The process of accessioning an artifact can sound incredibly complicated, but in truth it’s all about having clear, succinct policies that are easy to follow. The star of the show in terms of accessions is often not the artifact itself, but the collection mandate!
If you’ve been around our blog before you’ll have already heard me talk about the collections mandate, but for those of you who are new here, I’ll give a brief description. In short, a collections mandate - and/or a collections management policy - is a specific guideline or set of guidelines that an artifact must adhere to in order to be accepted into a museum’s collection. At some places, like our institution, the mandate focuses more on the story behind the artifact - also known as the provenance - in order to gauge how relevant the artifact is to the collection. Some other places may have specific items or item-types they’re looking to acquire, specific date-ranges the artifact must fall within, or a geographic area which the artifact must have come from.
If you follow our the blog and on social media, you’ll know that we’ve been doing a systematic deaccession of a large number of artifacts that were in our possession; these artifacts should never have been accessioned in the first place! In addition to relevance to the collection, a potential accession must be evaluated for its overall condition and how it relates to other artifacts in our collection. We want to limit having too many of the same artifacts where we can, and prioritize the people behind the artifacts. Finally, we have to evaluate our capability to care for these artifacts long-term, and the financial commitment to giving these artifacts the long, healthy life they deserve.
Before You Accession
The following questions are essential to making sure we meet all of the requirements in the above paragraphs. To make it a little more interesting, let’s pretend that we’re accessioning an artifact together. In this case, let’s say we’re accessioning a familiar artifact to everyone who follows our museum: the Gillette Blue-Gold Special, which is on display in one of the front cases on-site. Follow at home with your own razor, if you have one - you’d be surprised how much fun accessioning is!
1. Does the artifact meet the museum’s mission?
In our case, yes! Gillette razors have often been sold at pharmacies, and this particular version was well-documented as a limited edition razor set. While we do not have a great idea of the provenance, as this item was found in our collection, we can make an educated guess that because it was found in the collection space it was a piece of New-Old Stock that Peter O’Mara simply didn’t get around to putting on the shelves. While there is no way to verify this without going through order records - which we do have some of - we can safely assume that this artifact meets the important criteria of our mission: representing an aspect of the history of pharmacy within Newfoundland and Labrador.
Does your artifact have to do with pharmacy, in that it was purchased at a pharmacy or pharmacy-adjacent institution? Is it connected to Newfoundland and Labrador?
2. Is this object useful to your museum, such as for research or exhibition?
Again, in our case, yes! This is a widely advertised special edition of Gillette Razor in particularly good condition, with no parts missing. In addition, this is our only example of a safety razor in the collection; while we have one or two straight razors, safety razors were popular through the 1940s-60s, and are coming back into popularity now. Overall, this artifact hits both points: useful for research and exhibition (as mentioned above, it’s on exhibit now!).
Do you think your artifact is worthy of research? Is it a particular example of its genre or special in some way? Is it indicative of a greater cultural movement or even a short-lived fad? Would it make sense on display, or could the same information be delivered better by a different, though similar, artifact?
3. Is it safe to collect this artifact? Does it contain materials that are hazardous to staff?
This is an incredibly important question, especially as the NLPM has just undergone a large-scale deaccession of items that were actively harmful to staff. Especially in a collection filled with pharmaceuticals, it is important to do your due diligence and make sure that staff won’t be negatively impacted by the artifacts that are being brought into the collection. In this case, we do need to be careful, as there are razor blades in the Gillette Blue-Gold kit. Luckily, they are individually wrapped in wax paper, and thus safe to handle. We do have open blades in our collection, such as straight-razors, but we must seriously consider the impact these artifacts have in our collection, and the risk to staff in handling them.
Does your artifact have any risk to those who would be handling it? This includes fumes, acidity, volatility, open blades, needle attachments, and other such dangers. If it does, think about the circumstances under which a collection might accept your artifact anyways, or, why they might refuse.
4. Can the museum properly care for this artifact in the long and short term?
This question directly relates to the question above. Once you decide whether or not it’s safe to accession the artifact, you have to decide whether or not you should. In our case, this process was streamlined because the artifact was already technically in our collection. Overall though, as this artifact has very little plastic - which degrades very quickly, in a way that we do not have the resources to mitigate - we decided that this artifact would be worth conserving for the long-term. As the NLPM has ongoing plans to overhaul our collections storage, we have to consider how many artifacts we are going to have to rehouse.
What materials is your artifact made of? Do any of them degrade faster than others, or in ways that are harmful to you? Might your artifact need special storage solutions, so that it could be stored upright or on its side?
5. What is your item’s provenance? Does it match the museum’s mandate? Does the donor have the right to gift/sell you the artifact? Could this be a culturally sensitive artifact?
Spending your time researching an item up-front often saves a lot of time and trouble. While our item does not have a definite provenance, the fact that it comes from our inherited collection solves a lot of problems for us. Legally, this artifact was donated by James O’Mara when he converted the pharmacy into a museum in the 1980s. Additionally, this is not a culturally sensitive artifact. In the event that a culturally sensitive artifact does come to our institution, we have a clear set of regulations as to where it should be redirected.
What is the history - or provenance - of your artifact? Who owned it, in what order? Where was it acquired? Who made it? When was it made? In what country? Is this artifact significant to any cultural group in any way
6. Is collecting this artifact in violation of any federal acts?
Depending on where you are, there are a number of international and national acts forbidding the collection of certain materials. Sometimes, things like certain shells, ivory, certain feathers, and other materials are either regulated or entirely disallowed. In the case of our Gillette Blue-Gold Special, we are safe! This artifact is made of stainless steel with cardboard accompanying components. Simple!
Does your artifact have any parts that could be sensitive?
When You Accession
Once all the questions above have been answered, you’re ready to begin completing your internal processes - namely, paperwork! Typically, an institution will have a donor fill out a gift form that transfers legal responsibility of the artifact to the museum. Sometimes artifacts - or groups of artifacts, called collections - can be loaned to institutions on a long or short term basis, and that will require loan agreements instead of gift agreements. Other types of accession include purchases - which are uncommon - or bequests, which happen when a heritage institution is named in someone's will. After that initial paperwork is handled, which includes keeping any receipts and/or donor information, a condition report must be completed for every individual artifact, as well as a separate accession report. Then, the artifacts can be assigned a permanent accession number and either be put into storage or put on display. This process is lengthy, and often takes multiple months, depending on the institution’s backlog and the number of staff dedicated to the task.
Importantly, accessioning an artifact puts the artifact under the museum’s legal responsibility, and as such, we must treat it in a way that holds the public’s trust. To the best of our ability, we must keep and maintain the artifact to ensure its long-term preservation, as well as provide transparent information about its care. We must provide authentic, reliable information about the artifact, including about its history, location, and status, among other things.
How many things in your home are you able to do that with? Test yourself: name where the item is, its personal and cultural history, and how you plan to keep it in good condition in perpetuity. It’s hard work!
Overall, we hope this has been a helpful introduction to accessioning artifacts, and a fun exercise to follow along with. There are a lot of things to consider when adding an artifact to your collection; what items that exist in your home do you think would make a good addition to a museum collection? Let us know in the comments!