At the end of this chapter you should understand:
the ways in which items are acquired for a museum, gallery or library;
the processes, policy considerations and legal issues involved in acquisitions;
what significance means in relation to museum, library and gallery collections;
why it is important to have criteria on significance as part of an acquisition policy; and
how knowing the significance of an object can help institutions set priorities for work programs and the allocation of resources.
Setting up the proper framework for your museum, gallery or library is just one side of the management process. The other is having a collection to manage. This section begins to focus on dealing with your collection, starting at the point of obtaining material. The following sections concentrate on what you do with the material you have acquired—collection management—and how you protect it while making it available to the public—access to collections.
A good collection does not necessarily just grow, it is developed through careful planning. Every object in your collection should in some way contribute to the aims of your museum, gallery or library. Just as much thought should be given to refusing material as to obtaining it. Every item in your collection, even if it is a gift, costs money in terms of staff time, record-keeping, maintenance, storage and display. Wise decisions made about what material you accept could provide tremendous savings in the future, and ultimately result in a better collection.
The process of obtaining material, the decisions made about what to obtain and the policies that drive these decisions make up the acquisition process.
Acquisition is the process of obtaining legal possession of an item for accessioning into a collection. It can be by three methods:
- donation—the process of acquiring an item whereby a donor gives that item or a group of items to the institution;
- purchase—acquisition involving the transfer of legal ownership by exchange of money. Many institutions will not have to deal with this method, because they do not maintain acquisition budgets; and
- bequest—acquisition involving an individual transferring title of an item to the institution upon his or her death, through a will.
When an object is offered to an organisation, information about the object should be gathered, to be used in assessing the item at an acquisition committee meeting.
An acquisition committee is formed to decide which items are suitable for the institution to acquire, based on the information gathered about the items.
In large organisations, the committee is usually made up of a group of curators representing the various interests of the organisation. In smaller institutions, the committee could be made up of three or four people who have a particular interest in the development of the collection. They should be prepared to do some networking and research to find more information about some objects.
The work of an acquisition committee is made easier if the museum, gallery or library has a written acquisition policy to help guide the committee’s decisions.
Contents of an acquisition policy
The Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne has a lengthy acquisition policy, divided into sections which clearly set out the aims of collecting and areas to be considered. An outline of its policy is presented here, as an example of what can be included in an acquisition policy.
It is possible to refuse an item on the grounds that it does not fit into the acquisition policy of the institution. It is important not to accept items that the institution cannot afford to take. Items which are too large to be stored, which are too badly decayed to be conserved, which already exist in the collection or have no significance to the museum, gallery or library, should be refused.
There are also some categories of objects your institution may decide not to acquire, for example, Aboriginal skeletal remains or secret or sacred objects. It is important to determine what you should not acquire, and ensure that this is noted in your policy statements.
The following is an example of a checklist for acquisition, used by the History Trust of South Australia.
- The object is of historical significance.
- The object fits the collection aim of the institution.
- The object is relevant to the purposes and collection aim of the institution.
- The object is in good condition.
- The object can adequately and appropriately be conserved, catalogued and stored.
- The intending donor has legal title to the object.
- The object is donated free of encumbrances.
- The object has clearly established provenance.
- Acquisition of the object does not unnecessarily duplicate material already in the institution’s collections.
- Acquisition of the object does not unduly compete with acquisition policies of other public institutions.
- Points 6 and 7 above are very important. You should confirm legal ownership before an object can be accessioned into the collection.
The Jewish Museum of Australia
Acquisition Policy (outline)
Courtesy of Museums Australia Inc. Victoria, with permission of the Jewish Museum of Australia
Once the decision is made to acquire an object, it is important to:
ensure that the donor understands the implications of signing an Object Donation form, which ensures that legal title of the item is transferred to the institution;
deal with the legalities, in the case of bequests and purchases, to ensure the institution can use the object as it wishes. For example, the object may come to you with conditions that limit its use or make it uneconomical to accept. It may be possible to negotiate to have such restrictions relaxed.
