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Active Collecting

Presented by: Trevor Jones
Article by: Kathi Reimer

We know the importance of following our Collections Management Policy when acquiring new items in our museums. We have practiced saying no in a variety of caring and concerned ways. We try to be mindful of only allowing things to cross our threshold that fit into our collections policy objectives. We try to do everything right, but what does a small museum with limited space do when someone drops off 4 pews and leaves the country? It isn’t only pews that have mysteriously ended up on our doorstep but they are the most recent gift.

If we follow the tenets of Active Collecting as presented by Trevor Jones from the Nebraska State Historical Society, we will not add these pews to our collection unless they support our mission, period. According to Mr. Jones, items that don’t meet the collection mission are “lazy artifacts” and are too expensive to have on hand because it costs money to store and maintain them. Fishing pews are rare historic artifacts that represent a specific period in Petersburg’s salmon fishing history. They are relevant and support our mission and our story and we already have two pews. We will find a new home for the 4 new pews.

Somebody, somewhere may need a pew. We may be able to find a museum that would like to obtain one or more of our pews or we may want to explore the idea of having a lending library of sorts, with specialized objects. In fact, in some areas, museums are exploring the idea of specialized collections. This system allows museums to collect several of the same kinds of objects that they can then lend, using a standardized lending form, to other participating museums for their displays.

Adding duplicate items to a collection is not appropriate and in fact, museums must take the time to ‘weed’ out ‘lazy artifacts’ in their collections. The process for deaccessioning items should be systematic. Mr. Jones suggests that museums use a system similar to the one librarians use. Librarians measure their books by set criteria which helps them decide if the books are being checked out regularly; have current information; are in good physical shape; are relevant to the time and place; and are not available elsewhere. Mr. Jones believes that museums, like libraries need to have a system for deaccessioning items that includes a tiered rubric with lists of criteria that support the museum’s mission.

On average, museums deaccession 1 item for every 500 they accession. This data supports Mr. Jones’ theory that current museum collection practices have many similarities to compulsive hoarding as defined in the book Stuff by Gail Steketee and Randy Frost. Mr. Jones supports the notion that all collections committees have a system for regularly deaccessioning objects. In fact he believes every item that is accessioned should have a planned expiration date.

All museums and especially small ones must be vigilant when collecting and culling items so their collection stays relevant. Items left on the doorstep must be carefully evaluated and should not be brought into the museum if they don’t meet a museum’s collection criteria.

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