Collection Policy guidelines to writing

A Collection Policy consists of sections on:

  • Acquisitions
  • Cataloguing
  • Loans
  • Collection access
  • Preventive conservation
  • Deaccessioning and disposal

A Collection Policy is:

  • a clearly set out written document that can be referred to, used effectively, and reviewed regularly
  • developed in line with CMP standard C1.1 as outlined in the Community Museums Program Handbook, 2008
  • relevant to the museum’s circumstances, collection focus and resources
  • realistic, appropriate, accurate and achievable.

Writing policies should be a collaborative effort, in which attitudes and approaches to managing the museum’s collection are shared and agreed upon. It is useful to establish a sub-committee to prepare the collection policy or, alternatively, one person can be delegated to start writing, with everyone having the chance to comment on a draft.


Using this document

This document is presented as a series of headings and questions.

The headings can be used to structure the Collection Policy.

The questions, and the notes beneath, are intended as prompts to guide decision making about the content of the Collection Policy.

Write brief statements or lists, as appropriate, in answer to the questions in order to build up the content of the Collection Policy.

Museums may choose to work through this document independently, or, on request, the History Trust can facilitate a meeting to guide the process.



The Acquisitions section of the Collection Policy should be written in the context of the museum’s Statement of Purpose (see standard A2.1). 

Collection aim

  • What is the aim of the collection?

Write a short statement that says what history the museum aims to preserve.  For example, the museum may seek to preserve the historical evidence of local transport and communications, farming life, women’s lives, working lives, or local industries, families, places or events. 

Be specific about the particular aspects of history the museum is interested in as this will help in defining collecting areas.

Collecting areas

  • What types of items does the museum want to collect in order to build up a collection that reflects its historical focus?

Consider general ‘types’ of items, such as documents, books, objects, textiles, photographs, large equipment, paintings.  Are there any types of items that the museum cannot accommodate?  For example, museums in very small premises may decide not to collect large machinery, or museums without appropriate storage may decide not to collect original paper-based items. 

It may be useful to be quite specific about items to be collected.  For example, a museum might want to collect one trophy from each district sporting club or may want to target a range of items relating to specific people, businesses, groups or events.

  • What is the geographical boundary for collecting?

 A geographical boundary may already have been defined in the museum’s Mission Statement, but it is worth repeating here.  How is the museum’s ‘district’ defined?  What towns/localities is the museum intending to collect the history of?

 Consider the collecting aims and collecting areas of other museums/historical groups that may be in the same district.

  • What is the date range for the collection?

 For example, the museum may focus on farming life from the 1850s to the 1950s or settlement in the district since the 1920s.

 Collecting criteria

  •  What are the museum’s collecting criteria?

In determining collecting criteria it is important to think about the capacity of the museum to house and care for items and to ensure that items collected clearly relate to the collection aims.

There is a widely accepted set of criteria that museums generally follow when deciding whether or not they will accept items into their collection.

They are:

  1. the item fits within the museum’s purpose, collection aim and collection areas
  2. the item is historically significant
  3. the item has clearly established provenance (i.e. history)
  4. the item is in good condition
  5. the item can be adequately looked after and stored
  6. the intending donor has legal title to the item
  7. the item is donated free of encumbrances
  8. the item does not unnecessarily duplicate items already in the collection
  9. the acquisition of the item does not unduly compete with the collecting areas of other museums.

The first three items on this list are key selection criteria and items acquired should be able to meet at least one of these requirements.

Items that meet some or all of the museum’s collecting criteria are generally considered to be the core collection. 

Core and non-core collecting

  • Does the museum intend to maintain a non-core collection?

In addition to the main, or core collection, museums may choose to maintain a secondary, or non-core, collection.  Non-core collections consist of items that are duplicates or that lack specific provenance and are used by the museum as display props or for ‘hands-on’ activities.  It may also be necessary for a museum to include spare parts in a non-core collection.

Specify what a non-core collection will consist of, if one is required.

Collecting process

  • What methods will be used to acquire items? 

