Collection Management Policy

A Collection Management Policy lays the foundation for how a museum handles situations pertaining to their collection. It can be defined as “a detailed written statement that explains why a museum is in operation and how it goes about its business. The policy articulates the museum’s professional standards regarding the objects left in its care and serves as a guide for the staff”.[1] Since museums are often faced with questions that deal with what objects they should acquire, how to handle removing or loaning objects in the collection, or standards of care for objects; it is imperative to have a well-written policy that can help prevent possible issues on the museum’s end. Prevention is the best approach when dealing with operations and objects in the collection, therefore the policy is an important document that can be looked at almost like boundaries set in place to help insure that the museum stays true to its mission while also providing the best care for the collection.

Writing a Policy

When writing a policy, take the time to ensure that it covers any possible factors that might affect the museum collection, operations, or staff. It is important to note that not all museums are created equally and will therefore have their own unique situations to deal with. With this in mind one must also note that “collection management policies should be written to meet the needs of a specific museum, its collections, and the use of those collections”.[2] To help insure that the written policy can be put to use the museum must be aware of current practices and standards to include. The policy should also be easy to follow while avoiding being overly complex. During the beginning stages of this process the museum and staff members should work together to develop procedures, review the policy and revise as necessary until the policy is complete. There is a lot to consider and quite a bit of work that goes into writing this type of policy, but as the American Alliance of Museums notes, “the process of creating and implementing a policy is far more important and beneficial to the museum than the actual policy itself. The policy may seem like the end result, but in actuality, the end result is a broad understanding of ethics and procedures, which influences how the museum operates”.[3]

What Should a Policy Include

Although every museum is different, below are some of the common key factors a museum should include in their policy.

Introductory Section

Seeing how almost every decision a museum makes is done with its mission statement in mind, it is important that it is included in the policy. A mission statement addresses the museum’s focus in terms of its purpose and its roles and responsibilities to the public and collections. This statement is what helps determine everything the museum does and should be referenced to on a regular bases to ensure that decisions are still in line with the museum’s original goal. Museum mission statements should adhere to the standards of the American Alliance of Museums.

In addition to the mission statement, policies typically include a section that outlines the scope of the collection. This is a useful part of the policy that “reviews the history of the collection; considers its strengths, weaknesses, and current uses; and states what the museum does and does not collect” . The collections policy or selection criteria of a library, archive or museum collection is a statement of the institution's priorities as they apply to the acquisition of new materials. Collections policies guide the process of collection development.

Even the largest, best funded and most famous libraries (such as the Library of Congress, the British Library and Stanford University) cannot acquire, house, catalogue and maintain all works,[4] so a policy or set of criteria is required for selecting which should be acquired. Generally collections policy is related to the mission or purpose of the library: for example national libraries collect materials related to that nation or published in that nation's territory, academic libraries generally collect materials used in teaching and research at the institution which they serve[5] and public libraries collect materials which are expected to satisfy demands from the public they serve.

Sample collections policies include:

As well as setting priorities for purchasing materials, collections policies also serve as a guide when libraries are offered gifts of materials or endowments. Acquisition of materials can be less costly than the processing (sorting, cataloguing, etc.) and long term storage costs of many materials, and even free gifts to libraries usually have associated costs.

This introductory section may also look to include a history of the museum,


The acquisitions portion of a policy outlines whether or not proposed objects should be included into the museum’s collection. Within this section the policy will also include who is involved in this decision making process and whether or not the museum is acquiring the object on a permanent or short-term loan basis. These acquisitions must fit into the scope of collection that has been outlined by the museum. This portion of the policy can also include information pertaining to receipts for donations and ensuring that all acquired objects have proper title and have been obtained legally.[6] The acquisitions portion of the policy tends to also include guidelines for dealing with storage, potential use, and copyright.


Deaccessioning is the “process used to remove permanently an object from a museum’s collection or to document the reasons for an involuntary removal”.[7] Similar to new acquisitions, the policy will fully outline the steps the museum will take when considering the permanent removal of an object from the collection. Also include reasons why the object should be removed, who can propose the removal, and who has final vote on removal. Proper methods of removal and how the museum will use the proceeds should and object be sold are also key factors to include in the policy. Museums often state its adherence to the American Alliance of Museum’s Code of Ethics for Museums to make sure that the “disposal of collections through sale, trade, or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission".[8]


The loans section of a policy typically includes procedures for both incoming and outgoing loans. A strong loan policy will assure that the loan furthers the purpose of the museum, that the object will be cared for properly, and that the registration system can keep track of the object over for the duration of the loan".[9] Some other key points in this portion of the policy pertain to who the museum will lend to; institutions rather than individuals, that the loaned object still fits the mission of the museum and scope of collection, insurance needs, length of the loan, and use of photography.

