The Museums and Collections Management Primer

What is a Museum?


A museum is a repository of artifacts related to art, culture, science and history. These objects are displayed in a purposeful way to convey a cohesive, thoughtful narrative. Museums come in a variety of types dependent upon the collections they gather and display. While the collections may differ greatly, the primary museum functions are the same:

  1. Gather and care for objects that fit within the museum collecting mission;
  2. Create exhibits that support an overall theme and display objects with an explanation of their relationship to each other and the theme; and
  3. Continually develop educational programs, services, and displays that use museum collection objects to deliver information, inspire thinking, and encourage dialogue.

Who are Museum Professionals?


A museum is staffed by an assortment of professionals including, but not limited to: archivists, librarians, collection managers, conservators, and curators. While job descriptions and organizational setup can vary, here are the basic functions of each museum role most likely to interact with the museum collection:

Archivists and Librarians:

Museums often contain an archives and/or library collection that interacts with the museum object collection. Though these collection items are different it is important to understand the ways in which they relate to the museum objects. (More on this in the next section How Do Libraries, Archives & Museums Intersect?). Archivists and librarians are the managers of each respective collection and as a result, collaborate regularly with museum staff and objects.

Collection Managers:

Collection Managers (in some museums known as the registrar) are tasked with the care, inventory, and maintenance of the museum object collection. Depending upon the museum set up, collection managers may also be in charge of exhibit design and installation of museum objects.

Conservators:

Conservators are the caretakers of objects. Trained in preservation and restoration techniques, these specialists are tasked with repairing damage and mitigating object deterioration in an effort to preserve the object as long as possible and make it stable enough for display.

Curators:

Curators are subject matter experts in an area that fits most of the museum’s object collection. A curator’s primary focus is the crafting of exhibit themes and narratives. However, they also contribute to subject-area research, object cataloging, and publications.

Of course, there are many other jobs that collectively contribute to the running and maintenance of the museum. Other areas include: accounting, development, education, executives, exhibit design, human resources, public relations, security, and web and digital content.

How Do Libraries, Archives, and Museums Intersect?


Libraries, Archives, and Museums (LAMs) have several similarities. Each have a collecting policy, have topical collections, have similar preservation and storage needs, and use the same or similar collections management systems. However, LAMs have existed in silos due to a couple of key differences in the format and use of their collections.

The items are in different formats:

  • Libraries have reference materials in the form of bound materials
  • Archives have primary research documentation, often 2D
  • Museums have art or historical objects, typically 3D

The items are used differently within a museum:

  • Library items are used for reference
  • Archival items are used to contextualize museum objects
  • Museum items are displayed and used to understand the culture and time period the object came from

Furthermore, there are different national and international standards for describing each collection, and only recently can collections management systems catalog and display all three library, archive, and museum item types together.

“Though there is a difference in cataloging standards among LAMs, versatile and inclusive collections management systems offer a solution. The ability of collections management systems to handle these differences and still provide cross-search results has allowed LAMs to proceed with the digital integration of their collection materials.” (Woody, Rachael. The Intersection of Libraries, Archives & Museums. Lucidea Think Clearly blog post. 2018.) More on Collection Management Systems in the last section, What Software Do Museums Use for Collection Management?.

The library’s connection with its counterparts continues to be worthy of discussion, but the museum-archives relationship is a harder one to understand and navigate. “What is often neglected in these traditional museum setups is the informative relationship that exists between the collections of the museum and archives. Archival collections can and should be used to provide additional contextual information to a museum’s object collection. Valuable insight and deep research opportunities are available in every museum’s archives.” (Woody, Rachael. Navigating the Museum Archive Relationship. Lucidea Think Clearly blog. 2018.)

Need help navigating the Museum Archive relationship?

Read Rachael Woody’s advice here.

How Do Museums Decide What to Exhibit?


For the majority of museums at any given time, only a small percentage (approximately 10%) of collection objects are on display. There’s an opportunity cost for any item that’s not displayed, and as space is limited the museum has to have a clearly defined process for how it selects exhibit themes and corresponding objects. Additionally, a museum must consider the story it’s trying to tell. Is it relevant and tap into visitor interest? Is it respectful and inclusive of the communities involved? And finally, what objects help support the narrative, and how can a digital exhibit help to mirror the physical while incorporating more content? For more information on digital collection exhibits and meeting digital user expectations, please read our blog posts on How to Evaluate a Museum Digital Collection, Museum Digital User Types and Expectations, and 5 Methods to Improve the Museum Digital Experience.

attract more visitors to your digital collections

Read Rachael Woody’s advice here.