Common ways are:

  • Donation
  • Bequest (another form of donation)
  • Purchase
  • Transfer


  •  Who is authorised to collect on behalf of the museum?

For example, it may be decided that all potential donations or purchases must be agreed to by the museum committee, or by a sub-committee, or by a designated curator.

Authorisation is important in ensuring that collecting is done in a planned, rather than ad hoc, way.

  • What is the process for determining whether or not to collect an item?

A simple Information Form is a very useful way of collecting details about items that can be used in deciding whether to acquire them or not.  An Information Form should have space to record:

  • What the item is
  • the details of the person or organisation offering the item for donation
  • the history (provenance) of the item/s, for example, who owned it, where and when it was used, how and where was it made, stories that are associated with the item
  • references to associated material, such as photographs showing the item in use or the person who used it and any background information about the item that may be useful for later research
  • the significance of the item, such as what story it tells, what historical events and trends are associated with it and an explanation of how the item fits the museum’s purpose and focus.

It is usual for museums to then assess the item/s against the collection aim, collecting areas and collecting criteria.

  • What documentation is required for acquisitions?

All items donated to the museum should be recorded on a Donation Form.  The Donation Form clearly sets out what is being donated and by whom and allows for any donation conditions to be recorded.  Donation forms need to be signed by the museum and the donor to be valid.

A copy of a completed donation form should be provided to the donor.

            A model Donation Form is available as a separate CMP Help Sheet.

For items acquired by purchase or transfer, clear records should be kept of the transaction.  Receipts should be retained for purchased items.  An Information Form can also be used to record the details of items where ownership has been transferred to the museum by another organisation.  Letters between organisations are also a good way of documenting purchase and transfer transactions.

  • What is the process if an offer of donation is to be declined?

Record how, when and by whom an offer of donation will be declined.  Correspondence is a good way of formally notifying a prospective donor that their item/s are not required by the museum and thanking them for the offer.



Registering collection items

  • How will collection items be registered?

Set out:

  • the numbering system that will be used for registering items
  • how items with more than one part will be numbered
  • what items will be registered, for example, a museum may choose to register only core collection items and list any non-core items in another way
  • how registrations will be recorded, such as on a database, in a register book or by some other written method
  • when items will be registered, for example, as soon as possible after the museum acquires the item
  • who will be responsible for registering items coming into the collection
  • what information will be recorded for registration. Besides the registration number it is usual to record:
    • the item name
    • the date of registration
    • the method of acquisition
    • donor name if relevant
    • a brief description of the item
    • the general condition of the item
    • the item’s location within the museum
  •  How will items be physically numbered?

Specify requirements for physically numbering particular types of items.  For example, it may be decided that all machinery items will be numbered using key tags, or have labels attached with cable ties, or it may be specified exactly how and where numbers should be written on paper items.

Also specify any instances where numbers should not be physically applied to items.  For example, it may not be appropriate to write a number of paper documents that are very significant or fragile.

Provide information about how to apply numbers using certain techniques, such as varnish and ink method, or indicate where such information can be found.


Cataloguing collection items

  • How will collection items be catalogued?

Cataloguing is a more detailed process than registration. 

Define what items will be catalogued.  For example, a museum may decide to catalogue only core collection items, and to record non-core items in another way. 

Record what system is used for creating catalogue records, for example, does the museum use manual record sheets (often called general record sheets), a database, or both.

Include a list of fields of information that need to be recorded on catalogue records.  A standard list of fields is:

  • registration number
  • object name
  • object donation number
  • date of manufacture
  • dimensions
  • materials
  • condition
  • description
  • history (provenance)
  • significance (reason for collecting)
  • subject areas (key words)
  • other notes
  • current location
  • catalogued by
  • date catalogued

Add in any other fields that may be specific to the museum’s needs, for example, a photograph location field or location of the relevant object file.

  • How will cataloguing work be managed?

Cataloguing may be an activity that is done by a group of museum workers or by just one or two people.  Cataloguing is a particular museum skill and only trained workers should be undertaking the task.

Ideally, items should be catalogued as soon as possible after they are registered into the collection.

