Those who work closely with museum collections understand the power of a Collections Management System (CMS).
While CMS software used to be clunky and hardly better than a card catalog, the last decade has seen tremendous growth in both CMS usability as well as utility. No longer a simple catalog of things, most CMS platforms now offer supports for major functions of collections care and management. With provenance tracking, inventory control, exhibition creation, and online display (among others) the museum CMS serves as a robust underpinning to any collection management program. So why is it so hard to move museums towards adoption of better CMS platforms? There are a few reasons and we’ll tackle them in this post.
Barriers that Prevent Museums from Moving to a Better CMS
There can be a few reasons as to why it’s so hard for museum staff to choose a new and better CMS. And, it’s very possible that the resistance you encounter is fueled by more than one reason. The first step is to identify the reasons seemingly present at your museum and understand why they exist.
Here are the top 5 barriers:
- Lack of directorship-level understanding and/or support.
- Not enough money for 1x costs (setup, migration, configuration) and/or annual cost.
- Not knowing where to start.
- Fear of the unknown amount of work migration will entail.
- Resistance to learning a whole new system.
Now let’s break each down to their points of resistance and review strategies for how to account for or neutralize any barriers.
Barrier #1: There’s a lack of directorship-level understanding and/or support regarding a new museum CMS.
Barrier Breaking Strategy #1
If a new CMS isn’t already top of mind for the museum director nor in the budget, t can be an uphill battle to lobby for a better museum CMS. In this situation the director often isn’t aware of just how critical the museum CMS is to collections care and management. It may seem ludicrous to think so, but often directors are so removed from day-to-day collections work that they honestly don’t have an accurate concept of what it entails nor how well a good CMS can help support the work. For this situation, some gentle education with hands-on “show and tell” can help illustrate the power of a CMS. Sometimes discussing a competitor museum and how they’re using their CMS can also be motivational. In addition to showing the opportunities a good CMS can provide, also be sure to highlight how it can help to save and even leverage staff time. Time = Money and it’s a compelling case to make when all the director was thinking about was that a CMS = Money.
Barrier #2: There’s not enough money for 1x costs (setup, migration, configuration) and/or the annual cost of a CMS.
Barrier Breaking Strategy #2
It’s true. Depending on the museum collection, metadata, and other needs, a CMS could be quite expensive. However, as CMS platforms become increasingly flexible, robust and affordable, I challenge you to reconsider CMS requirements that aren’t included in an off-the-shelf CMS. An off-the-shelf product will meet all basic museum standards and will likely meet a majority of your needs. Yes, there are differences and you will need to shop around to determine the best fit, but my point is you don’t need a bespoke (aka expensive) system in order to benefit from a really good CMS. Finally, all good tools will cost money. Given that the collections are the life blood of the museum and that the CMS simultaneously helps to care for, manage, and provide online access to collections, you would think all museums would rate the CMS as one of the highest budget priorities. Yet, many museums have been slow to recognize this shift in operating budget priorities. So, in addition to bringing your costs down by considering an off-the-shelf solution, I also encourage you to make the case to the budgeting authorities that more money should be allocated toward this tool.
Barrier #3: The museum staff doesn’t know where to start when it comes to shopping for a new CMS.
Barrier Breaking Strategy #3
Chances are pretty good that no one on the museum staff has ever gone through a CMS procurement process before. It can be a daunting task if you don’t know where to begin. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help. In addition to the posts I’ve collected in the Additional Reading section, I encourage you to reach out to colleagues and peers who have gone through the process before.
Barrier #4: Staff fear regarding the unknown amount of work data and asset migration to a new CMS platform will entail.
Barrier Breaking Strategy #4
Of all the barriers, this one is the perhaps the most universal. As our tools, staff, and best practices have changed over the years, the data within your existing CMS structure may be hard to extract, and inconsistent—and it may be difficult to plan migration pathways. However, CMS products and the companies behind them are now deeply experienced in migrating data from one platform to another. Yes, there will still be migration challenges, but the good news is that we have tools and strategies at our disposal to help make it as painless and possible.
Barrier #5: There’s staff resistance to learning a whole new system.
Barrier Breaking Strategy #5
Learning new systems can be tedious. The good news here is that standard features and functionality are amalgamating to a point where users have a fairly good grasp on what the tool should be capable of and how to execute certain activities. Additionally, many CMS vendors now offer countless resources to tap into on-demand in addition to offering staff training sessions.
Hopefully this post has helped to clear some of the mental and logistical barriers in your path toward a better CMS. While it will take an investment of time and money to move into a better CMS, I promise you that investment will pay off in dividends once you get a more supportive CMS in place.
I’ve collected the following posts to offer as additional reading. These posts help to build on today’s topic and offer next steps or further detail to help support you in your work.
Rachael Cristine Woody
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When starting a museum collection cataloging project, it is critically important to prioritize which sections of the collection to catalog first
Museum cataloging strategy will outline the collection information you have available, known resources, and available tools.
Guidance on initial steps in cataloging your museum’s collection; what information exists, what resources are available, what practices to implement.
The potential for AI to influence museum work in data creation and cleanup is great. However, as with all new tools, it will take time to learn.
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