Care of Collections

Museums serve a purpose to protect and preserve objects within its collection. In order to ensure that the objects are getting the best possible care, the museum uses this portion of the policy to address all factors that pertain to the care of the museum’s collection. It will also identify key staff members, required levels of training to handle objects, and who has access to the collection. This section will set that standards pertaining to topics like museum storage, integrated pest management, conservation, record management, inventories, and risk management. The policy needs to clearly state the responsibilities each staff member has in order to protect objects in the collection.


It is likely that not every piece the museum has will be exhibited at one point. Therefore, it is important that the policy outlines standards for storage whether it be onsite or off. The policy addresses proper environment conditions in storage areas pertaining to things like light levels, temperature, and relative humidity. This portion of the policy will also outline standards that deal with proper packing of objects in storage to insure that proper materials are used and that like objects are grouped together.

Integrated Pest Management

Integrated pest management is essential in protecting the museum’s objects from pest damage. Within this section of the policy the museum addresses what the museum plans to do in order to keep pests out of the museum. It can also address any products that can and cannot be used in the museum or on the objects themselves. In planning for preparedness the policy will address how the museum will respond to and to whom they should report any suspicion activity to.


Museums work hard to ensure that the objects in the collection are properly cared for but conservation is still needed from time to time to help keep objects in their ideal state. The conservation portion of the policy will identify who has the final vote on whether or not objects can be treated, whether or not the staff has responsibilities dealing with actively monitoring objects, and how the museum will cover the cost of funding for conservation. It will also include specific conservators to contact and whether or not there are any treatment methods that are prohibited for use. If the museum has a long-range conservation plan, it can be mentioned here.[10]

Record Management and Documentation

This is one of the key roles of staff members working with collections. Without proper documentation, it is almost as if the object does not exist. Therefore, it is imperative that the policy addresses standards relating to proper record management and documentation related to objects in the collection. As the American Alliance of Museums notes “In writing this section, museums typically reference the types of records created, what information is contained in each record, the parties responsible for maintaining and documenting the records and any procedures and back-up systems”.[11]


Inventory of the museum’s collection is used to ensure that all objects within the collection are accounted for and in the correct location. This section of the policy will note necessary steps to take when completing an inventory. It will also address how often the museum conducts comprehensive inventories and spot-check inventories. Comprehensive inventories are ones that include checking the entire collection, where spot-check inventories deal with a selected amount of random objects in the collection that will need to be located and checked for inventory. This part of the policy also notes the steps to take and whom to notify if something is missing.

Risk Management

Museum staff can hope that a disaster will never hit, but it is important for the museums have a plan in place in the event that one does. Risk management in regards to a collections management policy will note what the museum is doing in an effort to best protect objects. This includes topics dealing with fire protection, ways to prevent mold, and security. The museum should also have an emergency response plan in place as well.

Policy Examples

As stated before, not all policies will be the same. There is no template that can be used but below are examples of policies that might be beneficial to reference when writing a policy.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum of American Art

National Museum of Natural History

Museum of Science and History of Jacksonville, Inc.


  1. Malaro, M. C., & Pogany DeAngelis, I. (2012). A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections (Third ed.). Page 46. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
  2. Simmons, J. E. (2010). Collections Management Policies. In R. A. Buck & J. A. Gilmore (Eds.), Museum Registration Methods (5th ed., pp. 24-29). Washington, D.C.: The AAM Press.
  3. American Alliance of Museums. 2012. Alliance Reference Guide Developing a Collections Management Policy from
  4. For attempts to do this, see Universal library.
  5. Donated materials may be subject to less rigorous criteria and electronic materials are usually selected from large collections of serials and databases which may contain a mixture of appropriate and inappropriate materials
  6. Simmons, J. E. (2010). Collections Management Policies. In R. A. Buck & J. A. Gilmore (Eds.), Museum Registration Methods (5th ed., pp. 24-29). Washington, D.C.: The AAM Press.
  7. Malaro, M. C., & Pogany DeAngelis, I. (2012). A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections (Third ed.) pg 46. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
  8. American Alliance of Museums. 2012. Alliance Reference Guide Developing a Collections Management Policy from
  9. Reibel, D. B. (2008). Registration methods for the small museum (4th ed.). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
  10. American Alliance of Museums. 2012. Alliance Reference Guide Developing a Collections Management Policy from
  11. American Alliance of Museums. 2012. Alliance Reference Guide Developing a Collections Management Policy from
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