Include any instructions, or information on where to find them, that workers will need to ensure cataloguing is done correctly and consistently.  This includes information about creating catalogue records, accessing and using the collection database and any other instructions that may be relevant, such as specifications for digital image quality.

  • How will non-core collection items be recorded?

 Museums may choose to record non-core items in the collection register or to list them separately.

Sometimes museums maintain separate databases for core and a non-core items or have a system within the database for clearly designating items as core or non-core.

  • How will collection records be managed?

Consider how catalogue and registration information is to be stored and retrieved.  If a database is used, will there be a hard copy print out as well?

Also consider arrangements for creating, maintaining and storing back-up copies of both database and hard copy collection records.  Back-up copies are best stored away from the museum or in a secure position on site. 



Lending: Outward loans

  • Who can borrow items from the collection?

It is usual to lend items only to other museums or appropriate groups, rather than to individuals.  The museum may also choose to specify that only organisations who can provide appropriate display conditions can borrow collection items.

  • What is the maximum period of loan?

Loans are short-term arrangements.  Generally outward loans should be for no longer than one year. 

The period of loan may depend on the type of item.  For example, textiles and paper-based items should usually be loaned for periods less than four months, because extended display may compromise their preservation.

In some cases it may be desirable to loan an item for an extended period of time.  In this case the loan agreement should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis (annually is appropriate).

  • What items cannot be loaned?

 Consider if there are any items that would be put at risk if loaned out.  Such items might be those in poor condition, fragile items, or items that would require special conditions to ensure their preservation.

There may be other restrictions on outward loans, for example, if a donation agreement precludes outward loan.

Borrowing: Inward Loans

  •  Under what circumstances and conditions can the museum borrow items?

Inward loans should be for short, defined periods of time and for specific purposes, such as temporary exhibitions.

Consider what types of items may be sought on inward loan.  For example, a museum with a specialist collection may want to borrow items outside their collecting specialty that help give context to a display or other project.

Who will be responsible for managing items on loan to the museum?

Inward loans for extended periods of time should not be seen as an alternative to formal acquisition of items by donation.

Managing Loans

  • Who is authorised to arrange inward and outward loans?

If the museum has a small group responsible for acquisitions, it may also be appropriate for that group to handle loans.  Or loans may be the responsibility of another designated person or group.

Whoever is authorised to arrange loans should also be responsible for ensuring loan items are returned on time.

  • What procedures are to be followed and how are they to be documented?

All loans should be documented on loan agreement forms.  Use a separate form for inward and outward loans.

Loan agreements need to record:

  • the contact details of the lender/borrower
  • the purpose of the loan
  • the period of the loan
  • where the item/s will be displayed
  • delivery and return arrangements (such as how and by whom items will be transported)
  • any requirements regarding the care of items lent/borrowed
  • any conditions/restrictions on the loan

Loan agreements should be signed by both the museum and the loanee or lender.

Consider how monitoring of longer-term loans will be managed.  For example, the museum may choose to contact loanees each year and ask them to sign an updated loan agreement, or museums may physically audit and inspect loan items on a regular basis.

Collection Access

Making the collection and collection records available

  • What public access is available to the collection and collection records?

Consider what items can be accessed for research or study purposes, including those on display and in storage.  Consider items from the museum’s core and non-core collections, whether they be objects, images or paper-based items.

Also consider what collection records will be made accessible.  Collection records include catalogues, research files and other materials relating to the development and content of the collection. 

Decide how items and records will be made accessible.  For example, indexes may be needed to assist users to find their way through collection records, or the museum may have a read only version of the collection database available for consultation.  It is usual for museums to designate a research space.  Providing appropriate supports for books or other items while they are in use also needs to be considered.

Decide on a system for recording access, such as keeping a register of the details of users who access collection items or records.  Some museums may prefer to answer enquiries about their collection and records themselves and not provide physical user access at all, or access may be available through a website only.

  • What restrictions are there?

For example, the museum may choose to restrict access to material which is very fragile, or to only allow access to items under supervision.  Reference copies of documentary or pictorial items may be used rather than original items.

