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Developing and caring for collections


Collections are the heart of a museum.

They could be on a range of topics:

  • Social history
  • Industrial
  • Fine art or decorative objects
  • Natural history specimens
  • Oral history

Objects provide tangible connections to stories and material evidence of the past. Their sheer physical presence brings history to life in a way unlike any other. To realise their full potential they need careful management.

Refine your collections

Museums are not storehouses of everything - they need to be clear about what they will and won't collect. This means you won't waste resources or public money in competing with others.

You need to know:

  • What you have
  • Where it comes from
  • Where it is within your museum
  • How you will review it

Keeping on top of your collections

Museums should always be thinking about future generations. This means preserving your collections, slowing or stopping the deterioration that begins from the day an item is made.

This matters because:

  • Collecting and managing collections uses resources, even if the item is donated. Even if you are volunteer-run, there is a cost to document, look after and store collections. Therefore, make sure you are spending your time, money and energy only on those things that help you fulfil your stated purpose.
  • Some kind of collection material need very specific and sometimes expensive facilities to properly display and store them.
  • People who donate their valued objects expect museums to look after them forever or in perpetuity.
  • You need to know the stories behind your collections to create effective and engaging exhibitions.

Effective collecting

Your museum's collection should be shaped by objects that help to tell the stories you want to bring to life. Objects are one of the main ways in a museum that visitors connect to the past, and to the museum's themes and purpose.

Collecting tips

  • Be active in your decision making when collecting - don't take in more objects than you have a capacity for.
  • Make your museum a treasure house, not a storage locker. Pick items that have value to you.
  • Whatever your passion - film, oral history, fine art - make sure you acquire the right examples.
  • Try not to create collections backlogs.
  • Don't clutter up your shelves with objects in poor condition.
  • Create a clear acquisition policy, sometimes referred to as a 'collection development policy' or 'acquisition and disposal policy'.
  • Set out your collection priorities according to the purpose of your museum and in the context of neighbouring museums.
  • Acquiring and disposing collection items come with ethical and legal obligations.
  • Don't be afraid to say no to an offer. Not wanting to offend someone is not a good enough reason to acquire something that you have to look after in perpetuity.

Collections cost money. Although items are collected for their historical or social value, rather than financial, you need resources to maintain them for long-term care and display.

Museums can be publicly criticised for having a large proportion of their collections in storage. However, objects can be in store for a number of reasons, including preservation, for example if they are fragile. It is important that those involved with your collection understand and can explain why objects are in storage rather than out on display.

Who is involved in collecting?

  • Consider whether collection and disposal decisions can be made by a nominated group of trustees and staff, perhaps as a regular agenda item in your governing meeting.
  • Neighbouring museums will also be collecting. Discussing your plans with them will ensure you are not competing for items.
  • Maintaining good contact with donors can assist with any future questions about the item. Don’t forget to tell them about other events and initiatives – and perhaps they might consider sponsorship or legacy funding.
  • All volunteers and staff should know not to accept any item without completing a receipt with the owners contact details (Object Entry form). This will ensure you don’t end up with orphan items that you can neither acquire nor discard.

Legal acquisition

Despite referring to an earlier version, this Acquisition Procedure is useful in setting out the processes to follow to get legal ownership of an item. Please see SPECTRUM 5.0 for the most recent version. 

Obtaining title is the legal transfer of ownership to the museum and must be recorder appropriately. Receiving an item at the museum, or object entry, is not the same as legally acquiring it.

For absolute clarity this document must contain:

  1. Formal name of the organisation acquiring the object.
  2. Name and address of the previous owner
  3. Brief description of the object
  4. Signature confirming the transfer of the title
  5. Method of acquisition, for example purchase or donation
  6. Assignation of rights associated with the object, for example Copyright
  7. Relevant clauses to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act
  8. Appropriate supporting documents. For bequests, this means a copy of the will and confirmation of probate. For purchases, obtain a signed statement confirming the vendor is the owner, provenance of the object and the original invoice and receipt, plus any Grant Aid received

When you do make an acquisition, put in place any permissions you need at the time of collection. This especially applies to recording oral histories.

Making the decision to acquire

Before acquiring an object, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why do you want it?
  • How will you use it?
  • What history and stories can you collect alongside it?
  • How much will it cost to document, store, display and conserve?
  • Do you have room for it?
  • Would another museum or organisation have a better use for it?

Acquisition isn't the only option. You could use it in a handling collection, which places it at greater risk of damage but gives visitors the opportunity to touch and hold an item. You could also take a copy of the original item, if you have a license to use the image, or simply point people to a neighbouring museum with more relevant collections.

Managing collections

It may seem like an obvious statement, but when you run a museum you have to know what you have and where it is.

Being able to account for all the items in your care, whether owned by you or on loan, is a fundamental responsibility of a museum. You need documentation to show you what each object is, where it came from, its condition and current location.

