Budget and staff cuts, lack of resources and time, and an ever decreasing amount of space mean that museums are needing to carefully plan their future and plot out their purpose. It is no longer possible for a museum to collect everything that it may want. For many museums, changes to, and re-prioritisation within, strategies, policies, and plans is becoming increasingly important. Graeme Were argues that museums need to adopt a more strategic approach to collecting in the future in order to ensure museums do not become “unmanageable time capsules” filled with “collections of the everyday.” How exactly a museum may do that still remains, to some extent, unknown.
As museums strive for more focussed and purposeful collecting their acquisitions processes become increasingly complex. The process, designed to vet any objects that may not be beneficial to collections, means that fewer objects may be collected in the future. Many of the issues that comes with collecting objects, such as the sheer amount of objects available for collection, can be mitigated through policy, strategy and careful planning. James B Gardner argues for planning – more focussed than strategies and policies, planning, he says, “focusses on the ideas, concepts, stories or themes that provide the rationale for the museum’s collecting decisions.”
While museum theory on the future of collecting pushes the need to develop clear strategies for collecting, once in play, these policies, strategies, and plans come up against real, on the ground issues and attitudes that have been developed over decades. Planning can challenge the idea of curatorial authority by developing a museum-wide vision instead of an independent curatorial one. Criteria can become more rigid. Museums may start to collect less and less, and curators might feel restricted and as though they are going to battle whenever they put forward an object for approval.
Policy and planning, if done well, can be useful tools for curators trying to make sense of world and the countless objects available for collection. Simon Knell has argued that museum collecting should not rely on individual staff members but should instead be rationalised within its institutional context. Policy exists so that if an object can meet the criteria, and can be stored and preserved, it will be collected. In practice, however, this may not be the case. Planning works to mitigate against individual visions from collecting; however, curators will still have opinions and so will those who make the final decisions. As long as there is human intervention in collecting, individuals will continue to shape collections subjectively. While planning and policy cannot remove the individual completely, they can focus the vision of the museum, aligning the rationale of collecting with institutional priorities.
Careful planning through policies, strategies, and plans can work to grow meaningful collections. Collection planning is now an absolute necessity for museums. With cuts to resources and space now at a premium, it is important that museums figure out their purpose and begin to collect more strategically. While this may be restrictive for curators, it also means that objects which now make it into museum’s collections are there because they fit entirely with their overall institutional vision. What is needed however, is for museums to find a balance between careful planning while also allowing space for unexpected collecting opportunities.