What makes a museum a museum?

2013-08-25aI’ve talked from time to time both in posts and in comments about the nature and importance of natural history museums. Yesterday was VMNH’s quarterly Board of Trustees meeting, which inspired me to discuss in a bit more detail some of the administrative details that are a necessary part of a research museum. 

Yesterday the board voted to approve revisions to VMNH’s Collections Policy. Every 5 years the board is supposed to review this policy, and determine with the staff if any changes are necessary. The VMNH Collections Policy runs to 54 pages, including appendices. Pretty much all natural history museums have a similar document. What’s in this policy that takes up so much space? I want to give a few of the highlights from our policy, as an example of what goes into maintaining a collection.

The VMNH policy starts with a statement about why we have a collection, and how it fits with our mission as described in the state code, since we’re a public museum (here’s an excerpt from the Code of Virginia: “To establish a state museum of natural history in Virginia where specimens of natural history, especially those of Virginia origin, can be properly housed, cared for, cataloged and studied and to ensure a permanent repository of our natural heritage”). There’s a section describing how many staff members make up the Collections Committee, and who those people are (for example, the committee must have 3 curators) and to whom the committee reports. There are also some descriptions of different levels of collections care; for example, we have specimens for educational programs that don’t require the same level of care as the research collections.

Next there’s a section called “Standards of Conduct”. This makes reference to ethics codes developed by professional societies. There are also specific examples of rules that our staff must follow. For example:

“…personal collecting by Museum trustees, employees, non-paid associates and volunteers at a minimum involves the appearance of a conflict of interest and sometimes an actual conflict of interest with the Museum…”

“[Museum staff] shall not deal (buy and sell for profit) in specimens that fall within the disciplinary scope of the Museum’s collections.”

“A description of personally-owned collections shall be submitted using the Personal Collection Disclosure Statement (Appendix V) as a condition of assuming employment or an appointment…”

Then there’s a lengthy section on acquisitions. There are general descriptions of what types of specimens are appropriate for VMNH to acquire, and details about the actual process of taking in a specimen. The general procedure, somewhat simplified, goes something like this:

1) A “Record of Incoming Material Form” (RIM) is filed for the potential acquisition. This is often done by the curator, but is sometimes done by other staff members. If the specimen is coming in as a donation, it must also have a “Deed of Gift” form in which the owner transfers ownership to VMNH.

2) A staff member (usually the Registrar) determines which curator would be responsible for the specimen if it is acquired (unless that curator is the one that filed the RIM in the first place). That curator makes a recommendation on the RIM as to whether the specimen should be accessioned or not, and, if the recommendation is to accession, what level of care it receives and where it will be housed.

3) The RIM (actually, a summary of the RIM’s for the quarter) then goes to the staff Collections Committee, which  votes on whether or not to accept the curator’s recommendation.

4) The committee vote results on the RIM’s then goes to the Director of Research for approval.

5) If approved by the Director of Research, the vote results then go to the museum’s Executive Director for approval.

6) If any of the acquisitions are valued at over $5,000, the Research and Collections Committee of the Board of Trustees also votes on whether or not to accept the acquisition.

The next section deals with collections management, including things like what records are kept and dealing with incoming loans.

Then there’s another lengthy section on the use of collections. This describes things like access to the collections, rules for making loans, for destructive sampling (which must be approved by the Collections Committee), and for photography and reproductions.

Next there’s a section on deaccessions, or permanently removing a specimen from the collection. There is a description of conditions that will allow a specimen to be considered for deaccessioning:

1) The specimen does not fall within the scope of VMNH collections as described in these policies.

2) The specimen has deteriorated to such an extent that it cannot be preserved or used.

3) The specimen is redundant and no alternative use can be determined.

4) The specimen poses a health or safety hazard.

5) The museum can not provide adequate care for the specimen.

6) The specimen is occupying space and using valuable resources that could better be used to improve or strengthen the collections in order to further the Museum goals.

If a specimen is recommended for deaccessioning, the steps are similar as those for acquiring specimens, except that the Board of Trustees Research and Collections Committee must approve all of these, regardless of the value. However, the specimens can’t just be thrown away, at least not easily: there is a list of disposal steps, starting with an exchange with or donation to another museum, a school, or another state agency.

Finally, there’s a short section on how to make revisions to the policy, and appendices that include copies of the required forms, such as the RIM form.

I’ve included this lengthy and rather dry description to illustrate what makes a museum distinct from, for example, someone’s private collection. Note that in all these steps, even as a curator I can’t make unilateral major decisions about the paleontology collections. If I try to add something to a collection it has to go through multiple approvals, and if I try to remove something it’s even more difficult. In practice, the curator’s recommendation on acquisitions is almost always accepted, but the committee vote is not just a rubber stamp. For example, before the committee voted to accept the BLM collection from the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum they required me to provide details about why the collection was important, and where exactly it would be stored once it arrived (as well as the written BLM approval, since that was a federal collection).

All of these rules are designed to provide for the long-term care and survival of the collections. The owner of a private collection has complete control over the fate of his or her collection, and can decide on a whim to sell or destroy a specimen. Even if that owner is knowledgeable and responsible, there’s no guarantee that the heirs to the collection will be. That’s why I won’t use privately-held specimens in my research; there are no safeguards to ensure their survival into the future. The formal Collections Policy at VMNH is there to protect the collection from misuse by everyone, including by me.

This entry was posted in Museums. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s