It’s done! For the past year or so I’ve been working with staff and other Collections Committee members at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on a new collections development plan. It’s been an interesting experience.
Collections development plans are a fairly new thing for museums. They are part of a general transition in how museums think of collections. Stephen Weil’s famous 1999 essay sums it up: “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody.” Museums once existed for their collections. Now, collections are there to do something, for someone. Museums have a mission, and collections are a tool to achieve that mission.
The first step toward making collections useful is to know what you have. The second step is to figure out what you need. Step three: over time, acquire what you need, and get rid of what you don’t.
Seems simple. As you might imagine, though, each of these steps can be… complicated.
Step one. Yes, museums should know what they have… just look in the collections management system! Search for what you’re interested in! But: is everything in that database? Of course not. And even less is well described. Cataloging is a never-ending process.
On a more philosophical level: A collection is more than many individual things. To understand it, you need to break it into categories. It’s the categories, not the individual objects, that shape our understanding of collections. (Search as a discovery mechanism actually makes it harder to understand these categories.) Determining those categories isn’t easy. The categories of those who collected the things? Those who entered them in the CMS? Or those of curators thinking about new exhibits, or of visitors? There’s a large literature now that urges us to “decolonize cataloging,” thinking through the categories and sources of information that catalogs are built on. What assumptions were the collections built on?
And that’s easy, compared to step two: figure out what you should have. The AAM urges that a museum create an “intellectual framework” to shape its collecting. This framework is “the compelling vision that defines the unique role your museum plays and provides the context for making decisions about the future of the collections.”
At the Whaling Museum, we didn’t use the phrase “intellectual framework,” but we did think hard about our mission. The museum has well-wrtten mission statement, and our job was to ask what what artifacts we need to carry it out. Translating a mission statement into artifacts might be the best description of writing a collections development plan.
Over the next few years we work on step three, following these general directions with specific actions. We’ll plan some collecting initiatives. When we’re offered objects for the collection, we’ll look in our collections development plan and see if they fit. The plan advises the curatorial department about where to put its collecting effort, helps the collections committee in considering curatorial requests, and guides deaccessions.
The plan also encourages better cooperation with regional museums and other whaling museums. It makes the case for a new collections management system, so that the museum can make better decisions on future collecting based on a more complete understanding of its present collections. And it call for additional staff time focused on retrospective cataloging. Looking ahead, we need to better understand our existing collections so that we build on a strong foundation.
A collections development plan is about shaping the collections, not taking them for granted. That active engagement with collections will make them more useful. It will also make our collecting better and more efficient.