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Thought Pieces

Active Collections: Rethinking the Role of Collections in Your Museum

Amelia Whitehead

Adapted from a plenary session given by Trevor Jones at the Iowa Museum Association Conference, October 6th, 2015 in Pella, Iowa.

I’m going to start today by discussing the size of collections and the best figures about this in the United States come from the 2004 Heritage Health Index survey. The survey showed that cultural heritage organizations care for:

·      4.7 million works of art

·      13.5 million historic objects

·      153 million photographs

·      189 million natural science specimens

·      270 million rare books, periodicals, and scrapbooks.

 That adds up to over half a billion objects. That’s a whole lot of stuff.  However, these numbers are pretty pointless. What’s more I believe they obscure what’s important. So, ignore these numbers completely. Instead, think about:  What are museums doing with all this stuff and why should anyone care?

 The truth is that our field is very fond of bragging about the size of our collections.

Museums frequently mention the number of things in our collections as a measure of our importance.  We equate size with quality and talk as if it is simply having more stuff that makes our museums better. Then in our fundraising pitches we argue that we need more money to take care of this ever growing pile of things.  

 The problem with this message is it reinforces the idea that museums exist primarily to preserve things. We’re the community’s attic, or the nation’s attic, and fundamentally we are places full of stuff that may be nice to look at, but none of it is truly essential to your life.

 I sometimes wonder if many museums don’t collect primarily to assuage guilt – we all have donors who give us things because they simply can’t bear to throw it away, and thus the museum becomes the guilt-free alternative to throwing away a family’s junk. I’m confident your institution has collections that were accepted primarily because no one wanted to tell the donor no. My institution has a strict collections policy and an active collections committee, but my curators still push back and say: “But if we don’t take it, I’m the one who has say no to the little old lady who has no living family.”

 However, based on how museums talk about collecting, the public can certainly be forgiven for thinking that we’ll take just about anything and that the simple act of acquiring artifacts increases our relevance. However, I believe we need to stop touting the size of museum collections and start talking about impact. Museums focus too much on collecting and preserving artifacts and spend too little time improving how we actually use these collections to advance our missions.

 This isn’t a new problem, and I’m not the first one to discuss the need to address it. The Museums Association in the United Kingdom started working on solutions in the 1980s and in 2004 the American Alliance of Museums began pushing for museums to tie their collections more tightly to their mission. In 2008 Jim Vaughn wrote “Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule” where he warned museums to “beware the tyranny of collections”

In part because of this work, dissatisfaction with how we collect and treat collections has been growing among museum professionals and is now reaching a tipping point. I’m a founding member of the group Active Collections. We’re just professionals with day jobs who felt increasingly frustrated with how museums deal with collections, so we wrote a manifesto outlining the change we want to see and then asked others to share their ideas with us.

We’ve spent the last few years talking to museum workers across the country and we’ve noticed an increased willingness to rethink the purpose of collections and tie them more closely with the mission. We’ve written articles, spoken and conferences, and generally been rabble rousers. This year we did a survey across the museum field to look at attitudes toward deaccessioning. We got responses from a broad cross section of museums and saw that there’s a real consensus that we need to change how we acquire and dispose of collections.

We need to rethink a number of issues when it comes to collections but I do not believe in a one size fits all model, or that a solution that is right for my museum is right for yours. I believe how you use and care for your collections should be tied directly to your mission and not to some universal standard.

Let’s also be clear that I love artifacts. I believe in their power to tell compelling stories and to connect visitors in meaningful ways with the past and open up new ways to understand their own lives and their place in the world. When they are used well, artifacts can be transformative. My hope is that museums can rethink their collections in order to create both the physical and intellectual space to spend more time creating transformative experiences and less time caring for row after row of spinning wheels.

That said, I believe need a new model for care. First we need to start by no longer treating all artifacts equally. Too many museums pretend that all their collections are equally valuable and they budget the same amount for care across the board instead of focusing their resources on the pieces that best support their mission. Multiple studies like the Heritage Health Index have assessed the problem of collections preservation, and each has proposed providing museums more money to process and preserve artifacts. But asking for more resources doesn’t get at the root of the problem -- there’s little point in preserving collections if they don’t actively support the mission.

The fact is that any artifact that doesn’t support your mission is a “lazy artifact.”  They cost the same amount to care for and store, but they sit on the shelves for decades, never getting used for exhibitions, programming, or research. Most museums possess thousands of underutilized artifacts. Instead of being active assets, these lazy artifacts drain vital resources and deflect attention from the powerful, compelling objects that do provide public value.

 Some objects support the mission better than others and this decision shouldn’t necessarily be based on monetary value or rarity, but instead based on the stories they can tell and the ideas they illuminate. The ones that provide the most public value should get the largest share of our time and resources.  I believe strongly tiering your collections based on how well they support your institution’s mission. Tiering allows you to devote resources to your most effective pieces and helps you re-think your concept of the value of artifacts. This technique is a practical tool that helps maximize the impact of your expenditures, but more importantly it helps reframe how your institution thinks about collections. Adopting a tiered approach to collections will open up new ways of using collections at your institution. 

