Collections Rationalisation in Action

Many, many museums across the country have large collections; collections that are costly to maintain, and collections that are not always as well understood as organisations would like. It is the dream of many a curator to have the opportunity to lock themselves in their stores and have a really good sort out and rationalise their collections. However, along with this desire, is the concern that ‘rationalising’ collections can mean disposal; a word that is tricky given that museums are charged with curating local and national heritage for future generations.

But, in order for museums to continue to function and grow, and consider contemporary collecting, it is important that their collections are reviewed. With this in mind, in late 2012 SHARE Museums East brought together a small number of museums that were keen to explore collections rationalisation. There were three main drivers behind this project; the first was to consider rationalisation in the round, i.e. not just consider it in terms of disposal, but also in terms of re-use of material such as moving objects from storage to handling collection, or display. The second driver behind the project was to consider the process in terms of public benefit, and the final driver was to develop a range of tools that would support other museums approach collections rationalisation.

The museums involved in this project (Bishops Stortford Museum, North Hertfordshire Museums Service, Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, Scott Polar Museum, Southend Museums Service and Welwyn Hatfield Museums Service) came together for an initial meeting to discuss their concerns and needs. To inform discussions, each museum brought along a copy or their organisations mission statement, service or forward plan and collecting policies. With Emmeline Leary in attendance, the consultant on the project, the museums considered how collections rationalisation needed to form and be informed by the museums overall plans. A robust mission statement and collecting policy provide the right framework within which collections rationalisation can begin. As part of this initial meeting, each museum fed ideas into a rationalisation policy template and a plan template; they then each went away and over a period of months created their policies and developed rationalisation plans. Once plans were completed, each museum was given a small grant to take forward an element of their plan, and begin piloting rationalisation in their museum.

With new plans in hand, each museum developed their criteria for assessing objects and began working on small aspects of their collection. For one museum, the process enabled them to marry up information from across their collection, and bring people together who had collections knowledge, but who had not been in a situation where they had been able to share that knowledge before; the project started conversations. Another museum was able to use the process as an audience development tool. They were in the process of redeveloping their museum and invited people in to view the collections being reviewed and cleaned, and asked for feedback on elements of the collection that their local people really valued; as part of this were able to explain why collections need rationalising. Another museum was able to rationalise a large collection of postcards. The many duplicates could then used for handling collections, etc. Another museum was also able to grow in confidence in terms of using their collecting policy to better effect, and say ‘no’ to items that did not fit their museums remit.

Rationalising a collection is a lengthy process; items need to be assessed, and if they are no longer relevant to the museum, where they go next needs to be assessed. It is not something that can be done overnight. None of the museums involved has finished rationalising, but, they have all found the project provided them with the opportunity to place collections at the heart of what they do, consciously considering public benefit. The participants in the project were, in the main, curators, and they also found it provided a platform to bring collections discussions back to the ‘table’, to be considered alongside all the many other activities each museum undertakes. From SHARE Museums East’s point of view, the project enabled the production of a range of resources, which include an animation providing an introduction to collections rationalisation, and templates for rationalisation policies and plans. Overall, the project had a range of very positive effects, and curators were able to take charge in a structured way a solid collections review.

collections rationalisation from TopBox Media on Vimeo.

The plan and policy templates produced as part of the project can be found at here, along with the full report. A link to the animation can be found at here.