Acquisition (Spectrum 5.0 consultation draft)

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Use this procedure when you take ownership of objects. In legal terms, this is a ‘transfer of title’ from the previous owner to you. The procedure gives you proof of ownership, and it assigns a unique number that will link each object to the information you hold about it.

If you acquire objects for your permanent collection, you will ‘accession’ them as part of this procedure. This has a very specific meaning: accessioning brings with it ethical responsibilities to preserve objects over the long term, and should not be done without careful thought in the light of your agreed collecting policy. This procedure assumes that most of the objects you acquire will be accessioned into your permanent collection.

However, you might acquire objects for other, short-term reasons, such as using them in handling activities or as display props. In that case, use part of this procedure but do not formally accession the items. Occasionally you might accession into the permanent collection things you already own, but which have become significant over time (such as Victorian display cases).

This is a Spectrum primary procedure. UK museums must meet the standard set out below to fulfil the requirements of the Museum Accreditation Scheme.

The Spectrum standard

You must have a policy on acquiring objects (which might be part of a wider collection development policy covering disposals too). You should include answers to these questions:

  • What kinds of objects might you acquire and why?
  • What legal and ethical issues will you consider before acquiring objects?
  • Who can authorise acquisitions, particularly accessions into the permanent collection?
  • What are your normal terms and conditions for acquiring objects?
  • What steps will you take to check the provenance of potential acquisitions?
  • How will you calculate the ongoing costs (eg additional storage) of potential acquisitions?
  • How will you establish who owns any associated rights (eg copyright) and what is your policy on acquiring such rights?
  • What is your format for numbering new accessions and the preferred marking and labelling methods for different types of object?
  • How long should it normally take to complete the accessions process?

You must also have a written procedure that explains the steps to follow when acquiring objects. Spectrum’s suggested procedure is a useful starting point, and is available as a workflow diagram or as a text file you can edit. However you do it, your own procedure must meet the following minimum requirements:

Minimum requirement Why this is important See (cross-references to be added in final version)
You only acquire objects in line with your agreed policy and applicable laws, treaties and codes of practice. Your collecting activity is ethical and serves your museum’s mission.

Objects are not acquired at the whim of individuals.

You have written evidence that the undisputed owners of acquired objects have transferred title to your museum. You can prove legal ownership of your collections.

You do not acquire heirlooms whose ownership may be disputed within a family.

You make donors aware of the terms by which their gift or bequest is accepted by you. Donors understand that objects they have given might not always be on display, or might be disposed of in future.

You minimise the risk of reputational damage if donors or their heirs are later unhappy.

You give a unique number to each object, and securely label or mark it with this number. You can link each physical object with the information you have about it.
You have tamperproof registers, recording all the objects accessioned into in your permanent collections, using their unique numbers. You have a formal record of your permanent collections.

It would be difficult for a thief on the inside to cover their tracks by deleting all record that an object ever existed.

As backup you have a security copy of the information in the accession register, and keep it up to date. You do not lose this important information in a fire or similar disaster.

You have an extra level of security against anyone tampering with the primary accession register.

You keep all relevant information about the acquisition of objects, accessible via their unique numbers. You have as much documentation as possible about the provenance of your collections.

You can refer to the original documents in case of any future problem, such as the heirs of a donor thinking that a gift was only on loan.



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  1. The transfer of rights and copyright information may be more useful before this procedure, perhaps within object entry, as information on this aspect will inform whether some objects even get to the point of being considered for acquisition. As a general point, more clarification/emphasis on copyright would be useful.

  2. Establishing rights ownership should be a addressed as part of the pre-acquisition process to inform acquisition of an object.
    Flowchart: Distinction between evidence of title of donor & obtaining transfer of this title isn’t clear.
    Flowchart & Procedure typo: Record the initial the [delete] location of the objects.

  3. General Comments Applicable to all procedures: The inclusion of references to policies is beneficial but many of the questions that should be covered are more procedural than policy and would sit better within an organisation’s individual procedures than at the higher policy level. It isn’t clear how these questions sit with PAS 197 and Accreditation and could be difficult to answer in a general collections management policy without this running into many pages. The use of simpler terms and clearer language again is to be welcomed but there is a concern about the use of ‘you’ throughout this document. Without defining this term it can easily be read as an individual and therefore places the emphasis on a single person within an organisation to take responsibility for all these activities. This is a change from Spectrum 4.0 where the emphasis was at an organisational level and allowed the document to be used for advocacy to Trustees and Senior Management for the importance of these activities and how they affect those at an organisational level. Without clarity that the responsibility sits at an organisational level through the definition of ‘you’ this has the potential to de-value the nature of these activities and reduce support from senior management.
    It would also be beneficial to include references to other sources of guidance and legislation in the supporting notes although this will vary from country to country.
    For this specific procedure: Some more guidance on due diligence and provenance to support obtaining title would be helpful – this is constantly a source of questions and has resulted in a separate procedure for my organisation. References to supporting guidance or websites would be particularly useful here
    Possible inclusion of sample documents such as transfer of title or copyright agreements – or links to such documents might assist smaller organisations without ready access to legal advice