When objects are donated, every attempt should be made to find out who owns the copyright. Copyright is a complicated issue, and specific inquiries should be made either to the Australian Copyright Council (02) 9318 1788, or the Arts Law Centre of Australia (02) 9356 2566.
Assessment of significance
It is a fundamental fact of life that some things are more important than others. We are confronted by this continually. If you’re going on holiday, what items will you pack? What will you leave behind? Why are some issues given greater prominence in the news?
Most people would also be aware that something which is significant to one group of people may have little or no meaning at all to others. For example, religious icons sacred to some cultural groups are largely irrelevant to others. Similarly, an object may have no significance to one museum yet be quite significant to another. A mouldboard plough, for example, is of no interest to a doll museum, but might be highly relevant to a museum of farm machinery.
Uniqueness plays a part in significance. If an object is duplicated in a museum collection, its significance is often diminished.
The significance of an item will vary depending on what it is and what collection it is in. And its significance will, in turn, have a bearing on how it is managed and its future treatment in the collection.
What is significance?
Significance will be defined differently by each museum, gallery and library; and considerable work has been done by organisations which have already arrived at their own definitions of significance.
It is helpful to look at some of the broad categories already developed by others, in order to get a clearer picture of the values you may wish to include in a definition of significance.
The Australian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Australia ICOMOS) adopted a charter, known as the Burra Charter, in 1979, which provides ethical and practical guidelines for the selection of built heritage sites for conservation and for the conservation treatment of those sites. The charter is based on principles that are accepted world- wide. In 1984 the committee adopted guidelines to assist in determining cultural significance:
Cultural significance is a concept which helps in estimating the value of places. The places that are likely to be of significance are those which help an understanding of the past or enrich the present, and which will be of value to future generations.
In the Burra Charter, assessing cultural significance means determining the aesthetic, historic, scientific and/or social value of a place.
Definitions of significance can be very broad or quite narrow. The Burra Charter is designed to cover sites and monuments over the whole country and therefore has to be broad enough to encompass a range of local differences.
Most museums and galleries will be concerned with collecting only in relation to their own locality or their special area of interest. Their definitions of significance should reflect this.
It should be noted also that although the definitions of significance in the Burra Charter are designed to cover sites and monuments, they can be applied easily to other types of objects, and have been.
Significance and collection management
The assessment of the significance of objects has an important function in both the decision to acquire an object and in collection management. Knowing the significance of an item can help museums, galleries and libraries determine such matters as:
whether they should acquire an item;
whether an item should have conservation treatment and whether there is a high priority for this treatment;
how it will be conserved—what information and attached wrappings, labels and dirt, must be preserved along with the item;
whether the item will go on immediate display and whether there are any protocols to be observed in the way the item is displayed;
whether the item should be displayed in a particular way to give heightened emphasis to particular features; and
how much interpretive material is required.
Many specialist and local museums face the problem of large backlogs of items which have yet to be registered. Assessing the significance of each object in turn will help the museum decide whether it should be accessioned or become Special Purpose Material. This process should also determine whether or not the object should even be accepted into the collection.
The assessment of significance is not always easy; and it is even more difficult to make judgments about the relative significance of objects. Taking three objects at random from a typical local museum, how would you rank the relative significance of a police baton, a corn dolly and a fob watch? The answer may depend not merely on the objects themselves, but on their provenance or accompanying documentation, which provides supporting information about their manufacture and history of use. For a great many museum objects, significance is greatly enhanced if information exists on their history of ownership and use. Such information may lead you to research the item further, in order to establish its significance relative to other items in the collection.