Paperwork and processing

Dealing with collections management paperwork in a timely manner will help you meet this responsibility and avoid backlogs. Yet so many museums fall into the trap of acquiring things faster than they can process them, quickly building up a backlog that will take years to remove.

Setting up a new museum means that you can get it right at the outset.

Initial processing consists of:

  • Object entry, where you record basic details about the item and where it has come from
  • Marking and labelling, giving each item a number and securing it to the object
  • Location, or recording where it is stored

Digital cameras have transformed collections management. Photographing the item can be very useful for reference and also bringing catalogues and online resources to life.

Capturing more information about the object can be done at the same time as the initial entry, or at a later stage. Cataloguing the object should record when it was made and used, what it is made of, how it was used, and by whom.

To make this easily searchable it is important that you are consistent in the data structure and terminology you use.

Paper or digital?

It is perfectly possible to manage your collection entirely on paper, but it is more time-consuming and misses out on how useful computers are for storing, searching and retrieving information.

There are many different content management systems (CMS) out there for museums to use. Compare the different software options using this comparison by the Collections Trust. Don't delay documenting while you decide what to buy - Excel will be serviceable until you invest in proper software and will allow you transfer your date in future.

Homemade data management systems are better than nothing, but they are likely to cause problems in the long term, for example when someone else takes over management.

Make sure you have a documentation procedural manual for consistency across the staff.


SPECTRUM is ‘an open, freely available standard developed through a collaboration of 300 museum professionals’. SPECTRUM Procedures give a step-by-step guide to the main management processes in a museum.

The basic procedures are:

  1. Object entry
  2. Acquisition
  3. Location and movement control
  4. Cataloguing
  5. Object exit
  6. Loans in
  7. Loans out
  8. Retrospective documentation and making an inventory

What you need to record

  • Unique identification number
  • Object name
  • Description
  • Location
  • Donor or owner
  • Copyright status
  • Associated information
  • Date acquired
  • Subject and keywords

Collections management is essential from the earliest days of your museum. Backlogs are difficult to get rid of.

Caring for your collections

Elsewhere on the Museums Galleries Scotland website, find extensive guides to caring for your collection. Everything you need to know about collections care can be found in those guides. This part of the tool kit is a basic introduction to the issue.

Objects start deteriorating from the time they are made. What they are made of, how they were made and how they were used over their lifetime affects how quickly they deteriorate. Keeping objects stable and slowing down this deterioration is the challenge for museums as they try to preserve their collections for future generations.

Factors in deterioration

  • Dust and dirt
  • Light
  • Extreme fluctuation in temperatures
  • Very dry or very damp conditions - referred to in terms of relative humidity (RH)
  • Pests
  • People

Responding to these threats, collections care starts with considering:

  • How you handle objects
  • Storage and display conditions
  • Emergency planning

You can do it

Collections care is not the realm of experts. Everyone in the museum is involved in preserving collections for future generations. Basic training, good materials and suitable equipment can go a long way to caring for your items.

A qualified conservator should be used for remedial conservation to stabilise an item. Restoring an item to its original condition is generally not undertaken as it conceals the object’s history. The Institute of Conservation has a list of contacts.

Key points

  • Maintain a clean and stable environment for objects with a cool temperature, consistent RH and limited light exposure.
  • Guidance varies according to the material
  • Display cases protect items from damage by people. Choose the right one to ensure conservation of the items
  • Monitor the environment and light levels using specialist instruments and respond to the findings by changing the conditions.
  • Regular cleaning of stores and displays will help prevent pest problems.
  • Train all staff in correct handling procedures.
  • Storage matters Keep stores clean, dry, cool, dark and accessible
  • Use conservation-grade packing materials
  • Plan for worst-case scenarios such as fire and flooding

In short, cleaning and caring for museum items is complicated but important. Household procedures such as vigorous cleaning and using sellotape are often totally unsuitable for museum items, so research thoroughly how you can best care for your collections.

Digital collections

In a digital world, it's only natural that many museums have made their collections fully or partially available online. The whole world can now access their contents at any time of day or night.

Technology and how we use it continues to evolve, for example we now use mobile phones to browse the web and check emails in ways not thought of a few years ago. In 2012, 31% adults had visited a museum or gallery website, almost double the level in 2006.

Most people want to find out about tickets, opening times or special events. However, a fifth of users visited in order to look at items from a collection. Digital engagement in museums is an exciting opportunity.

Key issues

  • Be clear about what you want to achieve and what level of investment is needed.
  • Choose the right system to manage all the information.
  • Understand copyright and intellectual property rights.

Approaches to digital engagement

Digital engagement is more than just putting collections online. It has been demonstrated that putting collections online is more likely to increase visits rather than remove the need for visiting.

Patterns of demand, however, are still not clear and there are two main approaches:

  • Digitising a few things in depth and promoting key themes or objects. This works well if your aim is developing an outreach or learning resource. More themes can be added over time.
  • Digitising everything, with a minimal amount of detail. This is more likely to appeal to specialist researchers. More details can be added over time.

Designing your own tool or creating a separate digitisation image database is not usually recommended – it may seem cheaper than a SPECTRUM compliant one, but is unlikely to be cost effective in the long run. Putting good systems in place from the outset will make it more straightforward should you choose to digitise more resources later on.


Collaborative projects means you can use others’ platforms to make sure your online collections can be used by more people in more ways, for example SCRAN or the Culture Grid. This means your objects will sit alongside those held by National Museums Scotland and organisations across Europe.

Their information will be made available through:

  • International services such as Europeana
  • Open Government services
  • Search engines
  • National broadcasters

People outside your organisation with creative digital skills can re-use and re-purpose your digital assets in all sorts of imaginative ways. Think of establishing relationships with creative digital people to explore what you have and what they could do with it, and be open to experimentation.

Digitising your collection

Digital access to your collections is more about collections management than marketing. It involves creating a resource that can be used by learners or researchers.

The starting point is entering information in your database in a consistent way, which will determine how searchable and reusable it is. The next step is making your collections database information accessible online, with or without images.


  • Scanning images or documents at the highest resolution possible and storing them in a stable and open file format will help future proof your digitisation.
  • Don’t forget to make regular ‘back ups’ of your database and digital resources.
  • Make your digital collections mobile-friendly as many users browse on phones.


You may own the physical objects but still not have the right to reproduce or distribute photographs of your collection. This is due to Intellectual Property Rights – part of the law that governs intangible assets such as copyright.

These rights can be bought, sold, hired out, bequeathed, and owned. They last for a specific number of years. They apply to the web because everyone using the internet is a real person living in a country, and each computer is in a defined place and subject to local laws.

The types of asset that could be subject to restrictions include:

  • Photographs of objects
  • Documentary and fine art photographs that are part of your collection
  • Digital images supplied by third parties, such as those used in exhibitions
  • Photographs of staff and visitors

It is important that you know whether you own the rights (i.e. they are assigned to you or you created the content yourself), have been granted permission (license) to use them or whether IPR has expired.

You can avoid problems by addressing copyright as part of the process of acquiring any objects or commissioning photographs.

Case study: Art in Healthcare

Art in Healthcare works to enliven healthcare settings through the provision of original, contemporary Scottish art. It is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation, but not yet an Accredited museum.

Art in Healthcare’s key asset is its collection. They have over 1500 original artworks, most of them on display in healthcare settings such as hospitals and care homes. This provides patients, staff and visitors with colourful, stimulating and more human spaces.

In their own words

We started life as Paintings in Hospitals Scotland in 1991, encouraged and funded by Paintings in Hospitals (London). After 6 months, we became an independent Trust. Our collection went from strength to strength as we acquired new items from studios, degree shows and donations, always with an emphasis on quality.

Following a major review, Art in Healthcare came into being under that name in 2005 when we combined with our Friends organisation. We have continued to grow and care for our collection and also want to broaden our reach through exciting outreach programmes, new technology, partnerships and more volunteers.

We believe that art helps to produce a stimulating environment that improves people’s mental wellbeing, contributing to a more effective healing process. We also run outreach workshops, facilitated by professional artists, using paintings from the collection to inspire people, for example people with dementia, to produce their own work.


We are lucky to have a diverse range of income streams with much of our funding coming from trusts and foundations, rental income, donations and contracts such as managing local National Health Service art collections. However the financial climate is having an effect, with National Health Service income going down and increasing competition for grant funding. We are currently exploring new ways of earning our own income.

Being a museum

Our wonderful collection of Scottish and Scotland based art is one of the largest contemporary collections in the country. It is held in high regard – so much so that one day it could be a nationally recognised collection. But first we need to become an Accredited museum and are exploring the feasibility of that.

Decisions on accessioning artworks to our Collection are taken by our Art Advisory Panel which currently consists of our Director, our Collection Manager, our Honorary Curator and an artist. When considering artworks for accession into our Collection we look at the quality of the work, its appropriateness and relevance to the healthcare environment and different user groups plus display practicalities. The overall balance of the Collection is also a very important factor.

Our collection is catalogued and documented in diverse ways, including through our website, an Access database and Excel spreadsheets. We would like a proper collections management system to bring everything into line and be able to fully understand the potential of our collection.

We are most proud of...

  • Our collection! We now have over 1500 items with almost two thirds of them out on display.
  • We are becoming more widely known, being offered more donations and attracting new volunteers with valuable skills.

Our advice for others

  • Don't leave it as long as we have to get to grips with your collections management.

The Big Question

Managing collections is a central component of a museum’s work. Yet many organisations do not set aside enough resources to invest in understanding and caring for their collections. The next questions are intended to let you determine whether you are taking the responsible steps in owning, preserving and managing collections.

Are you collecting for the future?


Effective collecting

Managing collections

Caring for your collections

Museums Galleries Scotland have a [series of guides (LINK - Collections article)] on collections care, covering different materials and storage procedures.

Digital collections