Collection Surveys


One of the jobs of a collection manager is to know the state and needs of the collections in their care.  Frequently for someone new in a staff position, this would be done by walking through collection storage and taking a look in storage cabinets, drawers and shelves, and speaking with other staff members.  This method, while probably productive, relies on a gut feeling for assessing the needs and risks of a collection and does little to provide the kind of unbiased data that is increasingly being required by administrators and funders to make a strong case for applying resources to advance departmental projects that will improve collections care. 

A collection survey provides a more systematic approach to data gathering, and when properly planned is an extremely effective tool in generating data for essential collection management plans, disaster response and risk management plans, and long-range preservation plans.  The downloadable article on Managing Collections presented by the Collections Australia Network lists some of the ways that surveys can be used as planning tools including:

  • The condition of all items in your collection or a general overview of collection condition
  • The condition of one class of objects within your collection
  • Which items within the collection are priorities for treatment
  • What storage needs upgrading
  • How to set priorities for salvage in a flood or fire

At present, there is no uniform standard for assessing collections. The various models in existence use a wide variety of criteria and standards. Each model can independently determine the characteristics of a collection. The choice of assessment strategy may vary between museums, between different departments of the same museum, or even between different collections in the same department. Each collection fosters its own needs in terms of conservation and organization. This means that the chosen assessment methodology must be tailored to meet the individual requirements of that certain group and project. Despite the range of available methodologies, personalization is ultimately required to determine the most efficient and effective assessment strategy to accomplish the goals of a particular institution. 

Deciding which method to use requires determining what the goals of the assessment are, and what the results need to reflect. There will always be a sacrifice in detail when time is a concern, and conversely where detail is the goal one needs to be prepared to allot a generous amount of time. Where budgeting is involved, a collections manager needs to weigh the necessities of the collection against the feasibility of an assessment, and select the method (or merged methodologies) most suited to their institutions’ needs. 

Collection Surveys at the Museum

In 2008, the Trustees of American Museum of Natural History adopted a new collections management policy. Among other things, this policy mandated that each scientific division develop "a written preventive maintenance plan that sets priorities for the care of the collections as a whole and for the care and treatment of individual specimens, artifacts, and documents of particular scientific, educational, historic, or aesthetic value." The policy also required that "in planning and executing collection upgrades, moves, and other activities relating to the physical curation of the collections, collection staff will survey, and visually inspect the conditions in which collections are kept to determine priority areas for improvement."

A pilot program was initiated by the Natural Sciences Lab in conjunction with the Division of Paleontology, which was in need of a status update on both collections and conservation concerns.  The project would provide dual benefits – providing priorities and goals for the ongoing upgrades for the fossil horse collection while at the same time comparing the relative workloads and outcomes of different assessment methodologies on the same move would help the Museum refine its ideas about what methodologies might be most useful for the development of Divisional preventive conservation plans. The choice of survey methodology was narrowed down to four principal types:

  1. Curation
  2. Conservation
  3. Risk analysis
  4. Space

For the curation survey- The "McGinley Method," which rates collections progress against an idealized linear path of curatorial processing, from acquisition through to full accessibility, was chosen.  This method is efficient in terms of speed and objectivity, applicable to a wide range of collections, and with pre-established categories and criteria in regard to the specimens, the danger of becoming distracted by too-specific detail is avoided. In addition, McGinley uses a series of simple “yes” or “no” ratings, which make it simple to maintain objectivity and diminish bias (as opposed to a response where qualitative assessments or ranges are involved). Randomly selected specimens were examined at both the drawer and the specimen level; cabinets, drawers, and specimens were selected at random, using an online integer generator.  The Illinois Natural History Survey discusses the McGinley method in more detail.

The conservation survey – also utilized the McGinley Method to address specimen level condition criteria such as yellowing, state of preparation. Using the same set of specimens as in the McGinley specimen level survey mentioned above allowed for a contrasting assessment viewpoint and resulted in the establishment of a basis for methodological comparison. This methodology dealt more with individual specimen stability and well-being, as opposed to the health and maintenance of the collections as a whole, and reported qualitative details on the condition in which specimens were found.

The risk analysis survey - meant to address the environmental health of the collection as a whole, was carried out, using the Cultural Property Risk Assessment Model (CPRAM) developed by Rob Waller and the Canadian Museum of Nature. This method quantifies the vulnerability of the collection over a 100 year period to 10 agents of deterioration (see our article on risk assessment for more about the 10 Agents of Deterioration).

The space survey - focused on the capacity of the storage space itself. It was an assessment of the physical condition of each cabinet and drawer in the collection, as well as an estimation of available space left in each. Each cabinet and drawer within was opened and scanned for capacity and available space. Drawer overcrowding was noted, as well as any available empty expansion cabinets and drawers. This survey, while incredibly time-consuming, familiarized the assessor with the types of material being dealt with, and the range of conditions present in the collection. It records and facilitates any curatorial needs dealing with organizational details, such as collections space capacity and availability. 

Staff and volunteers carrying out the ongoing work curating this collection blogged about their experiences here.

Additional Resources on Collection Surveys

  • Price, Judith C. and Gerald R. Fitgerald, 1996. Categories of Specimens: A Collection Management Tool. Collection Forum12(1) pp. 8-13. 
  • The American Association for Museums (AAM) offers the Museum Assessment Program (MAP), designed to help maintain and improve operations through a confidential, consultative process.  The one-year program involves a self-study process as well as a site visit by a peer reviewer. There are several different types of MAP Assessments but Collections Management Assessment focuses on collections stewardship. Visit their page for more on the CMAP process or to download a copy of their Self-Study Workbook and Activities to use as a guide
  • CAP - There are two documents available – each slightly different:
    • The Conservation Assessment: A Tool for Planning, Implementing and Fundraising, a 59 page pdf document is available at the Heritage Preservation.
    • The second version from 1999 is a 39 page pdf document by Avrami, Erica, Kathleen Dardes, Marta de la Torre, Samuel Y. Harris, Michael Henry, and Wendy Claire Jessup, contributors: “The Conservation Assessment: A Proposed Model for Evaluating Museum Environmental Management Needs” available for download in English and Spanish from the Getty.
  • Assessing Preservation Needs: A Self-Survey Guide by Beth Patkus is a step-by-step guide to surveying an institution’s collections, designed for small to medium-sized institutions with limited budgets and minimal preservation knowledge.  Available online from the Publications page of the NEDCC.
  • Benchmarks in Collection Care for Museums, Archives and Libraries is a self-assessment checklist available from the U.K. organization Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries:
    • Download the pdf forms:
    • Williams, Stephen L., R. Richard Monk and Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales, 1996. “Applying McGinley's Model for Collection Assessment to Collections of Recent Vertebrates”. Collection Forum12:1, pp.21-35.
    • McGinley, R.J. 1993. Where’s the management in collections management? Planning for improved care, greater use, and growth of collections. Pp. 309–338 in Congreso Mundial Sobre Preservación y Conservación de Colecciones de Historia Natural. Vol. 3. Temas de Actualidad, Iniciativas y Direcciones Futuras sobre Preservación y Conservación de Colecciones de Historia Natural (C.L. Rose, S.L. Williams, and J. Gisbert, eds.). Dirección General de Bellas Artes y Archivos, Madrid. 439 pp.