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Collections policies

Regardless of repository type, there are several types of collections management policies that every repository should have. These policies cover acquisition, accession, loans, deaccession, and access and use. The basis for all of these policies should be the repository's mission statement, goals, and scope of collections. Archeologists need to be aware of a repository's policies prior to signing a curation agreement. Policies and procedures on loans and access to and use of collections are detailed in Section IX.

(photo) Porcelain doll pieces, dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recovered  in the Washington D.C. area.
Porcelain doll pieces, dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recovered near the Washington Monument in downtown Washington D.C., Rock Creek Park, and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Courtesy of The National Capital Region Regional Archeology Program.

Acquisition

Acquisition is a term used to refer to the process of obtaining custody of an object, document, or collection. It involves the physical transfer of an item or collection to a repository as a result of a donation, exchange, field collection, or purchase. A deed of gift is generally signed by all appropriate parties as the transfer of title is finalized. Establishing legal title to an item or collection is very important in order to offset legal concerns of ownership, including those sometimes tied to the illicit trade of antiquities. Items illegally looted from archeological sites and items that are illegally transported out of their state or country of origin may be offered to museums and repositories for purchase. Therefore, a repository should never acquire an item for which its provenance is not well documented and history of ownership well established.

An acquisition policy should include: a scope of collections, collecting plan, and acquisition authority. The scope of collections should detail what the repository has in its collections -- what is already in the collection and what should be collected in the future. A collecting plan details what the repository wants to collect in order to fulfill its scope of collections. The collecting plan should address any "gaps" that exist in the collections.

Approval for acquisitions is usually made by an acquisitions or collections committee, a curator, and, sometimes, the repository's governing body. Staff members, often the curator or registrar, usually make recommendations for acquisition. Recommendations should address how the object(s) fits into the repository's mission and policies; how it will be used; and the time, space, and funds needed to conserve and care for it. A repository should never acquire anything without having the proper resources and facilities to take care of it. Once an item or collection has been approved for acquisition, the repository should obtain title for it (if not already done), complete a condition report for the object, document, or collection, and obtain any associated copyright and privacy permissions.

Accessioning

Accessioning is the process of formally documenting an incoming transaction, such as a gift, field collection, exchange, transfer, purchase, or loan. Accessioning follows acquisition, although acquisition and accessioning is sometimes regarded as a continuous process. Also, not every acquired item is necessarily accessioned. Objects or documents acquired to become part of the repository's educational or hands-on collection or a loan may not be accessioned into the permanent "museum" collection.

Repositories that care for government collections do not have ownership of those items, only custody. In these cases, the transaction involved may be a loan through a cooperative agreement or similar instrument. The repository still usually goes through the acquisition and accession process in order to optimize long-term care through appropriate documentation.

When an object or group of records (records are not accessioned individually) is given an accession number, an accession file is created. Information in the file generally includes all documentation from the acquisition and accession process, including the title, condition report, and type of transaction (e.g., gift, field collection, exchange, transfer, purchase, or loan.) When applicable, it should also include field collector and date collected. Any other associated documentation or information about the item that is determined during its lifetime at the repository also is placed in its accession file.

All accessions are recorded in an accessions register. This register holds information on all items that are, or have been, part of a repository's collection. Information in the register usually includes the accession number, description, and date of accession. Accession records in the register can also include more detailed information on object or record group condition, loan or exhibit history, copyright transfers, licenses, and permissions, photographs, cataloging information, or location information on the relevant accession file.

The accession number given to an object or record group serves as the link in a repository's record management system to all other information on the item. The recommended method to assign numbers is to give one number to an entire collection. For objects, it is then possible to assign each item within a collection its own suffix number (i.e., 14345-1, 14345-2, 14345-3). Many repositories also use the year of accession in their numbering system. Thus, an object may be numbered 1999-10-56, meaning the collection was accessioned in 1999, it was the 10th collection accessioned that year, and it is object #56. The accession number is often what is marked on the object or object tag. When the accession number identifies each individual object it can be used as the object's catalog number (see Section VIII).

Deaccessioning

Deaccessioning is the process of permanently removing an object or document from a repository's collection, thereby signifying a change in ownership and custody through a change in title.

Deaccessioning archeological objects and documents (and most other museum property) is complex and contentious. Legislation, such as NAGPRA, has made it necessary for many repositories to face the issue and develop policies on deaccessioning. The only archeological objects from federal collections that can be legally deaccessioned at this time are those specified under NAGPRA, since the draft regulation on deaccessioning in 36 CFR Part 79 has not been promulgated.

Deaccessioning should be the last resort in a repository's set of actions regarding its collection. In fact, if it has a good accessioning policy, there should be little need to deaccession. When deaccessioning does occur, the process is generally lengthy and complex. Each decision needs to be carefully made. The final decision is so important that it is usually the job of the board of directors or other type of repository governing body.

A repository's deaccessioning policy should cover the specific types of deaccessions that are permitted for objects and/or documents. These types may vary between repositories based on the kinds of collections they house (or have housed), their mission statement, and their scope of collections. The following types of deaccessions may be found in a repository's deaccessioning policy:

  • Not within the scope, mission, or collecting plan of the repository.
  • Return to rightful owner (does not include the return of an incoming loan.)
  • Physical deterioration causing an object or constituent material to be hazardous to repository staff and others.
  • Loss, theft, involuntary destruction, abandonment of, or damage to an item(s).
  • Compliance under a legal requirement (e.g., repatriation under NAGPRA).
  • Destructive analysis, when the whole object will be destroyed.
  • Transfer.

Another type of deaccession relating to archeological materials that might be found in some deaccessioning policies of private or non-government museums is nonexistent or limited research potential of bulky, highly redundant, and non-diagnostic items. The materials that might be the focus of this deaccession type are shell, fire-cracked rock, lithic debris, or undecorated body sherds, which take up considerable storage room and are rarely, if ever, used by the repository curator(s) or visiting scholars, interpreters, or culturally affiliated group members. For associated records of an archeological project, however, some archival weeding of duplicate records and sampling of low value items may be undertaken by a professional archivist as part of normal professional practice without undergoing deaccessioning procedures. Again, at this time, no type of formal deaccession may be applied to federal archeological collections, except repatriation under NAGPRA, until the deaccessioning regulation in 36 CFR Part 79 is promulgated.

The set of rigorous steps that need to be taken in the deaccessioning process can also vary, but should be clearly outlined in a repository's policies and practices. The first step usually involves filling out a deaccession form that identifies the deaccession type, how the item(s) will be disposed of, and a list of the relevant item(s). The form usually identifies related documents that are compiled during the process, such as the justification for the deaccession in relation to the repository's mission, collection plan, scope of collections, and related laws, as well as any required appraisals, copies of catalog records, photographs of the item(s), consultation documents, copies of any donor restrictions, and the legal disposition document(s).

Additional important steps involve internal and, sometimes, external review of a possible deaccession. This can include review and recommendations by appropriate staff or committee members, such as recommendations by a conservator on the object's condition and the best method of disposal. Comments and recommendations may also be solicited in the process from community members, interested parties, Native American tribes, and donors.

Once the decision to deaccession has been completed by the party designated in the deaccessioning policy, there are several methods available for the disposal of an item. Each disposal must be recorded in a legal disposition document that formally conveys control (title and possession) of the item(s). Determined on a case-by-case basis, the typical methods of disposal are:

  • Donation or transfer to another repository, involving the transfer of title.
  • Repatriation.
  • Exchange with another repository.
  • Destruction, but only as a last step and resort.
  • Return to rightful owner or donor.
  • Sale.

Since many, many archeological collections are the result of systematic archeological investigations, which should never be split up for effective long-term research, interpretation, and use, the preferred methods of disposal are donation, transfer to, or exchange of a whole collection with another repository. The decision to sell archeological objects has to be done with great care and is rarely, if ever, done, especially by government agencies or institutions.

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