Collection care staff are responsible for knowing the state and needs of the collection in their care.

Frequently, someone newly in this position might develop this understanding 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.

Surveys can be used as planning tools by providing:

  • The condition of all items in your collection
  • A general overview of collection condition
  • The condition of one class of objects within your collection

This information can be used to decide:

  • 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, and different models in existence use a wide variety of criteria. Appropriate assessment strategies 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 despite the range of available methodologies, the chosen assessment methodology must be tailored to meet the individual requirements of a project, and most efficiently and effectively accomplish the goals of a particular institution. 

Selecting and refining an assessment method requires defining the assessment goals and understanding what the results should reflect. There will always be a sacrifice in detail when time is a concern, and conversely where detail is the goal, one must 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 most suited to their institution’s needs. 

Collection Surveys at AMNH

In 2008, the Trustees of the 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 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, first providing priorities and goals for ongoing upgrades for the fossil horse collection, while secondly enabling a comparison of relative workloads and outcomes of different assessment methodologies. The latter would help the Museum understand which methodologies would be most useful in the development of Divisional preventive conservation plans. Four principal survey methodologies were selected for the pilot.

Curation Survey

The curation survey relied on the "McGinley Method," which rates collection progress against an idealized linear path of curatorial processing, from acquisition through to full accessibility. This method is efficient in terms of speed and objectivity, applicable to a wide range of collections. It utilizes pre-established categories and criteria in regard to specimens, so the danger of becoming distracted by specific detail is avoided. Simple “yes” or “no” ratings make it possible to maintain objectivity and diminish bias (as opposed to a response where qualitative assessments or ranges are involved). In our curation survey, randomly selected specimens were examined at both the drawer and the object level using an online integer generator. 

Conservation Survey

We also utilized the McGinley Method to address specimen level condition criteria such as yellowing, and/orstate of preparation. In contrast to the curation survey above, this methodology dealt more with individual specimen stability and well-being, as opposed to the health and maintenance of the collection as a whole, and gathered qualitative details about the condition in which specimens were found. Assessing the same set of specimens as the curation survey allowed for an alternate viewpoint and provided a basis for methodological comparison. 

Risk Analysis Survey

Our risk analysis survey was carried out using the Cultural Property Risk Assessment Model (CPRAM) developed by Rob Waller and the Canadian Museum of Nature. This method is meant to address the environmental health of the collection as a whole, and quantifies the vulnerability of the collection to 10 agents of deterioration.

Space Survey

Our final 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 each drawer within was opened and scanned for capacity and available space. Overcrowding was noted, as well as the availability of empty cabinets and drawers into which the collection could expand. 

This project, while incredibly time-consuming, familiarized the assessor with the materials in the collection, and the range in their condition. It also recorded data that helps to meet curatorial and organizational details, such as the capacity and availability of collection storage space. Staff and volunteers carrying out the ongoing work curating this collection blogged about their experiences.

Additional Resources on Collection Surveys

  • reCollections is a six-volume Australian publication about caring for a wide range of collection materials, developed by Artlab and Australian conservators for the Heritage Collections Council.
  • 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.
  • The Conservation Assessment: A Proposed Model for Evaluating Museum Environmental Management Needs, by Avrami, Erica, Kathleen Dardes, Marta de la Torre, Samuel Y. Harris, Michael Henry, and Wendy Claire Jessup, contributors, available from the Getty Conservation Institute.
  • 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.
  • Benchmarks in Collection Care for Museums, Archives and Libraries is a self-assessment checklist available from Collections Trust.
  • Profiling Natural History Collections: A Method for Quantitative and Comparative Health Assessment, Favret, Colin & Cummings, Kevin & McGinley, R.J. & Heske, E.J. & Johnson, K.P. & Phillips, Christopher & Phillippe, L.R. & Retzer, M.E. & Taylor, C.A. & Wetzel, M.J.. (2008). Collection Forum. 22. 53-65.
  • Price, Judith C. and Gerald R. Fitgerald, 1996. Categories of Specimens: A Collection Management Tool. Collection Forum12(1) pp. 8-13. 
  • 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.