Assessment of the significance of acquisitions
As stated earlier, most museums and galleries will be concerned with collecting only in relation to their own locality or their special area of interest. It is worthwhile to clearly define that locality or special interest in order to:
- develop curatorial guidelines to assist in decisions about allocation of resources;
- develop an acquisition policy; and
- make it clear to other organisations what your interests are. This can lead to greater cooperation between organisations, and reduces the chance of clashes with other museums or galleries in the region. By networking you can be more aware of what other institutions are doing.
When determining whether or not to acquire an object, test each object against a list of curatorial criteria. Lists of criteria are often contained in the collections policy. There is no set number of criteria which each object should fulfil. It may be that only one of the criteria is met but, if the supporting evidence is strong enough, this might be sufficient to justify acquisition of the object.
Below is an extract from the History Trust of South Australia’s acquisition policy document, which sets out its criteria for historical significance. These criteria are quite detailed and reflect this organisation’s position as a large collecting institution. Smaller organisations may have less complex criteria.
Other factors in determining whether or not to acquire an object could include:
- its future display purpose;
- whether it is original or has been substantially restored;
- whether it will increase our understanding and knowledge of some aspect of our history if placed in association with other related objects, for example, if it were one of a group of devotional objects; and
- the size of the object.
An object, site, activity, idea or the like is considered historically significant if it is important to the history of South Australia.
The History Trust of South Australia describes the historical significance of an object according to the criteria set out below.
The practice varies between the History Trust’s divisions. The National Motor Museum, for example, has a national rather than a South Australian focus.
The following criteria are always applied within the context of the History Trust and divisional aims and objectives as well as acquisition policies.
a) Objects which were designed locally
b) Objects which were manufactured locally
c) Objects which were used locally
d) Objects which demonstrate important social or technological changes
e) Objects reflecting creative communal or technical accomplishment
f) Objects which are valued by sections of the South Australian community for social, economic, cultural, religious or spiritual reasons
g) Objects which demonstrate important social customs
h) Objects associated with important themes in the State’s history, such as early non-Aboriginal settlement, political and social change and the impact of war
i) Objects which are the first or last of a series
j) Objects which are rare examples of once commonly available types (note: the History Trust distinguishes sharply between rare survivals of the once common and the rare survival of the always rare. The National Motor Museum rejects vehicles fitting into the latter category)
k) Five additional criteria are applied where objects meet any of the above criteria:
i) extent of accompanying documentation
ii) condition of the object
iii) cost of preserving and storing the object
iv) relationship to other objects which reinforce its significance
v) availability in collections elsewhere.
Objects significant to your collection
How do you decide what is significant for your collection?
Consider this. Imagine you are the curator of the Mythical Museum in a small coastal country town settled by Europeans in 1845. Mythical was originally a base for sealing and whaling and was once a busy shipping port with a railway line connecting it to the interior, a busy centre for agricultural exports. It is now a busy service community whose economic future will be strongly linked to tourism as well as to agriculture and other service industries.
Would you accept or reject the following items which have been offered to your museum? This example was adapted from a book by Ellis Burcaw (1975).
The wedding suit of the town’s first mayor;
a well-catalogued collection of North American birds’ eggs;
a stone reputedly brought back from the shores of Gallipoli by a veteran of
World War I;
a header harvester in poor condition;
the uniform of a local Aboriginal soldier who served in World War I;
a small collection of carnival glass—there is no accompanying documentation;
the piano owned by a woman who taught music to children from the district for 30 years;
a BSA motor bike, restored by an enthusiast who brought it with him to the district two years ago;
a quilt made by the local branch of the Country Women’s Association to commemorate the town’s 150th anniversary;
a meteorite collected from another State by a local identity 30 years ago.
Some suggested answers in numerical order are:
- possibly for exchange
- possibly for exchange
- It would depend on how important the local identity had been in the town’s history, and what other objects relating to him are held by the museum.
There are no right answers for any of these. Each object should be examined individually. What is important to one group of people, say with an interest in Mythical’s civic history, may be considered insignificant and of no interest by another group with a passionate interest in sealing and whaling.
