Online Course: Collections Management

This eight week course will introduce participants to the professional principles and practices in the management of museum collections. Topics will include collections development, registration and record keeping with an emphasis on the development of Collection Policies and Procedures and what it means to be intellectually and physically responsible for museum objects.


DATES: July 15 - September 8, 2019

COST: $195 AASLH Members/ $295 Nonmembers

Registration limited to 30 people



Full Online Course Description:

This eight week course will introduce participants to the professional principles and practices in the management of museum collections. Topics will include collections development, registration and record keeping with an emphasis on the development of Collection Policies and Procedures and what it means to be intellectually and physically responsible for museum objects.By the end of the course, participants will:

  • Develop a detailed draft of a Collections Policy
  • Develop of identify a collection of objects
  • Develop a standardized set of registration records and forms including inventory, catalog, accession, and loans
  • Learn about various registration numbering systems and how to mark objects appropriately
  • Discuss issues related to collections strategies, mission, purpose, and scope of collections
  • Develop a broader understanding of legal and ethical concerns of managing collections

Who Should Attend:

This course is a beginning level course designed for professional staff and volunteers of historical organizations and libraries with historical collections who have little to no experience with collections management. This course requires participants have access to museum collections to successfully complete this course, either as a staff member, volunteer, or intern.

Course Materials

Required text: John E. Simmons, Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies, Washington, DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2006 (ISBN 10:1-933253-03-07). This text is NOT INCLUDED with your registration. Please order from the book seller of your choice.

Optional Resource: Daniel B. Reibel. Registration Methods for the Small MuseumFourth Edition, Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2008 (Paperback ISBN 978-0-7591-1131-8).


Dr. Erin Richardson facilitates museums’ and cultural organizations’ capacity for mission delivery, particularly relating to art and artifact collections. With more than twenty years experience working with museum communities at Historic Cherry Hill, Fenimore Art Museum, and the Farmers’ Museum, she started a consulting firm in 2018 to assist museums in solving pressing long-term collection problems so that they may effectively serve their communities. Richardson holds a BA in American Studies from the SUNY Geneseo, a MA in Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program and a PhD in Leadership and Policy from Niagara University.

Small Museum Pro!:

Successful completion of this course will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro! certificate from AASLH.

Workshop: Collections Management and Practices

Learn about your institution’s responsibility toward its collection, necessary policies and procedures, and the best practices of collection management. Through lively group discussions and hands-on activities, you will become familiar with current issues and trends to better understand how collections fit within the context of history organizations. The workshop will also explore the role of collections in exhibition and interpretation, the basic steps of collections management from acquisition to disposal, professional standards and ethics, conservation on a shoe-string budget, and the many resources available for collections preservation.


FORMAT: On-site group workshop

LENGTH: Two days (9:00 am - 5:00 pm)

DATE: June 3 - 4, 2019

LOCATION: The Charleston Museum, Charleston, SC

MATERIALS: Workshop materials will be provided upon registration and in-person at the event.

COST: $230 AASLH Members / $345 Nonmembers

** Save $40 when you register by May 3, 2019 and use promo code EARLYBIRD19 at checkout! **




Participants of this workshop may be eligible for an AASLH Workshop Scholarship. Each year AASLH offers scholarships to four individuals in the history field to attend an AASLH onsite workshop. Recipients of the New Professional Workshop Scholarship and Diversity Workshop Fellowship receive registration fee reimbursement for one AASLH workshop and one year Individual Membership in AASLH. Registration for 2019 Workshop scholarships is now open. The deadline to apply is March 1, 2019.



Who Should Attend:

This workshop is targeted to new professionals and dedicated volunteers with responsibility for collections.

About the Faculty:

Samantha Forsko is a Preservation Specialist at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

John E. Simmons runs Museologica (a museum consulting service); teaches museum studies for Kent State University, the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and Museum Study LLC; and serves as Adjunct Curator of Collections at the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum & Art Gallery at Penn State University. He is currently working on a second edition of Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies (expected fall 2017).

Natural History Specimens and Nomenclature 4.0


When Nomenclature was first written it was designed to represent objects that are man-made. So, how do natural history collections fall into this lexicon? Well, the answer is up to your individual institution. The Nomenclature Task Force has had a lengthy discussion about natural history specimens and determined that, for the purposes of the current or forthcoming versions of Nomenclature, the terminology provided is sufficient for most museums. This is best explained by Heather Dunn, a member of the Task Force and representative of the Canadian Heritage Information Network:

Museums deal with this issue in various ways, depending on the number of these taxidermy/natural science items they are dealing with, and–as you say, whether the focus or reason for the collection is more "historic" or "scientific."

