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Toward Lean Collections with Greater Impact

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
In around 2000, the Accreditation Commission took a long, hard look at their tabling decisions—this is when they pause their review to give a museum time to take corrective action. They were troubled to find that over a quarter of these tablings related to collections stewardship. It was clear to the Commissioners that many museums were struggling to manage collections that didn’t fit their missions, exceeded their resources or both. 

With the Commission’s encouragement, in 2002 I worked with Jim Gardner (then Director of Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of American History), to organize the National Collections Planning Colloquium, bringing together 80 staff members from 36 institutions of all types and sizes to explore how museums could be more intentional and selective in their acquisitions. The resulting AAM Guide to Collections Planning (2004) outlined the emerging consensus in the field about how the field can more thoughtfully assess what, and when, to accept something into the public trust.

More than a decade later, we as a field have made only tiny, incremental progress implementing the recommendations of the Colloquium participants. So I am delighted to learn of Active Collections—a group dedicated to generating “discussion and action across the history museum field to develop a new approach to collections, one that is more effective and sustainable.” In today’s guest post Trevor Jones, Rainey Tisdale and Elee Wood share their motivations for starting this movement, and how you can become involved. (You can find more information about Trevor, Rainey and Elee, including their contact info, at the end of the post.)

In 2004 the Heritage Health Indexdetermined there were 13.5 million historical artifacts held by museums in the United States. 13.5 million. That doesn’t include 4.7 million works of art, 153 million photographs, and 270 million books and scrapbooks – many of all of them also housed in history museums. That’s a whole lot of stuff.
Forget these numbers entirely. However impressive, they obscure the real issues.

We instead invite you to think about what history museums are doing with all this stuff and why anyone should care.  Museums too often equate size with quality. In our fundraising pitches we say if we can just get some more money we will be able to complete our cataloging backlogs, build adequate storage space, and finally catch up on these impressive numbers.
The problem with this message is it reinforces the idea that museums exist mainly to preserve as many things as possible – we are the community’s attic, the nation’s attic. As Americans face unprecedented levels of consumerism, their own attics (and garages and storage lockers) are bulging. The reality is that we will never catch up. Is it responsible or sustainable to continue with our current collections stewardship model?
We believe museums need to stop touting the size of museum collections and start talking about leaner collections with greater impact. History museum collections seem particularly prone to this problem so that’s our current priority.

We believe we need to stop treating artifacts the same – too many museums pretend that all their collections are equally valuable and they budget the same amount for care across the board instead of focusing their resources on the pieces that best support their mission.
Multiple studies have assessed the problem of collections preservation, and each has proposed providing museums more money to process and preserve artifacts. But there’s little point in preserving collections if they don’t actively support the mission.

Any artifact that doesn’t support your mission is a “lazy artifact.” They cost the same amount to care for and store, but they sit on the shelves for decades, never getting used for exhibitions, programming, or research. Most history museums possess thousands of underutilized artifacts. Instead of being active assets, these lazy artifacts drain vital resources and deflect attention from the powerful, compelling objects that do provide public value.
Some objects support the mission better than others and this decision shouldn’t be based on monetaryvalue or rarity, but based on the stories they can tell and the ideas they illuminate. The ones that provide the most public value should get the largest share of our time and resources.
We want to generate discussion and action across the history museum field to develop a new approach to collections, one that is more effective and sustainable. As a first step, we drafted a manifesto.

We know this isn’t a new problem and that it’s been addressed before.  The AAM Guide to Collections Planning (2004) discusses the importance of making collections relevant to the mission, and Jim Vaughn’s Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule (2008) addressed the “tyranny of collections” and its impact on museums. In addition, many posts on the CFM site have addressed museums’ bias for preservation over access and asked what exactly are we saving this stuff for? (For a start see Please Touch the Objects: The Future of Museum Accessibility from 2009, and Navigating Preservation Futures from 2011).

However, we believe that the field has now reached a tipping point. As we’ve spent the last few years talking to professionals across the country, we’ve noticed an increased willingness to rethink the purpose of collections and tie them more closely with museum mission. As a field we’re starting to realize that we cannot continue to collect and use artifacts the way we have in the past and we need to find more ways that collections can help us reach our organization’s goals. What we lack is a path forward – and that’s what Active Collections is working on charting.

As people who care deeply about the power of objects, we want a better future for museum collections. We’re calling on you to help us move from problem to solution. Have you wrestled with these issues? Have you found solutions that others should know about? We’re interested in your case studies and thought pieces to help us make progress on this very important topic. Send your ideas to activecollectionsproject (at)

You can also help us by participating in a short survey from the Active Collections project about deaccessioning practices before June 30th. We’re trying to understand the barriers to deaccessioning in order to find ways to make this process less challenging and time-consuming. Your information will support the development of new strategies and approaches. 

The survey will only take about 10 minutes and you can find the link here:  Please feel free to share the link with your co-workers and colleagues.

Trevor Jones is Director of Museum Collections & Exhibitions, Kentucky Historical Society.

Elee Wood, PhD, is Director, Museum Studies Program, IUPUI School of Liberal Arts, Associate Professor of Museum Studies and Education, Public Scholar of Museums, Families, and Learning @Epiplectic  @MSTD_IUPUI

Rainey Tisdale is an independent curator,, @raineytisdale (Twitter), Author of Creativity in Museum Practice by Linda Norris and Rainey Tisdale
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