Collection Policy


Stick insects in the WA Museum Entomology collection.

Stick insects in the WA Museum Entomology collection.
Image copyright WA Museum 

Image from 'A behind-the-scenes look at our stick insect collection'

A collection policy is a document that guides the development and management of a museum’s collection.  It sets the parameters for collecting activity and sets out professional standards of care for the collections it holds.  A museum’s collection policy is central to its operations.  Combined with the interpretation policy this document is used to decide what the organisation will collect, how it will go about doing this and other key areas related to the way in which the collection is managed.  

The objective of a collection policy is that the museum will meet its obligations to its community and the collection by caring for the objects in its collection to the best possible standard.  It addresses all the issues relating to the care and maintenance of the collection, including guidelines for dealing with what and how it will collect, documentation, loans, conservation and care, storage and security, and deaccession and disposal. Museums cannot afford to collect indiscriminately - the financial cost of caring for everything at an appropriate level is prohibitive. The policy should serve as a guide for management and staff and a source of information for a museum’s clients and stakeholders.

Mission Statement

A Collection Policy begins with the organisations Mission Statement or Statement of Purpose.  A mission statement essentially defines what the museum does, as well as why and how it does it.  It:

  • provides parameters within which a museum operates
  • gives direction to activities and
  • provides a limit to the responsibilities of the museum

It is also useful for long term planning, as it ensures continuity of purpose into the future.  This is particularly important in voluntary museums where the composition of the committee can change.  Following the mission statement the policy then addresses the following areas.

The collection

The collection policy must state what the museum will and will not collect and define the scope of the collection.  This includes major themes, geographic area and time frame:

  • Relevant themes (eg: the wool industry; history of Aboriginal life & culture; Motor Vehicles; Toothpicks; Henry Lawson)
  • Geographical borders (eg: Western Australia; the Wheatbelt Region; the town of Newman)
  • Historical period (eg: From European Settlement to the present day; Pre-World War I; From Pre-History to the present day, Twentieth Century)
  • What sorts of things will be collected – i.e. objects, photographs, archives, manuscripts, newspapers, maps, artwork, architectural plans etc.
  • Be aware of the collection themes and focus adopted by other museums in your area.  Collection duplication with other organisations is likely to be counter-productive and for this reason you may wish to define what you will not collect.  For example, if the local council manages an archive or collection of paper based material relating to the district, you may decide to only collect objects.
  • Object duplication within the organisation is usually avoided.  Duplicates of inferior quality or less significance could be used as research or educational material, but not accessioned into the core collection.
  • The importance of taking into account the needs of incoming items. Eg. The organisation might decide it can not take on the responsibility of items that have highly specialised conservation, storage and display needs.  For instance most small museums would not have the capacity to care for an object as large as a harvester no matter how well meaning the person wishing to donate the object may be.
  • Any other special considerations, such as the acceptance of donations with conditions attached.

It is here also that the collection policy should stipulate how and on what conditions the museum will acquire objects – through donation, bequest, purchase, transfer or loans.

Assessment Criteria

Museums must be disciplined about accepting objects that fall within the set parameters of the collection policy.  Significance assessment is a crucial step in determining a decision (See information sheet, Significance).   Space considerations and the physical condition of an object are also important.  For example, if an item is badly damaged, the cost of conservation and care may be prohibitive.


Documentation is important as it underpins all aspects of collections.  Procedures by which the collection will be managed should be clearly stated.  All record-keeping procedures for accessioning, deaccessioning, cataloguing, inventories, research information, condition reports and conservation history along with procedures for receiving, acquiring, cataloguing and numbering objects should be clearly detailed. 

Conservation and Storage

A commitment to maintaining a well cared for collection at all times, including during exhibition, loan, research and storage should be stated in a collection policy.  The means of achieving recognised conservation standards with regular environmental inspections and monitoring, using conservation grade archival materials for storage, display and transport and appropriate documentation and procedures for disaster preparedness should also be outlined in a collection policy.  A conservation policy will go into more detail.

Deaccessioning and Disposal

Agreed formal deaccessioning and disposal criteria and procedures should be covered in this section.  The criteria for removing an object from a collection could be its lack of significance to the collection, poor physical condition, duplication, non-compliance with current policy or a substantiated request for its return to the original owner.  Care must be taken to ensure that documentation is prepared and filed and that the deaccessioning is never the responsibility of a single person, a committee should vet all decisions. 


As objects on loan do not belong to the museum it is important that procedures, policies and conditions for incoming and outgoing loans be established in a collection policy.  It is also the responsibility of the museum to record any conservation treatment on loans while in their care.

Policy review

As the focus, needs and resources of the museum may have change over time, provision for the policy to be reviewed every three to five years must be included in a collection policy.  Collecting should be controlled by thorough application of an up to date collection policy.

References and further reading:

Museums and Galleries NSW, Online Resources, in particular:

Heritage Collections Council, ReCollections at the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) website

ICOM Standards and Guidelines

Collections Trust UK Standards Toolkit

Spectrum: The UK Museum Documentation Standard

Museums Australia Inc (NSW), Museum Methods: a practical manual for managing small museums.  Section 3.1 Developing a collection policy.