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From Inside the Vaults Blog

From Inside the Vaults: Collections Management

From Inside the Vaults is a monthly blog that gives insight into best practices for collections stewardship, curation, and archaeological collecting institutions.

So what is a Collections Manager, anyway?

Simply put, a Collections Manager’s main role is to monitor and care for artifacts and their documentation. By following best practices and industry standards, a Collections Manager will preserve artifacts for generations to come, facilitate research and access of collections for the public, and be on hand to ethically problem solve when collections challenges arise.

When people ask what it is that I do working for museums, I usually hesitate with my response. The first thing that people think I do is collect money, and I also occasionally hear the “so you’re a curator then?” Collections management is typically behind-the-scenes sort of work, so confusion from the public (and constantly from my friends and family!) is absolutely warranted. Even within the field of collections management, your title could mean a variety of different things depending on the size and needs of the institution you work for. Collections stewardship is one of the more important functions of any collecting institution. If maintained properly, the constant care and preventative conservation performed by a Collections Manager can ensure that collections will last for future generations to come.

I have been working in museums for the past six years, and have experience working with many different types of artifacts (i.e. natural history specimens, historical artifacts, archival materials, and now archeological artifacts.) The different types of artifacts may have different storage and preservation needs, yet each institution follows similar collections stewardship best practices.  The biggest difference I have experienced during my time in varying museums is in the way that collections work is delegated. A small museum may just have one Collections Manager who performs a multitude of tasks. A large museum may have an entire collections department (or more than one collections department depending on the type of museum) with multiple staff members taking on many roles and dividing up tasks. Regardless of the size of the institution, or the types of materials they collect – collections management is a necessary function for all collecting institutions.

shell ornamentsAt the San Diego Archaeological Center, our collections department consists of me, Collections Manager and Suzanne Moramarco, Collections and Library Specialist. Some of the tasks that we perform on a daily basis are: cataloging and curation of incoming artifact, housekeeping/gallery maintenance, integrated pest management, collections inventories, artifact documentation, manage incoming and outgoing loans, artifact database management, and we monitor temperature, light, and relative humidity in the collections spaces and Museum.

Over the upcoming months we will explore these different aspects and roles of collections management and stewardship best practices in more detail, giving insight into the behind-the-scenes happenings of the San Diego Archaeological Center and collecting institutions around the world.

First up, inventory! In February I will dive in and talk about an incredibly important part of my job – collections inventory. Inventory is a daunting (yet rewarding!) task for any Collections Manager but should be performed regularly at all collecting institutions. We will discuss what a collections inventory is, why they are important, and current industry best practices and standards.

By Jessica McPheters, Collections Manager

Collections Research

With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will identify, design, and conduct an original research project that uses the Center’s archaeological collections. The intern will formulate a plan for public dissemination of the project results as a journal publication, a museum exhibit, or a public class or lecture. During the course of the research and dissemination planning, the intern will receive training in research design, collections management, artifact analysis, and exhibit design and production as appropriate to the selected project.

Archaeology Lab Positions

Volunteers will prepare one or more archaeological collections for curation. Center staff will instruct the volunteer on archaeological laboratory procedures such as basic artifact analysis, manual and computer cataloging, storage requirements, and preventative conservation.

Volunteers work in the Center’s Research Library, cataloguing materials and organizing on a computer-based system.

Marketing and Administrative Volunteers assist the Development Office or Administration Office with data entry, updating marketing materials and clerical tasks. Computer experience is a plus.

Docents welcome visitors and answer general questions regarding the Center and exhibits. Docents staff the gift shop and help out with administrative and curatorial tasks.

Volunteers support event activities at the Center, such as the Annual BBQ, lectures, workshops, and fundraising events. Be a part of the party!

Volunteer provide support for K-12 programs offered at the Center. These are fun, hands-on programs that kids really enjoy. Teaching experience is a plus, but not required. Background checks are required.

Collections Management

With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will prepare one or more archaeological collections for curation. During the course of the internship, the intern will learn to identify artifacts and ecofacts common to the San Diego region, including lithics, ceramics, historical objects, and faunal, botanical, and mineral specimens. Center staff will instruct the intern on archaeological laboratory procedures such as basic artifact analysis, manual and computer cataloguing, storage requirements, and preventative conservation. In addition, the intern will become familiar with historical trends in archaeological practice in the San Diego area and will be introduced to current legal and ethical issues in archaeological curation as well as the concerns and rights of culturally affiliated groups with regard to archaeological materials.

Development and Marketing

Under the direction of Center staff, the intern will support the department in various activities, including, but not limited to, fundraising and grant research; e-newsletter development; social media marketing; and website maintenance. This internship will give the intern valuable, real-world experience in non-profit fundraising and marketing.

Geographical Information Systems in Archaeology

Prospective Interns must have completed three courses: Introduction to GIS, GIS Database Management, and Intermediate/Advanced Methods in GIS. The intern will be assigned a project where they will create shapefiles and maps for curated archaeological collections, museum exhibits, and/or public outreach using ArcGIS 10.6. Center staff will instruct the intern on archaeological GIS laboratory procedures such as computer cataloguing, storage requirements, and database management.

Library Science

With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will arrange and catalog materials in the Center’s library. During the course of the internship, the intern will take a leading role in the cataloging, sorting and storing of research files and creating user guides for these collections. Center staff will instruct the intern on archival procedures, computer cataloging, storage requirements, and preventative conservation.

Public Archaeology

With the assistance of Center staff, interns will research, design, and produce a project that educates the public about archaeology or a related field using the Center’s archaeological collections. Interns may create virtual museum exhibits and related activities, develop curricula for K-12 programs in line with current content standards, or plan and present a public class or lecture. Per approval, special projects of the intern’s choosing are also available. During the course of the research and planning, the intern will receive guidance as appropriate to the selected project.