The process of accessioning legally adds an item to a museum's permanent collection. Accessioned collections are held by museums in the public trust and therefore are subject to specific legal and ethical considerations. Consequently, museums do not accession every item they acquire. (Learn more about the difference between “acquisitions” and “accessions” in this blog post!)
What to Accession
How do museums decide what they want to accession? Best practices dictate that museums have a Collections Management Policy that includes an outline of specific guidelines for accessioning into their collection. Many museums also have a Collecting Plan listing the specific items or item types they are looking for (or not looking for) in the near future. Often, the decision to accession an object is based on a combination of judgment regarding quality, relevance of the object(s) to a museum’s mission, and relation to other objects already in the museum’s collection. A conservation evaluation of the object(s), as well as a museum’s ability to maintain and preserve the object(s), are also considerations.
Understanding these principles is key to successful collection building. CatalogIt can help any museum - big or small - create a streamlined accessioning process to ensure their policies are followed.
Before you Accession
Objects are acquired in different manners. The most common ways are through gift, bequest, transfer, field collecting, or purchase. No matter the method, following a clear process is key. We’ve outlined that process below:
Step 1: Start by asking these key questions
- Does this item meet your museum's mission?
- Is this object useful for exhibition or other purposes at your museum?
- Can your museum provide proper care for this item? Think about short term conservation to long term preservation and storage. This includes both budget and staffing considerations as well as space and climate.
- Is it safe for your museum to collect this acquisition? Does the object contain explosive, volatile, poisonous, or other hazardous materials?
- Is there clear provenance for the item? Does the donor have the right to give it to you? Does the vendor own the object and have the clear legal right/title to sell the object to you? Are there unanswered questions about the object's history? Is the item an artwork from pre-Nazi Era Europe? Could this be a culturally sensitive object that may cause controversy? Spending time up front doing your due diligence will help you avoid issues in the long run.
- For natural sciences collections, do you have all the legal permits in place in order to collect the object? If this is a vehicle, is there a clear title? Do you have the proper permit for a collectible firearm?
- Is collecting this object in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, or other federal or international regulations governing the collection and possession of flora and fauna? This includes objects that are made from items such as ivory, tortoise shell, feathers, or other materials that may be components to items in your collection.
- Could the object fall within the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)?
You should only accession an object after you can satisfactorily answer and resolve all the above questions.
Step 2: Create and follow an internal process
Remember that accessioning an object places it in your permanent collection and you will then hold it in public trust. Public trust is the principle that cultural and historical resources are preserved for the benefit of the public so they are available for study, education, and enjoyment. For this reason, museums are accountable for the proper care and preservation of these collections. If your museum cannot properly care for something, or if it does not fit your mission and therefore will never be exhibited, is this keeping within the spirit of public trust? For this reason, creating a clear process, and determining who in your institution has the final authority to decide on whether to accession an item, is a key first step in proper and responsible collections care.
In a small museum, the authority may rest on the Executive Director in cooperation with key staff, like a curator or the registrar. Medium to large institutions often have collections committees that review and approve all items that come into the museum. Many also send acquisition lists to their Board of Directors or Trustees to review prior to accessioning.
The process starts with the intent to add an object to the collection. Whether that is a proposed gift or purchase, it is important to think about why you want to accession the item(s) and being able to articulate this reason to the decision-making body is key. Whether the curator fills out an accession proposal form answering all the pertinent questions in Step 1, or the executive director reviews the object and its documentation on their own while considering all the issues, accessioning is not something that should be taken lightly. While many gifts are unsolicited and considered “opportunistic,” museum professionals must always weigh the pros and cons of these gifts. No museum is obligated to accept everything that is offered to them. Being selective with your accessions will help you take better care of your current collections as well as help you develop and maintain a collection that will better serve your institution and constituency.
Whatever your process is, be consistent and always follow your internal accessioning process. After the decision-makers review all your data and any questions they may have are answered, you are ready to move forward with your accession. Generally, final approval of the accession is contingent on collecting all the appropriate documentation.
Step 3: Collect complete documentation for your accession
The documentation guidelines differ based on an item’s intake method. Below is a quick guide:
- For a gift: You must have a fully executed, completed gift agreement from the donor as well as proof of receipt.
- For a purchase: Retain the receipt, purchase order or authorization, proof of payment, and proof of receipt.
- For a bequest: You need a copy of the Will or Trust showing that the item has been left to your museum. Ensure you have an incoming receipt for the object signed by the executor or trustee of the estate. Retain all correspondence between the museum and the estate.
- For a field collected item: Ensure you obtain all the proper permits in order to collect and retain the object(s). Retain all the documentation and information surrounding this collecting event.
- For a transfer: A transfer from another museum or organization also requires proof of receipt agreement and may require a gift agreement from the originating entity. Also retain all records outlining the conditions of the transfer along with any and all correspondence.
Regardless of the method of intake, make sure you have full and complete cataloging information. This includes: maker, date, materials, dimensions, incoming condition, valuation (if possible), and provenance. Retain and record all intake records including bills of lading or customs documents if the item was shipped, and crating information. It is key to also collect information about the object’s history, installation requirements, artist intent, previous installation photographs, conservation reports, exhibition history, and any other documentation or information related to the object or collection.
Step 4: Accession the object
After you have completed all the steps above, you are ready to accession your object(s)! An object is considered accessioned after you have: 1. Assigned an accession number, and 2. Documented the accession in your database. Only then is your acquisition considered accessioned.
By using the CatalogIt Accession Profile, you can comprehensively document your collection while streamlining the process.
Through the “strict accessioning” feature, accession numbers are automatically generated, ensuring that you use the next consecutive accession number and avoid entering duplicate or incorrect numbers.
Start by compiling all the pertinent information related to your new accession: gather up all your legal documents, correspondence, shipping and other documents, as well as the objects and you are ready to go.
This MasterIt article will not detail the entire cataloging process - we are focusing on the accessioning process only. For this reason, we will start with the Accession Profile, rather than the Entry record. You can always start with the Entry and add the accession information in there. See this tutorial video for that process.
To create your accession, go to the main menu and select “Profiles”:
Then select the “+” in the upper right corner to create a new accession record.
When you start creating the new accession you will see that the next accession number auto-populates in the upper left corner:
The number, 2021.3, indicates that this is the third accession of 2021. We have already created accessions for 2021.1 and 2021.2. With the CatalogIt default accessioning in place, each of the objects you catalog will follow the tripartite numbering system - 2021.3.1, 2021.3.2, etc.
Use this form to compile all of your legal documentation. Upload all your documents, including gift agreements, correspondence, catalog worksheets, curatorial notes, receipts, purchase authorizations, and photos of items.
The accession profile will also enable you to document your entire process. Not only can you document the standard donor/vendor/value/credit line information, you can also document each step in your approval process. Using the repeating status field, you are able to document all stages of the accession:
Once you have entered all the pertinent information and have uploaded your documentation, your accession is complete and you can move on to cataloging all the related entries. This process allows you to document, retain, and view all the legal information pertaining to all of your accessions in one location. This is information you can access anywhere, anytime you need it, whether you are on your mobile device meeting with the donor or at your desktop computer while you are cataloging all the items related to the accession. And don’t forget to physically number the objects in your accession. That number is the easiest way to connect your object to its documentation.
Using CatalogIt to accession and document your collections ensures you are following current professional standards and helps you tick off all the steps of your internal process.
For a visual overview of accessioning and cataloging your collections, view chapter one of the CatalogIt Museum Demo Series. If you have any questions about the CatalogIt accessioning process, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.