Some items could be worthwhile keeping as Special Purpose Material, which could be held for possible future exchange or for educational purposes. If acquiring an object is completely out of the question, it may be possible to refer the would-be donor to a more suitable museum or collecting institution.
Objects not significant to your collection
Once you have established your criteria for assessing significance, it won’t be long before objects are identified as not significant. At this stage, the action you take will depend on whether the objects have been accessioned into the collection or not.
If the object has not yet been accessioned into the collection:
it is important to explain politely to the potential donor why it is unsuitable for the collection. Everybody believes their object has value, whether monetary or sentimental. It is important when refusing an object to explain clearly and concisely why it does not fit within your organisation’s acquisition policy;
outright refusal to accept an object without explanation and giving no alternative may offend the would-be donor, so it is worthwhile offering some alternatives. There may be other museums, galleries or libraries which would welcome the object;
remember that the potential donor may have other objects which are considered both significant and worthy of collection. An insensitive refusal may guarantee that those objects are never offered to your institution, or to any other; and
when acquiring objects, it is vital to be aware that every item has an associated cost for storage and conservation. Accepting an unsuitable object will merely add to the financial burden of the institution, which is probably already stretching the dollar as far as it will go.
If an object is already in the collection and is judged to be not significant, it can be deaccessioned. Examples of objects deaccessioned because they were not considered significant to particular collections include a Lutheran Bible from the National Motor Museum and an AWA Radiola receiver from the South Australian Telstra Historical Collection.
The reverse situation can also occur—some objects at first appear to have little relevance to collections until their history is established. An example of this is a pair of pliers from the South Australian Telstra Historical Collection.
These examples are explained in more detail in the following section.
Examples of significance and decision-making
Lutheran bible from the National Motor Museum
The National Motor Museum aims to establish a collection of objects representative of Australian road motor transport history.
The Lutheran Bible was originally accepted when the museum was both a motor museum and a local history museum. Since then the collection policy was refined, so that the museum now specialises only in motor vehicles. At that time the Bible was offered to the nearest local museum, but was not accepted. The museum already had an extensive collection of Lutheran Bibles and was not prepared to add to their duplication.
When the original donor found that the Bible was not being displayed, he requested it be returned to him.
Obviously, the Bible does not meet the collection criteria of the National Motor Museum, and it has no significance to Australian road motor transport history. The museum feels it is entirely appropriate that it be returned to the original donor, and has recommended to its governing body that the Bible be deaccessioned.
AWA Radiola receiver
The South Australian Telstra Historical Collection has two main criteria to establish significance within that collection:
- technological objects designed and/or manufactured in South Australia; and
- objects with a direct relevance to the activities of Telstra and its predecessors in South Australia.
AWA Radiola Reciever–Not as special as I look!
This attractive console radio receiver will not be taken into the collection because:
- it has no connection with the history of telecommunications in South Australia;
- there is no provenance or history of use information associated with this object;
- it has no connection with Telstra;
- it was designed and manufactured by AWA in Sydney; and
- it does not appear in official company catalogues, so may be a prototype rather than a production model.
Pair of pliers—Thousands like me!
This 19th century pair of pliers is important to the collection because:
- it has established provenance, including the name of the lineman who owned it; it was used in the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, one of the collection’s defined areas of interest; and
there is archival information, including work details of the lineman and the Overland Telegraph construction in general, to provide a context for this otherwise undistinguished object.
Assessment of significance and setting priorities
Objects which have been identified as significant within a collection should be given priority in terms of their conservation. At its simplest, this means ensuring that they are given preference when it comes to providing secure covered storage or display space. If a conservation survey shows that a number of objects require treatment, again, the most significant items should have priority.
