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Collection and collections management

What are museum collections?
Musum example

What is a collection? What is collection management? To begin with, let’s figure them out.

What is a collection?

Generally speaking, it means a group of various objects that were accumulated through the act of collecting. The activities of museums are centred around collections. There has been a longstanding discussion in the discipline on the meaning of collections. There even exists a dedicated international committee within the International Council of Museums (ICOM) called the International Committee for Collecting. Dictionary of Museology, recently published by ICOM, gives the following definition of collections:

From Dictionary of Museology:
A collection is a gathering of tangible or intangible objects, with an individual or an establishment has assembled on the basis of some common characteristic, classified, selected and preserved outside the circuit of their initial use, and sometimes displayed to the audience. Mairesse, François. 2023. Dictionary of Museology. Routledge.

From this definition, we can understand how museums distinguish between collections in the broad sense (‘collected objects’) and ‘museum collections’.

What are museum collections?

In museums, collections are formed by institutionalised collecting. It is assumed that there are collecting bodies, such as persons or establishments, and specific intentions and criteria for collecting. The intentions and criteria for collecting vary according to the expertise and origins of museums. Still, the general framework is: ‘the collected objects of a museum, acquired and preserved because of their potential value as examples, as reference material, or as objects of aesthetic or educational importance.’ (Burcaw, G. Ellis. 1997. Introduction to Museum Work. Altamira Press.)

Classification and documentation of collected objects is a key feature of museum collections. It is a fundamental role of a museum not only to collect objects, but also to examine and research them, placing them within a system and sharing the research results with society.

Museum collections are preserved over time, sometimes through conservation. Objects joining museum collections are disconnected from their everyday environment and live a different life cycle.

There are different levels in displaying collected objects to viewers. Some are displayed to a large audience at exhibitions, while others are displayed as ‘study collections’ to a limited number of people for research or educational purposes.

What is collections management?

Discussions and practices related to the formation and management of collections are shared within the ‘Collections Management’ framework. It includes ‘all actions ensuring the management and security of collection objects’ (Dictionary of Museology).

In other words, it is a broad framework that covers activities related to the life cycle of objects and related information, from acquisition, accession, registration, cataloguing, conservation, access and disposal. The field of collection management emerged around 1970. Since then, discussions and practices have developed, particularly in Europe and the United States, and today, it functions as a system that comprehensively covers all areas of collections-related activities.

In this course, we will focus on access and use of collections within the broader field of collections management and consider how to reconnect communities and collections.

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Akichi in Collections Management: Perspectives from a Japanese University Museum

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