Collection (museum)
A museum
A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. Most large museums are located in major cities...

 is distinguished by a collection of often unique objects that forms the core of its activities for exhibitions, education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

, research
Research can be defined as the scientific search for knowledge, or as any systematic investigation, to establish novel facts, solve new or existing problems, prove new ideas, or develop new theories, usually using a scientific method...

, etc. This differentiates it from an archive
An archive is a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located. Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime, and are kept to show the function of an organization...

 or library
In a traditional sense, a library is a large collection of books, and can refer to the place in which the collection is housed. Today, the term can refer to any collection, including digital sources, resources, and services...

, where the contents may be more paper-based, replaceable and less exhibition oriented. A museum normally has a collecting policy for new acquisitions, so only objects in certain categories and of a certain quality are accepted into the collection. The process by which an object is formally included in the collection is called accessioning and each object is given a unique accession number
Accession number (library science)
An accession number is a sequential number given to each new book, magazine subscription, or recording as it is entered in the catalog of a library. If an item is removed from the collection, its number is usually not reused for new items...


Museum collections, and archives in general, are normally catalogued in a collection catalogue, traditionally in a card index, but nowadays in a computerized database
A database is an organized collection of data for one or more purposes, usually in digital form. The data are typically organized to model relevant aspects of reality , in a way that supports processes requiring this information...

. Transferring collection catalogues onto computer-based media is a major undertaking for most museums. All new acquisitions are normally catalogued on a computer in modern museums, but there is typically a backlog of old catalogue entries to be computerized as time and funding allows.


Museum collections are widely varied. There are collections of art, of scientific specimens, of historic objects, of living zoological specimens, of cheese and much more. Because there are so many things to collect, most museums have a specific area of specialization. For example, a history museum may only collect objects relevant to a particular county or even a single person, or focus on a type of object such as automobiles or stamps. Art museums may focus on a period, such as modern art, or a region. Very large museums will often have many subcollections, each with its own criteria for collecting. A natural history museum, for example, will have mammals in a separate collection from insects.

Because museums cannot collect everything, each potential new addition must be carefully considered as to its appropriateness for a given museum's defined area of interest.


Accessioning is the formal, legal process of accepting an object into a museum collection. Because accessioning an object carries an obligation to care for that object in perpetuity, it is a serious decision. While in the past many museums accepted objects with little deliberation, today most museums have accepted the need for formal accessioning procedures and practices. These are typically set out as part of a museum's Collections Management Policy or CMP.

While each museum has its own procedures for accessioning, in most cases it begins with either an offer from a donor to give an object to a museum, or a recommendation from a curator
A curator is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution is a content specialist responsible for an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material...

 to acquire an object through purchase or trade.

Several issues must be considered in the decision to accept an object. Common issues include:
  • Is the object relevant to the museum's mission and its scope of collecting, as defined by its governing body?
  • Was the object lawfully acquired and if foreign in origin, imported in compliance with international law?
  • Does the owner of an object have legal title to the object and therefore the right to transfer it?
  • Are there any other parties with an interest in the object (e.g. heirs of a donor, descendant groups for cultural objects, etc.)?
  • Is the object encumbered by any legal obligations or constraints (e.g., natural history objects that require special permits)?
  • Would the object pose any threats or dangers to other objects or staff?
  • Does the museum have the resources to properly care for the object (e.g., appropriate storage space, adequate funding)
  • Is the object encumbered by any donor restrictions?

Answering these questions often required investigating an object's provenance, the history of an object from the time it was made.

Many museums will not accession objects that have been acquired illegally or where other parties have an interest in the object. In art museums, special care is given to objects that changed hands in European countries during World War II and archaeological objects unearthed after the 1970 UNESCO Convention covering the transport of cultural property. Other disciplines have different concerns. For example, anthropology museums will pay special attention to Native American objects that may be subject to repatriation, and paleontology museums may look carefully at whether proper permitting procedures were followed when they are offered fossil collections.

While in the past, museums often accepted objects with donor-based restrictions, many museums today ask that gifts be given unrestricted. Common donor restrictions include requiring that an object always be exhibited, or that a collection stays together. However, such restrictions can prevent museums from changing their exhibits as scholarship evolves and may introduce conservation issues for delicate objects not suited to continued display.

Final decision to accept an object generally lies with the museum's board of trustees. In large museums, a special committee may meet regularly to review potential acquisitions. Once the decision has been made to accept an object, it is formally accessioned through a Deed of Gift and entered into the museum's catalog records. Each object is given a unique catalog number to identify it. Objects are then packed for appropriate archival storage, or prepared for exhibition or other educational use.


Once accessioned into the collection, museum objects must be appropriately cared for. New objects may be examined by a conservator and treated for any pre-existing damage. The object is then cataloged by a curator or other specialist with knowledge of the object's importance and history. The object will then be given an appropriate storage location.

Museum storage conditions are meant to protect the object and to minimize any deterioration. This often means keeping objects in a stable climate, preventing exposure to pests, minimizing any handling, and using only archival materials that will not deteriorate or harm the objects. Object safety also include providing appropriate security, and planning for disasters and other threats, and making sure that museum staff are trained in proper handling procedures.