 A lazy artifact might not support my museum’s mission, but it could support yours, so museums also need to get better at sharing. We’re generally terrible at sharing information, and frequently museums in the same community do not know what the others have in their collections. Why don’t we change this? What if museum loans were like interlibrary loan and you could easily borrow from a museum in your region? What if museums simply standardized loan forms so they were the same across the nation? What if we made agreements across museums in a state or region that only one of us would store a type of artifact? My museum could store a variety of spinning wheels, and yours could handle the butter churns, instead of all of us storing the same things.

However, even if we get better at sharing, we still have too many objects we don’t need. We all have too many artifacts with no provenance that can’t tell good stories, or we have 50 artifacts that all tell the same story. They cannot create transformative experiences and they have no real power to help us understand the world. 

Unfortunately, even though we know we have tons of stuff we don’t need, we still have a really hard time letting go. There’s only limited data available, but it appears that at best museums acquire about 500 items for every one they deaccession. This is simply not sustainable. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner by building a system where it’s very easy to acquire museum collections but very difficult to get rid of them.

Our deaccession systems are cumbersome and slow and many museums are not deaccessioning at all. Active Collections did a nationwide survey to look at attitudes and rate of deaccessioning and the results were disheartening. Our respondents were mostly trained museum professionals with multiple years of experience. Most of them work at institutions with written collections policies, collecting plans, and approved deaccession procedures. However, even among this group that has the tools for deaccessioning, 45% of them had never deaccessioned or were rarely doing so.

Why are we so reluctant to deaccession? I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and the barriers definitely include ethics policies and cumbersome approval processes, but I think there are also some emotional issues at play that make it difficult for us to address this issue. The truth is museums share some uncomfortable similarities with compulsive hoarders.

Hoarding is a severe mental disorder and I’m not trying to make light of it or suggest that museums are pathological, but rather that our reluctance to dispose of things can be better understood by looking at this problem. The authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (by Gail Steketee and Randy Frost) write that: “Distress or impairment constitutes the boundary between normal collecting and hoarding (58).”  Clearly this happens in museums. I once did a collections review for a museum where the curator burst into tears before showing me their artifact storage room because she was terribly embarrassed by its appearance. That is distress. What was worse was that their packed storerooms also made it impossible for them to collect the materials from their community that they needed to support their programs. That is impairment.

Hoarders struggle to distinguish between what’s important and what’s not – they see everything as equally valuable. There’s an example from Stuff of a hoarder who struggles to throw away a pen cap because she thinks the cap could be used as a piece in a board game: “She couldn’t throw it out until she talked through whether this was a reasonable and important purpose for the object . . . Sometimes she could decide to throw things away, but the effort it took was enormous. Often the effort was simply too much, and things went back in the pile (28-29).”

I’ve sat through a lot of collections committee meetings where similar logic was used as staff tied themselves in knots to come up with a reason for us to keep an artifact. If our standard is that someone might want it someday, it will continue to be challenging for us to get rid of anything. Hoarders can get rid of things (as long as they are sure it won’t be useful) but this takes time and effort and more stuff comes in while they are trying to figure out where it can go. Museums are much the same. If we are taking in 500 objects for every one we dispose of, we can never catch up. Hoarders get distressed by throwing stuff away, so they avoid throwing things out. Avoiding making decisions is easier, and it’s a coping strategy. Again museums do much of the same thing. We’ve failed to address the issue and we keep hoping it will simply go away. So, how do we solve this problem? I’ll give you some suggestions that therapists working with hoarders use:

1.    Get the client to acknowledge the problem. Admitting that there’s a problem is the first step. Talk to your board about your backlog and your lazy artifacts. Get the issue out in the open.

2.    Ask the client to create a list of acquisition questions: “Do I have anything like it already?” and “‘do I have a place to keep it?’” This is basically a collections plan. If you don’t have one, you need one! Stop taking in new materials and stop the bleeding.

3.    Set small achievable goals. Therapists ask hoarders to start throwing away a single piece at a time. Establishing a routine deaccession process at your museum is a great way to start.

So, let me wrap up with looking at a graphic from the book The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences by Bob Harlow. If you haven’t looked at this book I recommend it as a model for rethinking your programs and I also think it works for rethinking your collections. Most museums are trying new programs to entice new audiences whether its immigrant groups, millennials, or young professionals. We’re increasingly aware that we need to adapt to meet the changing needs of our communities in order to stay relevant. Why shouldn’t our collections also change to meet the needs of our communities? If we believe that museums must be flexible in order to be relevant, why are our collections management systems designed to make it difficult to adapt our collections to meet changing needs? Stephen Weil wrote in Making Museums Matter  that “If our museums are not being operated with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of people’s lives, on what other basis might we possibly ask for public support?”  I believe that museum collections do not get a free pass and they also need to actively improve the quality of people’s lives and not just sit on a shelf.

Hopefully I’ve helped you think about these issues in a new way, and I ask you now to be part of a new breed of museum worker who demands more value from museum collections. The field is going to be changed by what individual museum professionals like you do at their institutions. So please share these ideas, test them out, and most importantly try your own. If you put something into practice -- tell others what works and what doesn’t.  I’d certainly love to hear from you – visit activecollections.org to share your experiences. 

 

Here is the SlideShare document that was presented with this paper.