It’s one of those requests that sounds so easy, and so reasonable:

  • My insurance policy states that the objects I store in any one location cannot exceed X value
  • I want to find out the total value of all objects currently undergoing treatment in our conservation lab
  • I’m planning a traveling exhibition and my insurance and indemnity policy has a ceiling of X

These are typical requests that involve two aspects of an object: the object’s current value, and the object’s location.  Yet this can be some of the most complicated information to provide, or at least to provide without caveats and explanations.  Why the complexity?

The simple root of this complex issue is that an object can be composed of multiple components.  A tea service is composed of a cup, a spoon, and a saucer, and it could and often is managed within the Collection Management System as a single object record with multiple components.  An even better example is a teapot, which can have two components: the pot proper, and the pot’s lid.  Or my favorite example of all: Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the movie The Wizard of Oz, a pair of which are owned by the Smithsonian Institution. One object record in the Collection Management System, two component records, left shoe and right.

The topic of objects and components is an interesting one and merits further discussion, but for now let’s use Dorothy’s slippers as an example.  Almost certainly you acquired them as a set, so you have a single purchase price.  At some point, you had an appraiser come in and estimate the value of this object for insurance purposes; let’s say the valuation was $500,000.  It’s fairly certain that the appraiser didn’t provide one value for the left shoe and one for the right, any more than they would have provided a separate valuation for the teapot and its lid.

Component Value Screenshot

So now you have an object with a value of $500,000.  The problem is that while a single valuation can encompass a multi-component object, each component can have a separate location.  The teapot could be in Storage Room 51 while the lid is in the conservation lab undergoing repairs.  Dorothy’s left slipper could be in an exhibition (“Sinister: The Lure of the Left”, your next blockbuster), while the right reposes in an acid-free shoebox in Storage Room 51.  Does the storage room contain a $500,000 object and the exhibition also contain a $500,000 object?  That would be double counting.  But if, heaven forbid, the right shoe vanished from the storage room, you would most likely submit an insurance claim for the full amount, just as you would if the teapot disappeared while the lid was still safely under conservation treatment.

Here I’m just describing binary components, left and right, pot and lid.  But some objects are much more complex.  A Joseph Cornell box can have dozens of individual elements, any of which could be removed for conservation or special storage depending on the material requirements.  If you assign the value of the Cornell box to every one of its components, you’ll reach an unacceptably high degree of duplicate value counting, much worse than Dorothy’s left and right shoes. That’s the crux of the issue for value/location information: how to you avoid under or over valuing of components?

Strategies for Apportioning Values across Components in Multiple Locations

A number of strategies can help when trying to assess the value of object components in multiple locations.  One strategy is to assign the full value of an object to all of its components.  This simple approach actually has a significant benefit: you’ll be certain never to underestimate the value of objects within a location, because you’re assuming that each component could be worth up to the maximum value of the entire object.

You could, if you wished, assess each object’s valuation individually to allocate a portion to each component, based on some understanding of the object.  For example, you could say that a Cornell box composed of a common glass marble and a tiny hand-written poem could have a lower value assigned to the glass marble (easily replaced, almost indestructible) versus the poem (unique, holographic, fragile).  For certain objects or certain collections this approach could make sense, as it would provide a more refined result when looking at the value of components in each location.  For example, you can do this in The Museum System (TMS) Collection Management Solution by using a component Flex Field that can contain a numeric value specific to each component.

Component Value Screenshot

Another approach is simply to do the math, and calculate Dorothy’s slippers as having a value of $250,000 each.  That makes some sense for shoes, but what about the teapot and lid?  It is harder to argue that both share equally in the value of the overall object, although that argument can be made, as destroying the lid would render the pot imperfect and perhaps less valuable.  In this case, you would simple divide the object value by the number of components in the object.

This last approach can be further tuned by identifying components as either part of the work or as accessories.  The Cornell box and the twelve elements it contains are all part of the object, but the display mount that you designed for the box, which is also a component, should not share in the object’s valuation; it’s just an accessory that could be refabricated with little effort.

Component Value Screenshot

Which approach do I see most often in the collections I visit?  Probably the first approach: multiply the value times the components and accept that you’ll end up with a high estimate for value per location.  Some institutions do this without realizing it, but most who embrace this approach do so with eyes open and know that over-counting will result.  I also see many institutions that use the last approach described here: take all the components that are part of the work, minus the accessories, divide the object valuation by that number, and assign it to each part-of-work component.

No matter which approach you take, it’s important to be consistent and to be able to rationalize, to yourself and your staff, the approach you decide upon.

Next time, I’ll show you some reports and spreadsheet exports you can use for reporting on valuation by current location.  I also look forward to discussing valuation calculations for shipping and crating, since there are some special nuances involved in these cases.

How do you apportion values across objects and components in multiple locations? Let me know in the comments below.