  4. The requirement for bound paper registers does seems rather antiquated – we have not maintained paper registers since 1987 (having paper entry documentation and a full digital catalogue). We now find ourselves in the position of having to print out the last 30 years from the database on archival paper, bind, sign and house in fire resistant cabinets. These security copies will never be used as the entry documents and database are the “authority” for these records. Surely a secure chain of digital backups (plus paper entry documents) should be sufficient for Accreditation purposes – perhaps the procedure should require “registers or equivalent tamper proof systems”?

  5. Thinking about copyright, it may be more valid to have copyright clarified as a pre-acquisition consideration, given it may impact on any decision to acquire a work. It would seem better is SPECTRUM supports and upholds IP/Copyright and urges this to be clarified at pre-acquisition in order to protect museums from possible issues due to copyright being overlooked or simply not clarified prior to making an acquisition decision.

  6. I am frequently asked about entirely computer-based accessions records. Is there still a need for paper registers if museums can create a dated, protected PDF record of their database which is kept securely in more than one place and not over-written? Please could we have some additional guidance on this.

    1. While I agree that is can seem a pain, and maybe even antiquated, to print out an Accession register, paper records continue to have value when digital records are dependent upon electricity, up-to-date software and hardware, secure systems that won’t get hacked or ransomed, etc. I have been in situations where computers or systems have been down for a few days, and the ability to go to a bound register allows work to continue. Entry paperwork would be fine if it were updated with accession numbers and kept in such a way that it cannot be removed so that the entry form you need isn’t missing when you go to find it!

      What would be useful, though, is guidance on how to print a properly archival register in a cost-effective manner. I know that one place I worked attempted to print onto archival paper, and found that it failed the peel test:

      Maybe we’ll all have to recruit volunteer scribes?

  7. Under object identification information, Brief description should include measurements (linear and weight) as these are often the only means of distinguishing objects of similar type such as prehistoric stone tools and coins.

    Note 2: Acquisition records – Transfer of title forms
    In 2016 it emerged that the British Museum had been instructed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport not to sign forms referring to a sale/purchase of Treasure cases. This impacted on museums which had routinely used transfer of title forms to establish ownership of Treasure cases not just for Accreditation purposes but also to satisfy internal and external auditors.

    It would be helpful therefore if Spectrum could confirm that the Treasure release letter produced by the British Museum is acceptable evidence for the transfer of title in Treasure cases. We understand that this will need to be ratified by Arts Council England for Accreditation purposes. Such guidance would however be very helpful to museums and their auditors who have limited understanding of the Treasure process.

    Note 3: Additional evidence of title
    Treasure: In our view ‘a record of the treasure inquest, including any expert report submitted as evidence’ is not evidence of title. As recommended above a reference to the British Museum Treasure release letter would be appropriate here.

  8. 3rd para – re objects acquired but not accessioned.

    Suggest inserting ‘long or’ before ‘short-term reasons’ – we regularly acquire bespoke mounts with objects which are not formally accessioned into the Primary Collection but are assigned and recorded in our CMS with NCOL numbers – Non-Collection – for location and inventory purposes.

    ‘However, you might acquire objects for other, short-term reasons, such as using them in handling activities or as display props. In that case, use part of this procedure but do not formally accession the items.’

    Also the Crafts Council Handling Collection, although not formally accessioned in an accession register, is governed by our Acquisition Policy and sequentially numbered and recorded in our CMS. Work acquired into the Handing Collection is not considered in anyway a temporary acquisition – the status of the Handling Collection is defined not by its permanence but rather the level of risk that work within it is subjected to.

    Will users be directed to futher discussion or help regarding either Handling Collections and/or other acquired but non-accessioned bodies of work?

    Thank you.

  9. Typo – “Record the initial the location of the objects.” (omit second ‘the’)

    Note 3 ‘field collection’ may be worth providing examples of what might qualify as ‘reference to a collection site or field collection” (e.g. grid reference, site code etc.)

    For Acquisition with ref to Treasure, good to also record the PAS reference for the object(s) as well as the inquest as it links PAS records (hard copy and digital on their database) to the object in the museum (if acquired).

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Date created: 2017

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust