Skip to content

Introduction to collections care

Overview

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 objects. These objects are what makes your museum or gallery unique.

Collections care 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 object 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 separate practice to collections care. Museums Galleries Scotland uses three terms to describe different facets of preserving collections.

Collections care

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.

Remedial conservation

Work done on individual items in collections, either to correct damage or stabilise its condition.

Preventive conservation

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.

Managerial responsibility

Managers and trustees of a museum have ultimate responsibility for 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, and spot condition checks
  • Creating a procedural manual so every member of the workforce is aware of their responsibility of care
  • Hosting or facilitating workforce training sessions or developing existing skills within your team
  • Allotting a separate space for inspecting, preparing and storing collections
  • Allocating a budget for buying collection care supplies
  • Incorporating collections care into forward and strategic plans for the museum

Ongoing care

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.

Housekeeping

Maintaining a clean museum and object store is essential to preserving the quality of your collections. Housekeeping in a museum should involve:

  • Object-appropriate cleaning
  • Ensuring a clean 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
  • Pests
  • Suitability of furniture, fittings and containers

Labelling

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.

Handling collections

Handling guidelines

A key aspect of collections care is handling your items appropriately. Execute your handling incorrectly and you could damage your collection.

Where possible, follow these basic guidelines:

  • Always make sure your hands are clean and dry before handling objects (remember, wearing gloves may compromises dexterity and may not always be the best approach)
  • Use lifting equipment for awkward or heavy objects.
  • Consider potentially hazardous material, and use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment, such as face masks or gloves
  • Ensure all relevant staff are familiar with handling procedures
  • Create storage and work environments that are conducive 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, sensible 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 always wrap them
  • Include written instructions on how to unpack

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.

Useful links

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.

Accreditation standards

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)

Contact us

Any further questions, don't hesitate to contact us.

Useful collections networks

For collections-specific information and contacts, see our list of Subject Specialist Networks