management staff carried out the review, with external help sought where necessary, and potential disposals were presented to staff from departments such as exhibitions, learning and interpretation and conservation to ensure that any additional comments could be followed up.
In addition, the NMM developed a communication plan to ensure the public were fully aware of the project.
3. Don’t be afraid to apply a ‘curatorial veto’
A collections review shouldn’t make decisions – that is up to the museum itself. For example, an assortment of plastic dinosaurs within UCL’s collection was given low scores in terms of uniqueness. However, as teaching objects they offered a great deal of value.
“We looked for a balance between qualitative and quantitative,” says Das. “We didn’t want to ‘compute’ an answer.”