Scope of Collections – "WHY not everything?"

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    • #132481
      Kaia Landon

      We are working on a scope of collections statement, and I’m running into a problem with some of my board members (and one of my staff!). With regards to our historical collections, they see the value in limiting the scope. With the art collection, however, I’ve lost them. They seem to acknowledge (some of them, anyway) that we should not be collecting all of the art in the world, but they are nevertheless hesitant to approve any restriction.

      Since our mission statement, with regard to our art collection, is rather vague, that’s not helping here either.

      They are generally of the belief that if someone tries to give us something that we shouldn’t have, either I’ll say no upfront, or the collections committee will decline the gift at that stage. My rebuttal that those decisions need to be based on the scope of collections statement isn’t getting me anywhere.

      So, how can I convince them that “everything in the whole world” is not an acceptable limitation, and that there is good reason to limit it?

      I have tried to emphasize that this will not be the scope of collections statement for the next 3 million years – it will change as the needs and resources of the museum change.

      Anyone have suggestions on how to get them thinking in a more productive manner? Small art museums with scope of collections statements to share (preferably that are neither just the very local area, nor the whole world)?

      (Up til now, art collecting here has been very random, and mostly “yes” to everything. It has resulted in a collection that lacks depth and meaning.)

    • #132486
      Jenny Arena

      Hi Kaia, This is a great question and a conundrum I’m sure others have. I’m hoping some members can chime in, but I did want to share that we’ll be hosting a free, hour-long webinar at the beginning of October about collections management policies and I know our speaker, Bruce MacLeish, will be pulling from real-life examples to help get at the question why not everything.

      Off the top of my head, though, money always seems to move people. There’s a very tangible cost associated with accepting each new object from long-term care to storage.


    • #132485
      Kaia Landon

      Hi Jenny,

      Thanks for the tip on the webinar. I’ll add it to my calendar now.

      And to clarify, they don’t think we should accept everything, because they do (to some extent, anyway) understand the cost of storing items. It’s more that they don’t understand why we need to limit the scope of what we collect on any basis other than quality.

      I’ve tried some limited examples, like we shouldn’t take ancient Egyptian sculpture, because we’d never do anything with it (i.e., we would be unlikely to exhibit it, we don’t have the resources to grow such an area into anything particularly useful for research, etc.), but they can’t get over the “what ifs.” I think they imagine a scenario where a collector/prospective donor sees the limits in our scope of collections statement and decides that instead of giving us a fantastic collection of the finest ancient Egyptian sculpture ever collected, and a billion dollar endowment to care for it, they’ll just pass us by without ever talking to us. I find that unlikely for a variety of reasons, but there are other issues at play there. (Such as: even if we were offered amazing resources, would it be appropriate (and worth it?) to expand our operations in that direction?)

      (And we have a history of not having meaningful conversations to that effect, which is why we now also have a natural history museum – a commitment that did not come with the needed resources to run it, nor did it seem to involve a conversation about what would be needed. (I wasn’t here when this happened – just speaking from what I’ve observed in the aftermath.))

    • #132484
      Wendi Murray

      Hi Kaia,

      I agree with Jenny that a big reason is cost – the cost of curation (especially of artwork) is very high, and having a selective acquisition policy is a great way for your accessions committee to keep those costs in check. We adopt a selective acquisition policy, which doesn’t mean we can’t accept everything if we wanted to, but it gives us justification for declining (to the owner, to the board, to the public) donations when necessary. I have pasted an excerpt from our archaeology collections policy below.

      The State Historical Board subscribes to a policy of selective acquisition.  Some artifacts, even if appro­priate to the purposes of the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, may not be desirable acquisitions because of the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division’s inability to adequately preserve the object, lack of sufficient documentation associated with the artifacts, and cost and space considerations.
      Exceptions to this provision may be made if the potential acquisition represents an individual, site and/or activity of exceptional importance associated with the prehistory or history of North Dakota.
      Maybe your board would be happy if you included the “exceptions” provision, so that the Board could approve something that falls outside of your scope of collections if they felt it necessary?
      Because of the expense, acquisition decisions need to be purposeful and guided by the museum’s identity and mission. I am in complete agreement with you that without that guidance, you will end up with a mishmash of collections that lack coherence and meaning. 
      Good luck!

    • #132483

      Money isn’t the only reason.  First of all, your collection needs to be coherent so that your exhibitions can make sense;  an exhibition with the title “art that we really like” is a bit weird.  Perhaps a better reason for having an official written rule is that it makes it easier to deal with prospective donors.  You don’t want to be in the position of having to tell someone that you don’t want to take their stuff because you don’t like it or because it’s ugly;  you need to be able to say that you’re very sorry, but you can’t take it if  it doesn’t fit your mission statement.

    • #132482
      Janice Klein

      It seems to me that the challenge is helping the board understand why it needs a written policy about scope of collections.   Do you have other board-approved collections policies?   What about explaining that this is just one among the many policies that are necessary for good (professional standard) collections stewardship (which is their fiduciary responsibility).    Also, you might draft a scope of collections statement that clearly allows for exceptions.   Jenny, is the workshop that you referred to the one that AASLH put together for StEPs?   If so, it has several examples of scope of collections statements that you can draw from.   (If not, contact Cherie Cook at AASLH to find out who in Utah may have taken the train-the-trainer workshop on the topic).

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