Preserving the past, shaping the future: The crucial role of collection management

As the scrutiny of art and cultural collections intensifies, highlighted by recent oversight such as the British Museum's handling of its historical artefacts, the need for responsible and ethical care of these treasures has never been more paramount. Join us as we delve into the realm of collection management with our expert Curator and Collection Manager, Siti Ridhuan, shedding light on this often over-looked aspect of owning a collection.

What is collection management?

“Put simply, collection management is all about the practices and systems put in place to ensure that a collection is cared for in the most effective and ethical way. The recognition of collection management as a distinct area of expertise emphasises the growing complexity and diversity of tasks involved in maintaining and safeguarding art and cultural materials.

Traditionally, curators often handled these responsibilities, but as collections grew and diversified, and standards for documentation, conservation, and acquisitions became more rigorous, it was clear that dedicated experts were needed. This led to the emergence of specialised roles such as collection managers, registrars, art handlers, and exhibition managers.

Present-day collection management also includes the consideration of public access and engagement, ethical and sustainable practices as well as creative uses of technology. In essence, it involves a multifaceted approach that balances administrative responsibilities with the broader mission of preserving and promoting cultural heritage. If collection owners can adhere to professional standards, embrace innovation, and prioritise accessibility and sustainability, they can effectively safeguard their collections for future generations.”

What do specialist collection management services look like?

“It’s important for those who care for, manage and maintain collections to be able to adopt policies and procedures that are realistic and sustainable. There is no point in spending time and resources on impractical solutions that cannot be implemented to work for you and your collection needs. Contracting specialist collection management services allows for your organisation to engage – at any point – with a team of experts to work alongside you and your staff. This can be at the start of a project or even discovering partway through that you require external assistance. Collection management service providers work closely as a guide and collaborator, with a range of specialised skills that can be brought on demand, to your project. Here are some examples:

  • Stocktaking and auditing collections to ensure the accuracy and completeness of your collection information
  • Valuing artworks for insurance purposes as well as part of significance assessments
  • Assessing and developing your collection management system, documentation practices, and record-keeping
  • Advising on packing and storage solutions
  • Providing preventative conservation strategies and coordinating conservation programs with reputable industry providers
  • Undertaking surveys and inspections of public artworks
  • Working with you on collection promotion and access.”

Isn’t collection management only for ‘proper’ museums and art galleries?

“Absolutely not. Collection management involves the development of policies, procedures and systems to enable an organisation or individual to responsibly care for and manage their collections. While it is a huge part of the day-to-day operations of large public collections, it should be fundamental for any art (moveable and public art) or cultural assets collection. Owning an art collection is a privilege, but it comes with risks that are often underestimated and can very quickly get out of hand.”

What sort of risks can a collection face?

“There are several risk factors art and cultural collections can face today, including physical, legal, ethical, financial and reputational. There are questions you should ask yourself to determine how exposed your collection might be in these risk areas:

Physical risks
  • What condition is your collection in?
  • Will it continue to deteriorate?
  • Have you ensured the preservation and maintenance of your collection as well as collection records?
Legal and ethical risks
  • Are you the legal owner of all items in your collection?
  • Does your collection have all the necessary records and documentation required to authenticate and support your ownership?
  • Are you acquiring and/or disposing of artworks in a legal and ethical manner?
  • Are you aware of the legal and ethical requirements required in responsibly owning art or cultural collections?
Financial risks
  • Has your collection been valued, is this value up to date and recorded according to your organisation’s requirements?
  • Are the methods of obtaining your collection’s value compliant with regulations and standards?
  • Do you know the value of your collection for any of the following uses: insurance, loans/exhibitions, cultural gifts, estate planning or market sale?
Reputational risks
  • Does your collection stand up to the increased scrutiny surrounding responsible ownership of art and cultural materials?
  • Can your collection be better managed and utilised to promote your organisation’s public image and reputation?
  • Have you developed measures for risk management and response?

These risks often overlap and the first step in recognising and mitigating such risks is establishing and implementing practical approaches to managing your collection. At the most fundamental level, there is substantial value in knowing your collection.

But there is even more risk in not knowing.”

We have limited funding and resourcing, which area of collection management should we focus on?

“With art and cultural collections, a one-off project can be just as critical as the ongoing daily operations. Limitations in resources are an ongoing issue, forcing many curators or collection managers to choose between the short-term projects that can fulfil an urgent need or the everyday tasks that are essential to maintain. In an ideal world, this shouldn’t have to be a choice, but being realistic means looking for practical solutions. Engaging specialist collection management services allows for a team to step in as highly skilled, temporary employees who need little to no onboarding. It can be that boost of personnel for critical projects or provide additional support for implementing longer-term operational procedures.

Collection management services come as an independent, third party with a neutral set of eyes looking at your collection with the best way of being able to identify what you really need. This allows for a more informed and holistic approach that can be tailored to your specific circumstances.”

Our collection has been overlooked for a while. How do we make sure we are doing things according to best practice?

“Firstly, it’s wonderful that you have decided to take this step in caring for your valuable and significant artworks and cultural materials. Many collections are working to improve their own management processes and procedures, so you are amongst a growing body of similar organisations and institutions.

Next, let’s differentiate between ‘best practice’ and ‘optimal practice’. Optimal practice involves grasping the objectives of best practice standards and applying them in effective and realistic ways that best respond to your needs and capabilities. While striving for best practice is ideal for organisations equipped with all the equipment, technology, funding, and staffing numbers, it presents challenges for those lacking resources, which unfortunately is the reality for many organisations. Aiming for best practice in these circumstances could backfire, potentially resulting in inexperienced or overwhelmed staff handling unfamiliar or burdensome tasks. It might even deter organisations from implementing collection management processes altogether due to doubts about meeting such high standards.

Any step you take toward managing your collection is valuable. This might involve conducting an audit or stocktake to establish a foundational inventory, implementing new storage solutions, or reviewing your current collection policy and procedures. The key is to understand the collection management practices you are adopting, why you’re choosing them, and how they can best suit your collection. As collection management consultants, our role is to provide support, help you gain confidence and guide you through practical ways to turn your collection management goals into reality.”

We can help

Our team at Apparatus want to empower organisations and individuals working with collections because we understand the value and challenges that come with this work. We also want to make collection management an accessible and valued part of what you do.

As art and creative professionals, we have experience with a diverse range of collections and are well-versed in the different challenges faced by those who wish to work better with their collections. Download our brochure to learn more about the collection services we provide or reach out to Siti for a chat

Siti Ridhuan is an experienced museum professional specialising in collection management and related practices. Her interests lie in exploring new ways of how collections can be accessed, developed and managed beyond institutional conventions. As the Collection Management Lead with Apparatus, Siti provides support and recommendations for cataloguing and data management, high level policy development, implementation of operational procedures as well as external community engagement.

Scroll to Top
We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land where we work and live.
We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
We celebrate the stories, culture and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders of all communities who also work and live on this land.