I recently had a conversation with another small museum colleague that made me think, this is why collections planning is so incredibly important!
This colleague is on the board of a small historical society. The society’s director (without consulting the board) decided that a particular cross section of the collection was irrelevant to the society’s mission. Staff members from another museum were invited to access the objects pending deaccessions to determine if they were interested. Needless to say, the board member was extremely upset that the director would plow ahead without consulting the board and questioned how one person could decide what’s important to the historical society and what isn’t. Well, that’s the whole point of collections planning. One person can’t decide.
This organization needs to slow down! Collections planning is about thinking and acting strategically to acquire, develop, and allocate collections resources to advance the mission. This involves thinking about how the collections are being used, the strengths and weaknesses of the collection, and how the collections should be grown or culled to best meet the mission. It shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction to satisfy a short-term goal. Collections planning is a process, and once complete, the historical society would have a framework from which to make strategic decisions about the collections. Ideally, this process would involve the historical society’s staff and perhaps one or two key board members.
To start the process, the collections planning committee might want to read the chapter I co-authored with Jackie Hoff in the Small Museum Toolkit, book 6 (Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation) titled “Collections Planning: Best Practices in Collections Stewardship” and consider gathering examples from other historical societies. In fact, one example is even provided in the text. The chapter describes the importance of collections stewardship, demystifies collections related jargon (like, what’s the difference between a collections policy and a collections plan?), and provides a framework and practical solutions for collections planning.
Hopefully, this chapter—and many others in the series—will provide other small museums the resources and tools they need to identify and tackle collections related challenges. As for my colleague, I suspect that person will be championing the historical society’s need for a collections plan at the next board meeting!
Nicolette Meister is the curator of collections at the Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College and also teaches collections management in College’s museum studies program. She is a graduate of the Museum and Field Studies program at the University of Colorado at Boulder and has held numerous collections related positions. She was a member of the AASLH Small Museums Committee from 2007-2011.