A collections policy is a document that describes how you handle artifacts and archival holdings from donation to use to, possibly, disposal. In other words, who at your organization does what with your collections and why. At the Clark County Historical Society, we’ve been working on a new collections policy for about two years. Currently it’s 44 pages long. Obviously, we’ve put a lot of thought into it. After multiple meetings, it’s finally ready to go before the Board for approval.
A good policy covers things like:
- Your acquisition methods: Do you collect passively – by taking what donors offer to you – or do you actively seek out and solicit new donations and/or purchases? Who has the authority to accept donations on behalf of your organization?
- How you use your collections: Who gets to do what with your artifacts? Are they to be used solely for exhibits, or will you maintain an education collection that can be handled as part of interactive learning experiences? Do you loan your artifacts to others, and if so, to whom and under what circumstances? Who has the final say?
- Collection development strategy: How do you want your collections to grow in the next 10-20 years? Are there gaps you’d like to see filled – segments of the community, significant events, individuals or facets of local life that aren’t represented? Do you want to broaden your scope or narrow it?
These are just a few of the points a collections policy might address. Thinking through these kinds of issues in detail and putting them on paper might seem like a lot of unnecessary work if you’re a relatively small organization. So why do you need a collections policy? To begin with, it can make your life easier in a lot of situations (for example, turning down that trustee, prominent citizen or anyone else who wants to donate something that falls miles outside the scope of your collections). After all, processing and caring for artifacts requires a lot of time and resources, and you don’t want to expend them on irrelevant or less-than-useful items.
Suppose your collections policy dictates that ownership of all newly-acquired artifacts must be transferred to your organization. You can point to that page if you want to turn down a long-term loan, the acceptance of which could cause legal problems down the road. You can refer to your collections policy if you need to gently explain to an over-eager volunteer that they shouldn’t accept donations on behalf of your organization without asking first. (“You know your efforts are important to us, but according to the policy…”) You can use your policy to set in stone the kind of exhibit conditions and security that must be in place before you’ll loan an artifact to someone else for display. That’s the great thing about a collections policy – it gives you a chance to have a hand in shaping and caring for your collections in the future, even after you’re gone.
For everything you need to know about writing a collections policy, check out A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections by Marie C. Malaro and Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis.