Photo credit: Liam McGarry, Unsplash.
Matthew Clouse is the Registrar at the University of California Riverside, California Museum of Photography/Culver Center for the Arts. He is also an instructor for Museum Dev.
He has worked at Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art in Sedalia, Missouri. At the Daum Museum, he was the first Registrar and completed a full cataloguing and inventory of the collection, in addition to writing the first collections management policy (CMP).
He received his Bachelor's degree in Art History at the University of Nebraska, Omaha and earned a Master’s in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.
Collection Management Policies (CMPs) vary widely between institutions, and confusion can arise in terms of what exactly the policy should and should not dictate.
And, writing and researching CMPs is not always something one is fortunate enough to get to practice before it becomes a matter of necessity.
This article is intended to help take the weight off the shoulders of the prospective CMP writer. Museum professionals are often bombarded with information and expected to integrate new developments into existing practices. To help streamline the CMP, this article will cover what you do not need to include. Surprisingly, many questions posed about CMPs are best included in a separate policy or procedural scheme.
Below are a few topics that seem to garner queries on a cyclical basis and their exclusion might make your life a little easier!
1. You generally don’t need procedures (with a few exceptions).
Policy and procedure tend to get intermingled in CMPs; this is not necessarily “incorrect” and in some cases necessary. However, the policy can be streamlined by making mention of the mandate to follow the best procedures without providing a virtual guidebook on how.
For example, you don’t need to devote any extra space for detailing how objects are to be handled, only that staff that are authorized to handle objects will follow best practices. Do include who is authorized along with basics such as the use of gloves.
To complete the circle, include a reference to a separate policy in which object handling policies for specific materials are laid out.
An object ID scheme is another recommended exception. Assigning numbers and marking accessioned objects are procedure, however policy should dictate the rationale behind the scheme and that it is to be used consistently.
Some museums have multiple systems, however the vast majority are using or changing to the tripartite system, now the industry standard, and retiring old numbering systems. There is no need to include anything on old systems in your new CMP, so if your museum has multiple systems but is now only using the standard, include this and then indicate that any other system(s) will no longer be used.
Image credit: Ansel Adams, United States, 1902-1984; Humanities Building, Pool, Figures, March, 1966; gelatin silver film negative; Sweeney/Rubin Ansel Adams Fiat Lux Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside.
Another exception is how to handle live plants and organic matter, which is a frequent query, especially by collections professionals working specifically in historical and/or fine art collections who may not have the background.
This includes two categories: potted plants and flowers in offices, lobbies, event spaces, or anywhere except collections and galleries. In most cases, policy is the procedure, such as the requirement that all organic material be treated in a certain way before being brought into the building.
2. You generally don’t need to include the collecting plan(s).
The various collecting disciplines should be described fairly early in your CMP, but often there are questions on whether or not specific areas should be highlighted.
DO include within the Scope of the Collection section a general listing of areas that are/are not sought. For example, list “Contemporary Art from 1970-present” instead of attempting to include all of the specific areas, artists, etc. within that genre that your institution seeks. If you can, save these for a separate collecting plan which is usually developed by curators.
As a further example, we at the California Museum of Photography included the following statement in our newly revised document:
The CMP continues to collect photographic images, negatives, photographic technology, and ephemera that fill gaps in the existing holdings or otherwise enliven elements of the history of still photography that are not already represented by the collection. The CMP does not collect photographic enlargers, darkroom equipment, film projectors, and objects relating to motion picture history. Current collecting goals are outlined in further detail in UCR ARTS’ Collections Plan.
If you feel more explanation is needed, emphasize how the various collecting disciplines align with the mission statement and vision for the institution.
Image credit: Unknown creator, unknown title (female performers), n.d.; gelatin silver contact print; Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside.
3. You don’t need to include the full ethics policy.
Accreditation through American Alliance of Museums (AAM) requires a separate Ethics Policy as one of the five Core Documents, but the CMP must have a statement mirrored from this separate, larger policy. Statements on conflicts of interest relating to the use of the collections, personal collecting, and appraisals and authentications are required. Again, a simple cut and paste job, and you’re done. There is no wheel to reinvent.
So, what should you include?
Clearly, this will vary between institutions, but work to narrow your sights by asking yourself a few questions when deciding what stays or what goes:
- Simply think of the phrase, “collection management.” Does what you’re considering for inclusion have anything to do with what a collections professional does in terms of protecting and preserving the collection, or might it fall under curatorial or administrative duties?
- If you’re considering including procedures, are they integral to explaining the rationale for the policy, or are they guidelines that might be important for someone working on a task such as cataloging, installation, or event set-up?
- This is not a question but a piece of advice. Use and trust your own discernment coupled with doing your homework. Review a lot of other museums’ CMPs. And, remember that the real resources are the brilliant minds working in the field—many of them are eager to share their knowledge. To the reluctant CMP writer: you’re not alone!