Consider any cultural sensitivities or requirements that mean access to some items may need to be restricted to certain people or cultural groups.

Privacy considerations are also important for material relating to people still living.  Such material should not be made accessible unless the museum has written permission to do so.

  • Are there costs for accessing the collection and collection records?

One obvious cost is entry fees to the museum site, but there may be other fees as well.  For example, the museum may choose to charge a fee for research costs, where research is undertaken by the museum on behalf of the user, or there may be fees charged for photocopying or image printing/copying.

It is a good idea to set out a fee structure for the assistance that the museum gives users and for the costs of reproductions.  Fees can always be waived or reduced in special circumstances.  Different fees may be charged to different users.  For example, a family historian accessing a photograph for personal use should be charged a different fee than a commercial publisher requesting the same image for a book.

Copyright and privacy

  • How will information about users of the collection be recorded and retained?

It can be useful to keep a record of who accesses the collection/collection records and for what purposes.  For example, if certain items are being accessed frequently, it may be necessary to make access copies or to capture the item digitally for wider distribution. 

Retaining information about users also helps to build a picture of who is accessing the collection/collection records.

Consider privacy regulations when recording and retaining information.  Privacy relates to what information is collected and how it is used by the museum.

  • How will the museum manage copyright?

For example, if the museum holds copyright for an item that item can be copied or otherwise reproduced with the museum’s permission.  However, if the museum does not hold copyright to an item, the museum will need a procedure to inform users that copyright is held elsewhere and, wherever possible, to direct them to the copyright holder.


Preventive Conservation

Managing the museum environment

  • How are environmental conditions being managed?

Consider what steps are taken to limit light, dust and fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity within the museum’s storage and display areas.  For example, some of the steps the museum may require are:

  • curtains to be drawn during daylight hours
  • lights to be switched off when display rooms are not in use
  • items especially vulnerable to dust to be housed in display cases or secure boxes
  • items especially affected by outside conditions to be located in the centre of display rooms.

Also consider building and grounds maintenance practices such as regular checking of gutters, removal of birds’ nests and overhanging tree branches.

  • How will pest activity be monitored and dealt with?

Consider what pests are likely to be a potential problem for the museum and what collection items are most at risk.  Also consider how and when pest activity will be monitored.  A pest check schedule is a good way of ensuring that monitoring is done regularly and at the times when pests are likely to be most active in the museum.

Include actions for monitoring, reporting and dealing with pest problems.


  • What needs to be cleaned?

 Identify what areas at the museum need to be cleaned.  Consider floors, window areas, outside of display cases, curtains/blinds, doormats, walls and ceilings.  Consider both display and storage areas.

Consider items that are most at risk from dust accumulation.  Some items will require cleaning more often than others, depending on the item type and the placement of items within the museum. 

  • How will cleaning be managed?

For example, a museum may employ a contractor to clean the museum spaces, but rely on its own workers, who are appropriately trained, to undertake cleaning of collection items.

Consider how often cleaning needs to be done.  A cleaning schedule (often combined with a pest check schedule) is a way of organising cleaning activities so that they are done regularly and at the times when they are most needed.

Include any specific instructions on appropriate cleaning methods for particular types of items (or information about where to find such instructions).

Handling collection items

  • What particular requirements are there for handling the collection?

Include some general information about good collection handling practices, or direction about where to find that information.

Specify any handling requirements that are particular to the museum’s collection.  For example, there may be items containing asbestos that should only be moved while wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, or it may be necessary to handle fragile rusted items in a particular way.  Precautions for handling potentially hazardous substances, such as medicine or chemical containers, should also be specified.

Storing collection items

  • How will storage areas be organised?

Consider what system will be used to ensure that items in storage can be located and records about the movement of objects in an out of storage can be kept.

Make decisions about what storage areas are available and what areas are suitable for what types of items.

  • How are items to be stored?

Consider what sort of ‘storage infrastructure’ will suit the museum and the collection.  Some museums may require lockable cupboards, or map cabinets so large items can be laid flat, or open shelving and archival storage boxes may be the most suitable storage.