How Do You Build a Successful Museum Strategy?


It’s important for a museum to consider all facets of its strategy and take the time to identify and articulate guiding principles and priorities. The museum strategy should be referenced often, as it is meant to ensure the decisions every museum department makes are in alignment with the museum as a whole. A successful museum strategy has three main content components: operational, digital, and funding.

Operational includes the museum mission and guidelines for how the museum makes business decisions. For example, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion practices, exhibit calendars, and event programming all stem from the museum operation strategy.

Digital is an increasingly influential component of museum strategy as almost every operational facet—including museum collection management and display—is digital.

Funding is the final component of a successful museum strategy, as nothing can be done if there aren’t the resources to do it.

How are Museums Funded?


Museums have five main income streams:

  • visitor and member passes
  • donors and endowments
  • grant and foundation funding
  • stocks and investments
  • municipal and government sponsorship

Museum funding across the industry can be precarious, especially since the Great Recession of 2008. To read more on how the Great Recession of 2008 has impacted museums please read Museums in Financial Trouble: Sell, Close, or Plan a Museum Merger? To learn more on how to create a robust museum financial strategy please read how a museum’s online presence is critical to its income stream and claim a free copy of A Survivor’s Guide to Museum Grant Writing, courtesy of Lucidea Press.

Building a Winning Grant Idea

In this webinar, Rachael discusses how you can build a winning grant idea by working problems to find a funding solution.

What Issues are Museums Currently Navigating?


In addition to the funding issues referenced above, museums are engaging in tough dialogue surrounding Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion practices; and the evolution of the digital visitor.

Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) practices are emerging as a required element with a museum operating strategy. To learn more about DEAI and how to implement it please see our post Museum Resources for Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion.

The museum digital experience is becoming as important as the in-person museum experience. As technology evolves, so does human behavior and expectations. For more information on how to navigate this issue, please see our posts regarding: Museum Digital User Types and Expectations, The Top 4 Things a Museum Needs to Now About the Digital Visitor, 5 Methods to Improve the Museum Digital Experience, and Reimagining Museum Engagement for Younger Generations.

What Does Success Look Like for a Museum?


While there are critical issues facing museums today, there are actions that can be taken in order to ensure relevance, support, and continued engagement. In addition to developing a successful museum strategy, mastering museum income streams, and navigating issues museums currently face, museums should consider the following actions:

  • Be proactive about issues the museum is experiencing. Pay attention to trends, listen to staff, and check on statistics and visitor engagement regularly. Dealing with a problem when it’s small and just beginning will be much easier than if the problem is given time to grow, or worse, surprise.
  • Be innovative when it comes to evolving museum practices and how it meets visitor expectations. The conditions museums face are ever-evolving, as are visitor expectations—and complacency in operations, exhibits, funding strategies, et cetera, will lead to trouble.
  • Be collaborative with everyone. Collaborate with peers even though they’re competitors. Relationships and partnerships with peers will help museums navigate issues together and will make them more attractive to funders and visitors.
  • Be community-minded. Does the museum collection come from and represent a community? Is the community involved in the collection’s care, display, and educational uses? If not, the museum has an opportunity to engage in the ethical practice of working with communities in a respectful and equitable fashion.

What Software Do Museums Use for Collection Management?


Many of the companies known for developing museum collection management systems (CMS) were founded in the late-1970s through the 1980s, and these systems became common among museums in the 1990s. Of course, a lot has changed even in the last ten years, and choosing a collections management system that’s right for each museum is important as it impacts all digital collection and digital visitorship work.

A comprehensive CMS has the following functions: acquisition and loan tracking, cataloging, digital display, digital asset management, and digital exhibit creation. In addition, it provides seamless intellectual control and facilitates physical control for research and preservation. Current requirements for a robust CMS are that it’s cloud-based, vendor supported with hosted digital content, and enables museum staff to customize collection organization and display.

We’ve written a few blog posts that can help navigate and implement a CMS: Top 3 Things to Look For When Choosing a Museum Collections Management System and The Importance of Sustainable Museum Cataloging.

Lucidea delivers best-in-class museum collections management software with our flagship product Argus.

Our applications for heritage institutions offer comprehensive collections management tools, but take you further—with community curation/co-curation, a dynamic online presence, full multimedia support and streamlined workflows.

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