Examining Museum Accessional Policies

Sitting here thinking about the closure of the Illinois State Museum (ISM) system and the layoff and forced retirement of several colleagues and friends while I wait for my last batch of tomatoes to come out of the canner, I’m thinking about the importance accessions. This is one of the many reasons scientists are rallying around the ISM system. These accessioned collections are used for research in all fields and the censure of access to them limits research projects in every field from geology to history.  Read more about the closure here: http://news.sciencemag.org/scientific-community/2015/09/amid-budget-fight-illinois-state-museum-prepares-close?rss=1

My project this year examines the ethics and procedures used in developing accessional policies for museums. The beautiful exhibits witnessed by visitors at museums small and large are only a small portion of the physical holdings a museum curates. Often times these collections acquired through purchase, research and donations take immense amounts of space, time and money to properly catalogue, store and curate.

My colleagues at the Illinois State Museum system and other museums around the world make decisions on what items will be kept by the museum and which ones will be rejected and what to do with collections that are deemed to have little to no research or public interest potential. The decision to keep an item or a collection of items and add them to the museums vaults is called accessioning. Which items are kept, why and for how long are some of the questions my research this year for campus archeology deals with. Throughout the various field schools and survey archaeology performed around campus, a large assortment of artifacts have been collected, cleaned and catalogued. Everything from bricks, lightbulbs, flatware, lab equipment and indigenous artifacts, all pertaining to the history of MSU and our state are now being curated by campus archaeology. Simply put, all museums eventually run out of space.

Archaeological collections are valuable sources of research data because we never know what questions will be asked in the future. Material remains are finite resources, once excavated they can never be put back or excavated again so we must exert great caution when deaccessioning items. Questions such as how much brick, lithic flakes or window pane glass is a sufficient sample for a research study are generally answered with accessional guidelines. Campus archaeology as of yet, does not have such a statement. This is where my research comes in. Using protocols from museums and curators around the globe a policy statement will be generated allowing us to make these kinds of decisions easier and quicker.

Having a clear guideline in place for collections management decision making assists future researchers and campus archaeology staff and interns with time management when cataloguing artifacts and making loan requests. It also offers a rubric for new staff to follow allowing transitions to flow more smoothly. Transitions and staff turnovers are commonplace on college campuses with student staff and interns as some graduate and new people step in to fill the positions.

For all of these reasons, museums and their collections are an important part of scientific research going on daily that is often never viewed by the public. Accessions and access them impact us all on a daily basis which is why we should all be concerned when entire state systems shut their doors.

Field School with MSU and ISM staff, June 2015
Field School with MSU and ISM staff, June 2015


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