Introduction to collections care
It’s important that the workforce of your museum have a comprehensive understanding of best practices when it comes to caring for your collections.
Collections care involves:
- Creating a suitable environment to effectively preserve and display collections
- Creating a strategic plan for ongoing care
- Available guidance on handling, packing, and treating objects appropriately.
Collections are often important resources for museums and visitors may come to your museum specifically to view your unique collections.
Collections care is essential to preserving this resource that makes your museum unique. It’s important to care for each item in your collection equally, whether you’re displaying ancient Assyrian carvings or charting the course of 21st-century technology, every object in your collection needs to be treated with respect.
Keep collections care in mind when making future plans within your museum.
Care vs. Conservation
conservation is a separate practice to collections care. We use three terms to describe different facets of preserving collections:
A museum-wide strategy that incorporates the correct procedures for managing collections. The rest of this guide goes into further detail on elements of collections care, such as handling items and mounting displays.
Work done on individual items in collections, either to correct damage or stabilise its condition.
Relating to environmental work undertaken in museum buildings to anticipate and prevent potential issues with collections. This involves environmental monitoring and control, pest management, storage, and display provision.
Who is responsible?
Everyone plays a part
All of the museum’s workforce should be equally concerned about caring for a museum’s collections. The overall plan of care should never be the sole remit of just one or two people, although responsibilities of care may vary according to staff roles.
Managers and trustees of a museum have ultimate responsibility for its collections care system. Plan ahead and develop a strategy for delegating essential care tasks.
Key elements to consider include:
- Organising staff rotas for basic tasks such as rubbish collection and spot condition checks
- Creating a procedural manual to ensure that every member of the workforce is aware of their responsibility for care
- Hosting or facilitating workforce training sessions or developing existing skills within your team to ensure everyone is aware of best practices
- Devoting a separate space for inspecting, preparing, and storing collections
- Allocating a budget for buying collection care supplies
- Incorporating collections care into forward and strategic plans for the museum
Caring for your collections is a continual process, not a one-off procedure. For the best results from collections care, develop a plan for thorough, ongoing care. Establishing routines helps to prevent problems.
We’ve outlined three ways to ensure year-round care.
Maintaining a clean museum and object store is essential to preserving the quality of your collections. Housekeeping in a museum should involve:
- Object-appropriate cleaning
- Maintaining a clean environment
- Cleaning protective clothing and dust sheets
- Taking preventative measures against pests
Checking and monitoring
Continuous monitoring of collections ensures that any issues with an item can be identified early on. Make sure you keep a record of routine checks throughout the building so the information can be used for making improvements to the museum and problems can be identified early on.
Factors that should be monitored include:
- Maintenance of the building, facilities, and equipment
- Internal environments, including light and UV radiation
- Condition of collections
- Quality of furniture, fittings, and containers
A key aspect of collections care is handling your items appropriately.
Follow these guidelines when handling objects:
- Always make sure your hands are clean and dry before handling objects (remember, wearing gloves may compromises dexterity and may not always be the best approach)
- Use lifting equipment for awkward or heavy objects
- Consider potentially hazardous material, and use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment, such as face masks or gloves
- Ensure all relevant staff are familiar with handling procedures
- Create storage and work environments that are appropriate for object handling
- Develop a plan for how the public will engage with the collection, including warning signs or a protective screen
Packing and unpacking
Effective and sensible packing protects collections. Several people may be involved in the packing and unpacking of any one item, so it’s important everyone is aware of appropriate procedures.
Here’s some tips to avoid damaging objects during these processes:
- Pack items according to purpose; objects may require less padding in storage than they do in transport
- Cushion, pad, and layer objects, don’t always wrap them
- Include written instructions on how to unpack
Code of Practice
The Code of Practice for Cultural Collections Management was commissioned by the British Standards Institute to create a Publicly Available Specification (PAS) for collections management in 2009. Use this specification to guide your steps in collections care.
The code of practice helps to:
- Develop strategies for managing collections
- Create sustainable strategies which encompasses all areas of collections care management
- Understand the legal environment of museum collections
It’s applicable to all types and sizes of cultural collections.
Your collections care needs to be implemented in order to reach the standards for museum Accreditation. Read about the Accreditation Scheme and other criteria museums must meet in order to gain Accredited status.
The Collections Trust has a range of collections care advice and guidance available.
We also recommend two books with guidance on specific elements of collections care:
- An Illustrated Guide to the Care of Costume and Textile Collections (Robinson, J. and Pardoe, T; Museums & Galleries Commission, 2000, ISBN 0948630957).
- The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping (Butterworth-Heinemann; The National Trust 2006 (Revised 2011) ISBN 978-1907892189)
For more information on collections care, see our other advice guides.