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Thought Pieces

Go Ahead and Tier Your Collections!

Amelia Whitehead

By Trevor Jones, Director of Museum Collections and Exhibitions, Kentucky Historical Society

What artifacts best support your mission? Which are just OK? What has nothing to do with what you’re trying to accomplish? The Kentucky Historical Society had been experimenting with ranking our collections so that we can focus our time and money on the ones that best support our mission.

 The following chart shows the concept that I call “tiering”. We’re ranking our collections into on of five tiers based on how well they support the mission. Issues of condition, use, and function play into this decision, but “how does it support the mission?” is the primary question. This is a work in progress, so if you’ve got ideas for improvement or want to share your experience, please do so at

Criteria For Tiering Collections

Lessions Learned (So Far):

  • This is a subjective process, and it’s likely to feel uncomfortable at first. However, as you rank more artifacts, useful patterns will emerge that will help you manage the collection as a whole. So far about a third of our artifacts are ending up in Tier 3. His means they have connection to the mission, but are not particularly compelling. I’m seeing clearly that we’re using a lot of storage space and time on artifacts that cannot strongly support our mission.
  • There are other potential benefits from the process. Tiering helps with disaster planning, and also for selecting candidates for conservation and improved storage. It seems ridiculous to invest in new storage cabinets for Tier 4 flags that lack any connection to Kentucky. We’re not there yet, but my goal is to eventually establish varying standards of care based tiers. My hope is that we can one day have different storage, handling, and loan requirements based on the artifact’s tier.

  • Tiering does not automatically make de-accession choices easier. Our Tier 5 artifacts are clearly ready for de-accession, but we’ve found plenty of Tier 2 and 3 artifacts that also should be de-accessioned because of duplication or condition issues. In order to address this we’ve kept a separate “Recommended for De-accession” field in our database, in addition to the field we use for tiering.

  • Tiering requires both good documentation and expertise. It’s difficult to assign a tier if the artifact’s provenance is not associated with the catalog record and buried in a file somewhere. Curatorial knowledge also plays a large role in evaluating significance. We had originally hoped to tier our artifacts aw we inventoried them, but the practice took too many curators and too much time. Instead, tiering has become part of the cataloging process.

  • Think about starting small. If it seems overwhelming to add tiers to your existing collection, think about assigning tiers to the artifacts that you’re considering accepting. This will help focus the collection committee’s discussion and should focus your collections planning.

This article was published in the October 2014 issue of AASLH History News.

The format has been changed slightly to fit into this site.