Identify what types of items need to be stored and in what conditions.  For example, it may be decided that particular archival storage products will be used for wrapping or boxing certain types of items, or that covers be made for items on open shelving.

Looking after items on display

  •  What are conservation principles that need to be considered for items on display?

Some of the basic principles for items on display are:

  • not interfering with the fabric of the item
  • maintaining items in as good a condition as possible for as long as possible
  • observing signs of deterioration
  • relocating items as appropriate.

Using copies of original photographs when they are to be on long-term display should also be considered.

  • How will items on display be protected from damage and deterioration?

Identify the types of display supports/materials that need to be used for different types of collection items.  Specify products or techniques that should not be used in the museum and those which are suitable.

Consider an appropriate schedule for changing displays and resting sensitive items in storage.  It may be necessary to make some fundamental changes to the arrangement of current displays in order to ensure items can continue to be displayed without deterioration.

Interventive conservation work

  • How will interventive conservation work be managed?

Interventive conservation refers to work that involves direct interaction with collection items.  Examples of interventive conservation work are stabilising the condition of an item, undertaking repairs, or replacement of parts.

Conservation plans are recommended to guide any interventive conservation work. 

Consider what interventive work may be appropriately undertaken by museum workers and what should be reserved for trained conservators. 

It may be appropriate for museum workers to undertake interventive conservation work in some cases, but only with careful planning and under expert guidance.

Preventive conservation skills and resources

  • What skills do workers need?

For example, museums may decide that all workers involved in preventive conservation activities need to have some basic skills development.  Essential skills include pest checking, techniques for safely displaying items and appropriate cleaning techniques.

Consider requiring attendance at preventive conservation skills workshops and/or a buddy system for passing on skills to new workers.

  • What resources are available?

 Consider including reference in the policy to key preventive conservation resources and particular sections of the CMP Handbook that will assist workers to undertake appropriate preventive conservation work.


De-accessioning and Disposal

Criteria for deaccessioning

  • What criteria will be applied when deciding whether to deaccession an item?

The following is a generally accepted list of appropriate reasons to deaccession items:

  1. the item is not relevant to the purpose of the museum
  2. the item has deteriorated to the point where it cannot be ‘saved’
  3. the item lacks historical authenticity
  4. the item lacks physical integrity
  5. there is a better or duplicate example available
  6. the item cannot be stored or looked after properly
  7. there is an alternative or more appropriate custodian for the item
  8. in extraordinary circumstances, for compassionate reasons.

Managing deaccessioning

  • Who is authorised to deaccession items from the collection?

 For example, you may decide that all potential deaccessions must be agreed to by the museum committee, or by a sub-committee.

  •  What procedure is to be followed and how will it be documented?

It is important that deaccessioning is an open and transparent process.

The museum may decide to formally assess the item proposed for deaccessioning against the collection policy.  Condition reports and an understanding of the item’s provenance (or lack of it) are also important considerations when determining whether or not an item should be deaccessioned. 

Outline what paperwork will need to be retained and where it will be filed.  For core collection items, the catalogue record should also be updated.

Managing Disposal

  • By what means can the museum dispose of deaccessioned items?

 There are a number of generally accepted methods of disposal:

  • return to donor or donor’s heirs
  • exchange
  • transfer to another museum or like-minded collection
  • sale
  • transfer to the museum’s non-core collection
  • destruction.

 It is good practice in the first instance to offer items back to the donor or the donor’s heirs, where it is possible to do so.  Destruction is usually considered a last resort, but may be appropriate for very deteriorated or dangerous items.

  • How will the museum ensure that deaccessioning and disposal is handled ethically?

Accepted ethical practice in museums is that de-accessioned items shall not be given, sold or lent, publicly or privately, to museum committee members, other volunteers or immediate families or representatives.

  •  How will any funds obtained by sale of de-accessioned items be used?

 Accepted practice is that such funds will be used to acquire other items, or to improve the management and display of the museum’s collection. 

 Museums may choose to make a general statement as above or be more specific about exactly how funds are to be used.



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