What to do with that new collection that’s been lurking in a closet…

What do you do after the excitement of being assigned to take a previously unmanaged museum or archival collection from that messy pile of boxes or objects in a storage closet to the state of a well-managed collection? I’ve been enjoying Angela Kipp’s suggested approaches in her 2016 book, Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections: A Practical Guide for Museums.

Rather than a technical volume, or an in-depth discussion of cataloguing or conservation techniques, this is the book that teaches one to act and think like a project manager. And while the book is speaking specifically about museum collections, there is much practical advice that that can be applied to any brand new collection, whether archival, or of records and documents.

Ms. Kipp advises that when working with a new collection or fonds, it’s time to take a step back and think like a project manager. “Think of the whole collection, not of single objects”, and “see the big picture, work in small steps”. Her mantra, “This is my collection now and no matter what happens, I will put it in better shape” could equally apply to life in general!

This is a helpful, manageable handbook that walks the reader through the initial stages of: assessing the collection and the building or area in which it is housed; identifying and prioritizing initial issues to be resolved and resource requirements; organizing a storage area and processing space; sorting; gaining community support; and building a documentation or description strategy.

Reading through the chapters, Ms. Kipp notes points along the way where the professional can make a logical exit from the project, if he or she is pulled away or resources are depleted. For example, the first logical exit occurs after all the basic information about the collection’s environment is collected, the building is secure, a collection policy is in place, a future task list is ready to go, and legal/provenance issues have been researched.

The advice that really hits home when reading this useful volume is to not become too enamoured with individual records and find yourself in the weeds without a plan. The process of discovering that historical gem is amazing. But when working with an untouched collection, best practice is to start with the big picture and work your way down to item level, step-by-step. And this guide book can assist at every point along the way.

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