Keep in mind that an object which was made locally but which may not have been widely used outside your district may be more significant to your museum than a similar object which enjoyed wider use. For example, there may have been a blacksmith or implement maker who built a successful local business but could not compete later with larger manufacturers. One of his ploughs could still be more important to your museum than another type used locally but manufactured elsewhere. If so, its conservation should have greater priority.
If you have a problem relating to the acquisition and significance of objects, contact a conservator. Conservators can offer advice and practical solutions.
For further reading
Buck, Rebecca A., Jean Allman-Gilmore, eds. 1998, The New Museum Registration Methods, American Association of Museums, Washington DC.
Burcaw, G. Ellis, 1975, Introduction to Museum Work, The American Association for State and Local History, Nashville.
History Trust of South Australia 1993, Collection Management Policy, History Trust of South Australia, Adelaide.
ICOMOS 1975, The Australian ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance (The Burra Charter), ICOMOS, Burra Burra, Australia.
Speirs, Goeff, 1990, Collecting South Australian History, Community History Unit, History Trust of South Australia, Adelaide.
Thompson, John M.A. et al., eds. 1992, Manual of Curatorship—A Guide to Museum Practice, 2nd edn, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford & Boston.
Name three methods by which objects are acquired.
Some of the main reasons why museums should assess the significance of objects for their own collections are:
a) they may already be duplicated in the collections, or other museums in the locality or region may hold examples;
b) objects of particular significance should be given priority for conservation work;
c) some of them may be secret or sacred objects which can only be viewed, for example, by initiated Aboriginal men;
d) it would be desirable to feature particular aspects of some objects in displays, for example, the weighted return on a stump jump plough;
e) some objects need quite a lot of interpretation before visitors can properly appreciate them;
f) all of the above.
Assume that you are the curator of a local history museum in a small town from a region renowned for its wheat and barley farming. Would you accept
or reject the following objects offered to you as a donation?
a) An operational Hornby Dublo model railway collection, acquired over many years by a local enthusiast.
b) A Diamond T fire engine used in the district for many years.
c) A mid-Victorian rosewood chair on cabriole supports, made in England and offered by a local resident who inherited it from her mother in Sydney.
d) A Scottish niblick with a steel head, leather grip and hickory shaft.
e) A forge and bellows used for many years by a local implement maker.
If someone offers you an object which is not significant from the point of view of your collections, you should:
a) acquire it anyway;
b) refer it to your committee for consideration;
c) refuse it at the time of the offer;
d) refuse it after committee consideration, with a polite letter explaining why the object is not suitable for your collections;
e) direct the would-be donor to a more appropriate museum or collection.
An object offered for donation could be refused because:
a) the object duplicates an object already in the collection;
b) the object has no supporting documentation;
c) the object is in so bad a condition that it would either be too costly to repair or not feasible to try;
d) the object has no significance to the role of the institution;
e) any of the above.
A local museum should acquire an object if:
a) it is rare now but once was in common use in the district;
b) it is a rare survival of something that was always rare;
c) it was made elsewhere but commonly used locally;
d) there is very little known about the object, but it has value as an antique;
e) it has no special significance but it is only small.
Answers to self-evaluation quiz
Answer: Objects are acquired through purchase, donation or bequest.
Answer: f). Museums should be aware of the significance of objects before they acquire them. Particularly important objects should be given priority for conservation work; some may have restrictions on how they can be viewed, while others may need to have particular features emphasised, or require a great deal of interpretation so that their significance can be understood.
b) Yes, provided suitable storage can be found
Answer: b), d) and e). The decision to accept or reject should be made by the organisation, not by an individual within it. Potential donors are entitled to an explanation as to why the object offered is not suitable; and there may well be another museum which would be eager to acquire it.
Answer: a) and c). If it was in common use it represents an important aspect of local history, whereas if it was always rare it has little historical meaning. Even if it was made elsewhere, its history of use in the district is important. Objects of antique value may have no local significance whatever, and museum collections will soon become cluttered and inaccessible if they take the easy option and accept everything.