The Cost of Free Collections Management Systems

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

August 07, 2019

As a consultant I work with a variety of institutions who have variable resources. Too often, one of the operational areas that receives a low to non-existent budget is the museum collections management department.

It’s easy to prioritize externally facing museum operations such as exhibit design, donor relations, and events. These activities are visually stunning, engaging, and appealing. Because they engage external stakeholders and contribute to the museum’s perceived value, these departments typically fare well when the budget is established for the next fiscal year.

Why We’re Forced into Free: Collections Managers Asked to Do More with Less

Departments critical to museum operations—yet often not part of the external glory—are: collections management, archives and library, and information technology. These departments are critical to the success of other departments and the public-facing activities the museum participates in, but they are frequently de-emphasized in favor of external-facing departments. Unfortunately, this can have an impact on what collections managers can afford in terms of software. Instead of having the staff and technology necessary to efficiently do business, the museum collections management department is often asked to cut corners or do without. One of the ways this can manifest is the museum asking the collections managers to use a collections management system (CMS) that is free.

Free & Open Source

In the majority of cases free software is open source. Open source denotes a piece of software whose code is freely available for use, redistribution, or modification. This post speaks specifically to free software that is also open source.

Pros of Free Software:

  • It’s free
  • It can be built on or modified at any time (by experts who know how)
  • It provides a CMS option for cash-strapped museums

Cons of Free Software:

  • It often takes experts (staff or consultants) to implement the free software correctly
  • It requires experts (staff or consultants) to modify or improve the software
  • Only the user community can offer software support and development
  • The expiration is unknown and the death of a free product can happen suddenly and without exit support

Where the Cost is in “Free”

There are costs hidden in “free”. Here’s how each of the cons imply cost:

It often takes experts (staff or consultants) to implement the free software correctly

Software implementation takes time and skill. Free software doesn’t come with experts to implement the CMS for the museum, though sometimes there are directions. Any strategic decisions or critical workflow questions must be anticipated by the museum and this can lead to bad decisions and implementation pitfalls. Installing and setting up a new museum collections management system also requires technical knowledge—sometimes as advanced and as specific as writing query commands in Linux. Additionally, museum staff will have to figure out how to migrate any legacy date from the previous CMS into the free CMS.

Cost: The cost is lost time and data from bad implementation decisions, and staff time which is usually lengthy as staff are not software experts. Or, the cost of hiring a consultant for support.

It requires experts (staff or consultants) to modify or improve the software

If any customization is needed, the museum either relies on staff or hires an expert to help modify the “free” CMS. If the museum doesn’t have the capacity to rely on staff or hire an expert, no modification or improvements to the software can be made. This has its own cost implications as the museum won’t be able to effectively use the CMS to execute its mission. Please see my post on Museum’s Online Presence: Critical to Income Stream for more information on how a CMS is tied to museum income.

Cost:The main cost is staff time or consultant cost. There’s an additional cost resulting from inability to effectively use the museum collections management system to support income stream activities.

Only the user community can support software support and development

Healthy software experiences upgrades in order to perform optimally in a constantly changing environment with evolving user expectations. Software supported by a company will get regular updates, and you’ll have access to their staff—who can support the update and trouble-shoot any issues. “Free” software only offers updates if someone from the user community builds and shares one. Updates will be inconsistent and will likely experience a higher percentage of technical trouble since everyone’s instance is set up differently and there are no support staff in place.

Cost: Using outdated software forces staff to waste time with outdated workflows and technical glitches. It will also cost the museum indirectly since the software can’t be used effectively with present-day technology —a digital visitor expectation.

The expiration is unknown and the death of a free product can happen suddenly and without exit support

As discussed above, free software is reliant on a healthy community to provide support and improvements. This means the software is also vulnerable. If CMS users atrophy, or if the software is no longer compatible with current technology, then the software can die— seemingly unexpectedly. Free software doesn’t come with an exit plan and it can be fairly difficult to reclaim information from the system after the fact.

Cost: An unexpected software outage will delay projects, staff and visitors will lose access to museum collection information, and there will be a cost associated with data retrieval and migration into a new CMS.


When considering software (free or not) it’s important to consider all the cost factors—obvious or hidden—for a museum collections management system. Please see 3 Things to Look for When Choosing a Museum Collections Management System for more insight into how to choose the right CMS for your museum.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and digitization, which can be used to support a wide variety of museum strategies.

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