If a history museum has only a few natural science objects (for example, less than 10% of the collection), and their focus is on the historic value (e.g. who owned it, where it came from, the history associated with it) rather than the scientific value, they may want to catalog it using Nomenclature, maintaining the logic of the classification scheme used for all the collections. Although Nomenclature was created to deal with human-made objects, it can be used as a framework for broadly classifying natural history specimens as well. It is common for human history museums and historical associations to collect small numbers of these specimens, and Nomenclature accommodates this by including a few broad object terms that describe natural history specimens within the context of human activity. Examples include:

1) “Biospecimen” and the narrower terms “Specimen, Animal” and “Specimen, Plant” under Biological T&E;

2) “Geospecimen” under Geological T&E; and

3) “Trophy, Game” under Achievement Symbols.

For most history museums, cataloging as one of those broad terms, “Specimen, Animal,” “Specimen, Plant,” "Trophy, Game", or “Geospecimen” is sufficient–they don't need to go any further with scientific classification.  Nomenclature 4.0 suggests that they may also cross-index with other terms from Nomenclature that apply; for example, "Mount, Taxidermy" from the Decorative Furnishings sub-class.

In these cases, where you are classifying specimens only at this broad level, we recommend that you could enter the specific name of the animal/plant etc. in a separate Subject field–not in the classification/naming fields. Nomenclature 4.0 also offers a second option of using more specific terminology within the object name field, organized under "Specimen, Animal", "Specimen, Plant", or "Geospecimen" as appropriate–but I would not recommend this in general!

If a history museum needs to classify a large number of natural science objects (for example, 50% of the collection), it will be difficult to catalog them keeping a focus on the historic value. They will need more specific terms for their specimens and it will require the use of naming conventions already established by the zoological, botanical, and geological sciences, using a lexicon authority for scientific specimens. In this case, it may be justified to maintain 2 different classification systems, one for the historical collections and the other designed to document and manage natural science collections.

For museums that have primarily natural science collections, they would likely not use Nomenclature at all, but would use the scientific classification system for their discipline.

For some museums this may involve adding terminology within their lexicon to make the system work best for them, others may find it easier to use the provided terms and catalog with specific search terms added for research. If you or your institution have any questions on this topic we invite you to reach out to AASLH and the Nomenclature Task Force.

Nomenclature Query: Classifying a "Permanent Machine"

We received a query from Diane Kester at the Wayne County Historical Association & Museum in Goldsboro, North Carolina:

What do you suggest for old permanent machine? Here's what we have.


Paul Bourcier, editor of Nomenclature 3.0 and Nomenclature 4.0 answered:

That would fall under Machine, Permanent Wave – a primary term under the sub-class, Hair Care Objects (see Nomenclature 4.0, p. 118).

How to Choose an Object Name for Cataloging an Abstract of Title

Lynne Sylvester of the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation in Florida has posed this question:

I have to catalog an Abstract of Title and do not know what the correct object name is.  Can you please help me or provide guidance on where I could find the correct terms?


Paul Bourcier, editor of Nomenclature 4.0 and chair of the AASLH Nomenclature Task Force has answered Lynne:

In a general sense, an abstract of title is a summary, as is any abstract.  However, Nomenclature 3.0 and 4.0 organize the term “Abstract” under Literary Works, suggesting that the context of a generic abstract is that of a creative work, and I don’t think that can be said for an abstract of title. 

Although an abstract of title is not itself a legal document, it is a summary of legal documents and would best be organized in that sub-class, since Nomenclature’s hierarchy is based on functional context.

I would suggest the term “Abstract of Title,” organized as a new primary term under the sub-class “Legal Documents,” to be considered by the Nomenclature Task Force for the next edition. 

I encourage you to please make this suggestion in our online submissions form at



Coins, Coins Everywhere!

For some reason, and I still can't figure out why I did this, I made the assumption that working with a military-centric collection would mean working with less currency than in prior experiences. It wasn't something I was happy about--I really like studying old currency, the imagery, stamp marks, and the wear and tear of everyday use if they were circulated. Boy was I in for a surprise when I did my first inventory last year! We have far more coins than I imagined would be here, not just from the United States, but from everywhere; Germany, Russia, England, and others are all represented here, thanks in large part to GIs from World War II.

