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Case Studies

Language Matters: Consider “refining” your collections

Amelia Whitehead

Jennifer Kovarik, Registrar and Youth Educator, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum Decorah, Iowa.


Many museums have very detailed collections management plans that dissect and explain the various processes and tasks we do as we manage our collections—acquiring objects, accessioning objects cataloging objects, inventorying objects, deaccessioning objects, disposing of objects.  It is very easy to give priority or more weight to the tasks we like or are most comfortable with.  As Trevor Jones recently asked during his presentation to the Iowa Museum Association, what if we weighted these tasks more equally?

Easier said than done, especially in institutions like mine where the emphasis has been on collecting for nearly 140 years.  But language is power, and my institution has started to shift its practices because we have changed our terminology to reframe both thought and practice.  Instead of compartmentalizing collections tasks, Vesterheim Museum has renamed them in its strategic plan and staff work plans under the heading of “refining the collection.”


When we refine, we take small steps to improve the collection.  Not giant steps, not quick steps.  Small,thoughtful steps can make tasks, like deaccessioning, seem less scary and more manageable in our minds and in our practice.  If tasks are manageable in our minds, we are more likely to do them and they become a part of our routine.

Reframing how we as collections staff think about our work can also help others understand and think positively about our collections and how we manage them.  For my institution, making our collecting parameters and wish list known to staff and the public has been helpful in acquiring objects with better provenance and relevance to our mission.  Making collection refinement a major goal in our strategic plan has helped our collections committee and board of trustees become more comfortable with and come to expect deaccessioning as a regular part of meetings.


My museum still has a lot of refining to do (job security?), but staff and trustees now see the management of our collection as a group of processes and tasks that is much more organic and much more equally weighted.  I hope our internal paradigm shift will help us become more comfortable with conversations about our collections practices and policies with the communities we serve.

Getting Over the Deaccessioning Hump

Amelia Whitehead

Aimee E. Newell, Ph.D., Director of Collections, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts


When the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library opened in 1975, the founders did not expect to collect much.  The plan was for the new American history museum to showcase traveling exhibitions and focus on the “thrilling story” of American history in Lexington, where the Revolution started.  However, people almost immediately started donating objects, many Masonic in nature, since the museum was founded by the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, part of the Masonic fraternity.

Often these gifts were donated by members of the Masonic fraternity and, even though staff did not consider them appropriate for the collection, they felt that they had to take them – a common problem for small museums and historical societies.  Collections staff set up a special designation for these items, giving them the prefix of “SC” for “Supreme Council,” the governing body of the Museum’s parent organization.  They were put away in storage, apart from the “real” collection, and generally received little cataloging or attention for the next 35 years, despite taking up significant storage space.


Fast forward to 2009.  The Museum’s board refocused the mission on telling the story of American Freemasonry and fraternalism.  The Curator looked at this part of the collection – which numbered several thousand items – with new eyes – and at the storage space that it was taking up.  The time was ripe to reconsider this collection.  All of the boxes were unpacked and objects were either brought into the main collection storage area to take their place in the collection proper, or set aside for deaccession consideration.

The objects that were kept have retained their “SC” accession numbers in order to maintain their history at the museum.  Items in this collection that were truly not museum quality – things that were broken, or irrelevant to mission (like several sets of Franklin Mint coins commemorating the “Life of Jesus,” First Ladies and state banks), or duplicated items already in the collection – were either thrown away or sold with the proceeds going into the museum’s restricted acquisition fund.  We have a good, sound deaccession policy that is transparent and requires the approval of staff, Collections Committee, Executive Director and Board, so there was appropriate consideration of every item that was deaccessioned – and some things were pulled out and kept along the way.


Although this project took several months – and required additional time for rehousing and updating records in the database – it was extremely helpful.  We cleared out some storage space, which we can use for new acquisitions.  And, we discovered many fascinating objects that help us to tell the story of American Freemasonry – including some that we have already used in our changing exhibitions.  We also benefitted from the increase in funds for our acquisitions fund and were able to purchase a number of things for the collection that better fit our mission and the story we want to tell.