Acquisition and accessioning – the Spectrum standard

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You should have a policy on acquiring objects, which might be part of a wider collections development policy covering disposals too. Either way, in deciding your policy you will most likely need to consider 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 for the accessioned 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 labelling and marking methods for different types of object?
  • How long should it normally take to complete the accessions process?

You should also have a written procedure that explains the steps to follow when acquiring objects. Spectrum’s suggested procedure is a useful starting point, but however you do it, your own procedure should meet the following minimum requirements:

Minimum requirement Why this is important
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 accessioned object and securely label or mark it with this number. You can link each physical object with the information you have about it.
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.

You have a tamperproof record of all accessioned objects, using their unique numbers. You have a formal record of your accessioned collection.

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 an up-to-date security copy of all accession records. 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 records.


Date created: 2017

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust