Best Practices in Collections Management Policies, Documentation, and Object Cataloguing
Get the Most from Your Institution’s Collections Data
Tracking object details is an essential part of collections care. Adhering to a strong set of collections information and cataloguing standards through institutional collections management policies can help preserve the history of your collection for the future, and make your department’s day-to-day activities more efficient—from preparing exhibition lists to managing conservation tasks.
Terms of the Trade
Collections Management Policy
Collections management policies are put into place to ensure a collections institution or museum outlines a foundation of how the organization handles its collections. These policies inform staff on how to handle and care for the collection and would answer questions such as protocols for removing or loaning objects from the collection to ensure no missteps along in the process.
Every collections management policy starts with an introduction which highlights the museum’s mission statement. This statement for the organization’s existence enforces the museum’s purpose and responsibilities to the public and its collection. Museums in the United States must have their mission statements adhere to the standards of the American Alliance of Museums.
The introduction also includes a selection criterion which outlines the priorities of which the organization applies for the acquisition of new objects in its collection. The rest of the policy usually covers the following:
Deaccessions (object removal from the collection)
Care of collections
Integrated pest management
Record management and documentation
Permanent records and supporting evidence of care during the lifetime of a collection. This includes, but is not limited to, the acquisition, preservation, conservation, management, display, and intellectual use of each object. Collections documentation helps to protect and secure the data and information of the collection.
Recording the history, description, and details of an object. Object cataloguing also includes documenting details of an object’s life, such as accessioning, location changes, condition reports, handling requirements, exhibition history, and loan history.
A catalogue record will include:
A unique identifying number that links the record to the object, usually the object’s accession number
Relational collections management systems manage data in separate tables that are related to one another by a common field, like an accession number. Relational database systems have many advantages, such as one-to-many relationships (for instance, a single artist that is linked to many objects). In this type of database structure, data only needs to be entered once.
Structuring and Entering your Information
Data management reaps the greatest benefits when data is consistent and controlled, which can be achieved through museum-wide collections management policies. It’s important to focus on how information is structured and entered into the CMS.
These data standards enable consistent and reliable ways to search for similar objects. Please note that standards are dependent on the needs of each institution and collection.
Data structure standards • Determine the information you want to record. • Identify which fields are essential and which are optional.
Data content standards • What content or information should be entered into each field? • Determine formatting guidelines for data fields, including style, grammar, and acceptable abbreviations.
Data value standards • Decide the terminology or acceptable value for each field and authority to guarantee consistency over time.
Controlling terminology in a CMS helps to keep information consistent, resulting in reliable and accurate query results. Not all fields need controlled vocabulary, but it should be applied to fields that are used for indexing and queries, such as:
These resources were created to encourage the use of standard terms and reference resources, and provide structured vocabularies for recorded information. These assets help to facilitate object discovery during the search process.
Proper collections documentation and cataloguing practices can help you gain more control over your collection data, which helps achieve your museum’s mission better by making collection objects and data more accessible to your staff and the public.
Staff will find that their workflows for exhibitions planning, loans and outgoing objects, conservation documentation, and other regular tasks are simplified. When object data is digitally documented in a CMS, it helps future-proof the collection and prepares the collection for things like online exhibitions or the integration mobile apps.
Partnering with the right collections management system provider to support your collection will help you to structure your data so your institution and staff can thrive. The right tools and support can easily become the key to collections success. Interested in learning more? Read our guide Choosing the Right Museum CMS.
For over 40 years, Gallery Systems has developed collections management solutions for the world's finest cultural institutions. We are dedicated to helping our clients constantly improve the way they manage and share their collections.