Collections Management: Dispatches from the Trenches

By Nik Honeysett, CEO, Balboa Park Online Collaborative

Beginning in November 2017, the Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC) contracted with LYRASIS to embark on a national study of the collections management technology landscape. The study, supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, aimed to gather insight into the current state of collections management by looking at supporting technologies, technology selection, and implementation, maintenance, budgeting, digitization, cataloguing, and strategic requirements and goals, through a combination of surveys and interviews. The results provide a much-needed peek into this core activity of museology, and are relevant to all collections-based institutions.

The survey portion of the study comprised seventy questions, as well as half-hour phone interviews with respondents who volunteered to provide deeper analysis. In total, the study received 232 responses for seventy-nine fully completed surveys (153 partials), and thirty interviews. Survey respondents were largely based in the United States, but some international respondents provided valuable context as well. In terms of respondents, the study represents a valid cross-section of museums, including art, history, and historic houses/sites/societies. One-third of respondents were small museums (AAM’s definition of a budget under $500,000), and 9% had a budget under $100,000. Larger institutions were also represented, with one-fourth of respondents having a budget over $25 million, and 6.5% employing over a thousand staff. 

The study’s working hypothesis was that while the scope and requirements for the management and access of collections information has changed significantly over the last two decades, and CMS products have evolved, the basic model has remained unchanged. A CMS is an internal information management system based on an object-centric data model, irrespective of the emergence of online modules to provide public access.

There were a number of broad themes and challenges that emerged from the study. Following on from our working hypothesis, respondents largely confirmed that their expectations have changed with regard to what is needed and required of a CMS: it must be an information hub that can elegantly integrate with other systems (how long have we been talking about inter-operability for digital heritage?); provide a much richer mechanism for connections between objects and artists, etc., to promote serendipitous discovery; and a host of other functional requirements under the banner of “our CMS needs to be more than a CMS; it needs to be a tool.”

“As users, we bring our broader tech expectations to our CMS. The flexibility of systems to expand and meet evolving user needs continues to be paramount. The better our vendors can keep pace with the overall dynamic tech environment, the better for us.”

It may or may not come as a surprise that approximately half of respondents would like to replace their current CMS, but perceived the pain of migration to be greater than the pain or limitations of their current system. A significant number of respondents expressed “vendor frustration” and considered themselves to be in somewhat of a hostage situation: they would like greater integration capabilities (which the vendors were reluctant to support), perceiving that it made it easier for institutions to migrate their CMS. This highlights a critical irony from the study, that failure to provide the key function of an open import/export route, or better still, a comprehensive API, is the key driver for an institution to want to migrate to another system.

“Overall institutional budget and leadership stability issues impact all aspects of our operations and interfere with thoughtful CMS planning.”

Another challenge to contemplating a system switch was the inability to successfully make the case to leadership. There were a number of reference points that indicated a disconnect between collections management strategy and the resources and budget available to achieve it. These disconnects were seen in a number of aspects, particularly digitization goals and the current rate of digitization, and the percentage of catalogued objects and the rate of cataloguing. Mapping collection sizes and acquisition rates against cataloguing and digitizing rates indicates that the promise of “digital” providing comprehensive virtual access to our collections will not be kept, at least not during this century.

As a recovering technologist, some of the most eye-opening findings were revealed from the CMS selection questions. Only one quarter of respondents referenced any form of formal process to select their CMS, instead relying on peer recommendation (“so-and-so museum uses so-and-so CMS and they are just like us, so we picked that”), prior familiarity (“the new collections manager used to use so-and-so CMS, so we picked that”), or other informal methods. This may be okay up to a point because part of a formal process would be to review other institutions, but it’s not great from the standpoint of the institution reviewing the functionality of different systems and how they are being used most effectively.

Two problems are evident with this lack of formality when combined with the other findings. The study revealed that 50% of staff involved in the initial CMS selection process were no longer with the institution, so the reason(s) for selecting that particular CMS has likely left the building. Additionally, a formal software selection process should be a time to review and hone processes and workflows, and make a selection based on improving or streamlining those processes. Software selection should match the requirements of the institution, not the individual, and skeuomorphism (the desire or willingness to continue to do the same thing but with a new system) is rife. Too often, institutions neglect to use the opportunity of a new system to thoroughly review and improve their workflows to maximize their efficiency and productivity with the new tool.

This study represents an opportunity for collection-based institutions and CMS vendors to reflect on the emerging practices and strategy of this core activity, and strive to better address these emerging requirements. More flexible, configurable, and scalable systems that will disrupt the U.S. market as the migration barriers diminish are on the horizon. The full public report can been found on the LYRASIS website. As producers of the open source collections management system CollectionSpace, the LYRASIS staff are working hard to address the study’s key findings.


Our CMS working group is conducting more research into system options and meeting the needs of today’s museums and historic sites, so stay tuned for updates. For more info on evaluating collections management systems, visit the AASLH Conversations area at the Kansas City meeting on September 28 from 11:45 – 12:30 pm!