Different types of objects have different requirements, and many museums have specialized storage areas. For example, framed paintings may be stored in racks in one room while unframed paintings are kept in large drawers in another. Some objects have extremely specialized needs. For example, material from underwater archaeological sites may need to be kept wet, and some very rare and badly deteriorated objects require oxygen-free environments.

At any given time, museums display only a portion of their collections. This is often because exhibition requires much more space than storage, and is impractical for the entire collection to be out. Museums may also contain many duplicate or similar objects and find that a few specimens are better suited to display than others. In addition, certain objects, particularly works on paper and textiles, are damaged by light and must only be displayed for short periods of time.

Museum collections are often made up of a variety of materials in a single collection including, but not limited to: canvas, oil and/or acrylic paints, wood, ivory, paper, bone, leather, and textiles. The biggest conservation issue for museum collections is the fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature. Relative Humidity (RH) is a measure of the percentage of saturation of the air.

Temperature is not as important to the life of a work of art, but it is true that chemical reactions occur faster at higher temperatures. However, a museum must take into account the comfort of its staff and visitors and it has been widely accepted that 68°F-75°F does not cause a lot of problems for most artifacts and is comfortable for most humans.

It has also been internationally agreed upon that the RH should be set at 50%–55%. This has become widely accepted because the lower limit was set at 45% since damage to organic materials begin to occur below this point. The upper limit is placed at 65% because mold flourishes at 70% RH. It is also cheaper for most institutions to maintain 50% RH rather than 45% or 60%. There is some exception when it comes to tropical climates since the indigenous artifacts are acclimated to RH levels higher than the “museum norm”. Changes can be made to a museum’s RH to accommodate the changing seasons, but they must be made gradually. Humidity should change in 2% per month increments (an increase in 1°F will affect a decrease of about 2% RH).


Deaccessioning, the process of disposing, selling or trading objects from a museum collection, is not undertaken lightly in most museums. There are ethical issues to consider since many donors of objects typically expect the museum to care for them in perpetuity. Deaccessioning of an object in a collection may be appropriate if a museum has more than one example of that object and if the object is being transferred to another museum. It may also be appropriate if an object is badly deteriorated or threatening other objects.

The decision to deaccession includes two parts. These are making the decision to deaccession and deciding the method of disposal. Generally, first choice is to transfer an object to another use or division in a museum, such as deaccessioning a duplicate object from a permanent collection into a teaching collection. Second choice is to transfer the object to another institution, generally with local institutions having priority. The American Association of Museums and other regional associations often operate lists or boards to help facilitate such transfers. Last choice is sale on the open market. Open market sales are generally expected to take place at auction rather than through private sale, and are typically most common in art museums due to the high monetary value of art collections.

A controversial example occurred when the last remaining complete Dodo
The dodo was a flightless bird endemic to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Related to pigeons and doves, it stood about a meter tall, weighing about , living on fruit, and nesting on the ground....

Taxidermy is the act of mounting or reproducing dead animals for display or for other sources of study. Taxidermy can be done on all vertebrate species of animals, including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians...

 in a museum collection at Oxford University was deaccessioned due to its deterioration in 1775. Another case was the sale of a J. M. W. Turner
J. M. W. Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner RA was an English Romantic landscape painter, watercolourist and printmaker. Turner was considered a controversial figure in his day, but is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting...

 painting in the collection of Royal Holloway, University of London
Royal Holloway, University of London
Royal Holloway, University of London is a constituent college of the University of London. The college has three faculties, 18 academic departments, and about 8,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students from over 130 different countries...

 to the Getty Museum to fund the maintenance of the building, despite the fact that the original benefactor had expressly requested that the collection be kept intact.

Many ethical guidelines for deaccessioning require that the funds generated by disposing of collection items be used only to increase or maintain the remaining collection. For example, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics states that:

"Money or compensation received from the deaccessioning and disposal of objects and specimens from a museum collection should be used solely for the benefit of the collection and usually for acquisitions to that same collection".

In the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

, guidelines governing deaccessioning and other ethically difficult issues can be found in the Museums Association
Museums Association
The Museums Association is a professional organisation based in London for museum professionals and museums in the United Kingdom.The association is the oldest museum association in the world and was started in 1889 by a small group of museums to protect the interests of museums and galleries...

's Code of Ethics. In the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, the guidelines on these matters are issued by the American Association of Museums
American Association of Museums
The American Association of Museums is a non-profit association that has brought museums together since its founding in 1906, helping develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and advocating on issues of concern to the museum community...


The American Association of Museums Code of Ethics takes the position that "in no event shall they [deaccessioning proceeds] be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections".

Other museums may have additional restrictions on the use of funds from deaccessioning. For example, at some museums funds from deaccessioning a work of art can only be used to purchase a work of similar style or period (for example, funds from selling a 20th century American print could not be used to buy a 17th century Italian painting) and the name of the donor of the sold work remains associated with the purchased artwork.

External links

Other resources

  • Malaro, M. (1998) A legal primer on managing museum collections. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-56098-787-1
  • Weil, S. (2000) A deaccession reader. Washington D.C.: American Association of Museums. ISBN 978-0-931201-50-9
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