Understanding how to care for your collections is one of the first things managers and curators need to consider when starting a museum or gallery. Museum staff at every level are responsible for collections care, as it helps to preserve what makes your museum uniquely important.
Collections care involves:
- Creating a suitable environment for the preservation and display of collections
- Strategic planning for ongoing care
- A collective effort to treat all museum items with respect
- Guidance on handling, packing and treating artefacts
Every item counts
Collections are the most important resource of a museum. Guests will come through your establishment’s doors to see and experience your array of items and artefacts. These objects are what makes your museum or gallery unique.
Collections care, therefore, is essential to preserving the core of what makes your museum special. The key to success with caring for your collection is realising that every item is of equal value. Whether you are displaying ancient Assyrian carvings or charting the course of 21st-century technology, every piece in your collection needs to be treated with respect.
Keep this in mind as you plan your museum, with collections care at the centre of your designs.
Care vs. Conservation
Sometimes you might hear reference to conservation when discussing the care of collections. This is a slightly separate practice to collections care. Museums Galleries Scotland uses three terms to describe different facets of preserving collections.
A museum-wide strategy that incorporates the correct procedures for managing collections. The rest of this guide goes into further detail on elements of collections care, such as handling items and mounting displays.
Work done on individual items in collections, either to correct damage or stabilise its condition.
Relating to environmental work undertaken in museum buildings to anticipate and prevent potential issues with collections. This involves environmental monitoring and control, pest management, storage and display provision.
Who is responsible?
Everyone plays a part
Volunteers, managers, cleaners and front of house staff should all be equally concerned about caring for a museum's collections. The overall plan of care should never be the sole remit of just one or two people, although responsibilities of care vary according to staff roles. From managing budgets to keeping a weather eye on pest activity, the whole museum team should be invested in maintaining and preserving museum collections.
Ultimately, managers and trustees of a museum are in charge of its collections care system. Plan ahead and develop a strategy for delegating essential care tasks.
Key elements to consider include:
- Organising staff rotas for basic tasks such as rubbish collection
- Creating a procedures manual so every staff member is aware of their responsibility of care
- Hosting staff training sessions or developing existing skills within your team
- Allotting a separate space for inspecting, preparing and storing collections
- Allocating a budget for buying supplies that contribute to collections care
- Incorporating collections care into future plans for the museum
Caring for your collections is a continual process, not a one-off procedure. For the best results from collections care, develop a plan for thorough ongoing care. Establishing routines helps to beat problems before they even arise. We've outlined three ways to ensure year-round care.
Maintaining a clean museum is essential to preserving the quality of your collections. Housekeeping in a museum should involve:
- Item-appropriate cleaning
- Ensuring a clean museum environment
- Cleaning protective clothing and dust sheets
- Taking quarantine measures against pests
Checking and monitoring
Rigorous monitoring of collections ensures that any issues with an item can be identified early on. Make sure you keep data on routine checks throughout the building so the information can be used for improving the museum.
Factors that should be monitored include:
- Maintenance of the building, facilities and equipment
- Internal environments, including light and UV radiation
- Condition of collections
- Suitability of furniture, fittings and containers
A sensible labelling system with a central database is essential in keeping track of every item in your collection. Visit The Collections Trust for guidance on how to safely label your items.
The first stage in collections care is handling your items appropriately. Execute your handling incorrectly and you could damage your collection.
This potentially nerve-racking process can be made a lot simpler if you follow these basic guidelines:
- Always, always wear gloves.
- Use lifting equipment for awkward or heavy objects.
- Consider, for some items, also wearing a face mask.
- Ensure all staff are familiar with handling procedures.
- Create storage and work environments that are condusive to sensible handling.
- Develop a plan for how the public will engage with the collection, including warning signs or protective screen.
Packing and unpacking
Good packing protects collections. Several people will be involved in the packing and unpacking of any one item, so you cannot rely on your own memory to remember how something was packed.
Use these helpful tips to avoid damaging objects during these processes:
- Pack items according to purpose; storage may require less padding than transport.
- Cushion, pad and layer objects, don't wrap them.
- Include written instructions on how to unpack it.
Code of Practice
The Code of Practice for Cultural Collections Management was commissioned by the British Standards Institute to create a Publicly Available Specification (PAS) for collections management in 2009. Use this specification to guide your steps in collections care.
The code of practice helps to:
- Develop strategies for managing collections
- Create sustainable strategies encompassing all areas of management
- Understand the legal environment of museum collections
It is applicable to all types and sizes of cultural collections.
In order to reach the standards for museum accreditation, your collections care needs to be effectively implemented. Read up on specific care and conservation requirements in the UK Museum Accreditation Scheme.
This was just an introduction to caring for your collection. For in-depth guidance on specific elements of collections care and other facets of running a museum, read more of our advice guides.
The Collections Trust has a range of collections care advice and guidance available.
The Museum of London has two collections care related e-tools: a guide to packing objects for storage and advice on handling objects.
We also recommend two books with guidance on specific elements of collections care:
- An Illustrated Guide to the Care of Costume and Textile Collections (Robinson, J. and Pardoe, T; Museums & Galleries Commission, 2000, ISBN 0948630957), which is available online
- The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping (Butterworth-Heinemann; The National Trust 2006 (Revised 2011) ISBN 978-1907892189)
Any further questions, don't hesitate to contact us.
Useful collections networks
There are a considerable number of collections networks within the heritage sector, with new ones forms on a regular basis. Below is a selection of networks you may find useful.
Scottish Collections Managers Forum
The Forum shares information and knowledge around core collections management activity. They are keen to widen their membership to involve anyone with a responsibility for managing collections in Scotland’s museums.
To join this free network and create your Google group account, e-mail Pam Babes, Collections Development Manager at National Museums Scotland.
STICK - Scottish Transport and Industry Collections Knowledge Network
STICK is an independent subject specialist network open to individuals and organisations with an interest in this field. It encourages wider engagement with technological and industrial collections across Scotland. Subscription is free.
MMiC:S - The Modern Materials in Collections: Scotland group
This supports informed and confident decision making about modern materials in museum/art collections. It promotes, encourages and advances the collecting of modern materials. MMiC:S has a blog and invites your comments and postings on relevant issues and to highlight news, events and articles.
Rural Museums Network
The Rural Museums Network brings museums of farming and the countryside closer together for mutual benefit. It extends across England and includes also the national collections of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Social History Curators Group
Join this group to discuss subjects relevant to social and local history in museums and to exchange information on collections. If you have an object that you need to know about, a member is sure to know.
UMIS - University Museums in Scotland
UMIS exists to foster the preservation, care and interpretation of historical and cultural collections in Scottish Universities, and to promote interest in those collections.
UK Registrars Group
A forum for communication and co-operation between registrars and professionals in other fields related to the work undertaken by registrars.
EOGAN - European Oil and Gas Archives Network
A European network of professional archives, cultural institutions and companies related to oil and gas, with the purpose to promote the retention and usage of relevant archives, and the sharing of skills and experience.
Subject Specialist Networks
The Collections Trust is developing a UK-wide database of international, national, regional and local networks and groups of expertise in different areas of collections management.