One thing that I always hoped for and that came true with Nomenclature 4.0, was a breakdown of coins based on denomination. It may seem like a simple thing when naming an object in a database, "Coin" is an all-inclusive term and certainly covers every aspect of what the object is and how it's meant to be used. Simple, right? Well, not so fast, I used to work for a museum years ago that had hundreds of coins of all denomination and frankly, trying to find a record, even with a stellar query that I designed, failed miserably if something were spelled wrong in the description or if the cataloger missed something. I might know the object is a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter, but that doesn't help if I can't find it with my searches. Now, with the adoption of more specific terms, life is a bit easier (though admittedly I'm working with less than a hundred coins now) to find what I'm looking for and certainly for object labels too.

Chances are if you're still using Nomenclature 3.0 you'll be seeing "Coin" a lot as an object name, which is our case for a few more weeks until we work a few more bugs out on our end, but when I update to 4.0, I absolutely cannot wait to have a digitized collection that reflects more of what we have in a quicker-to-find manner--and I think my colleagues will agree that a less-stressed registrar/collections manager is a good thing!

The Words (and numbers) Still Matter

The Words (and numbers) Still Matter

In the context of a conference on computerization of museum catalog records, more than 20 years ago, I predicted that I wouldn’t live long enough to see documentary photographs routinely incorporated into catalog records. Was I ever wrong!


Of course, back then the storage of images ate up large gulps of hard drive “real estate” that was still being measured in tens of megabytes. Videodisc platters (above) could accommodate vast numbers of images, but could neither be edited nor added to once they had been recorded. Moreover, the cost of their production and the hardware to run them limited their use to large institutions that could afford to ride on the “bleeding edge” of technology. “Cloud storage” was still reserved for raindrops and occasional hailstones. I never dreamed that onboard storage capacities of ordinary desktop or even laptop computers would reach gigabyte and terabyte magnitudes while still remaining within the range of affordability for museums of even modest means.

Another prediction that I made at the same time (and which, sadly, may be coming true) was that when and if images could be routinely added to catalog records it would result in a lessening of attention paid to the recording of “old fashioned” alphanumeric descriptive information. I’m afraid that is happening.

It’s only natural, I suppose, if you’re generating a record that includes a photograph of something round and red, and with a scale indicating a 10-inch maximum dimension, to regard these features as so obvious that there’s no need to “waste” time and effort by entering “round” or “red” or “10 inches” via keystrokes. That’s so 20th century, right?

WRONG! It’s important to remember that the words (and numbers) still matter. Until someone develops an algorithm for searching stored images for such characteristics as redness, roundness and/or 10-inchness the search and retrieval of object records from a database will continue to rely upon those “old fashioned” words and numbers. If that alphanumeric descriptive information is not entered, an artifact, document or specimen will remain invisible to a computerized search based upon such parameters – as if it never existed.



Identifying Firearms for Nomenclature

One of the most challenging aspects I had in collections care when I first started was dealing with a firearms collection. I grew up around them, but always behind lock and key unless my dad had gone hunting and planned on teaching me how to clean them. Sure I knew there were a few kinds, never really giving it a second thought until my dad passed away and I inherited his and found there were quite a few different types among his collection. My first real museum job thrust me into almost 200 years worth of firearms history and now in my current position at a military college, I really have to know my stuff!

When I arrived at Norwich University, we knew what we had, but there's always a better way to do it and a much more controlled way of recording the information. My work study and I started by doing a full inventory of every firearm in the collection. What we found, and what I had already anticipated, was that the firearm collection had some mis-identifications. That's not to say they weren't long-arms and pistols, they just didn't fit nomenclature the way I knew they could.

There are three basic types of pistols, but 19 terms in Nomenclature 3.0. If you have a specialized collection, you probably already know what you have and can fit the term correctly. However if you're working with a small collection and that's not the main focus of your overall museum, it might be more challenging unless you personally work with firearms a lot. For this exercise, pretend your museum has only a few pistols and you're overall scope of collections is something else entirely. You'd probably be dealing with these terms: 'Pistol,' 'Pistol, Semi-Automatic,' and 'Revolver.' The way to remember them here is this: If the weapon is black powder and fires a single projectile at a time, it's a Pistol; If it takes a magazine and the donor doesn't say otherwise, it's likely a Semi-Automatic Pistol; If it has a cylinder that you load ammunition into, either black powder or bullets, it's a Revolver. That's wholly simplified and perhaps not the popular opinion of many firearm-focused museums, but when you're not working with these on a daily basis, it's an easy way to remember the differences.

Long-arms are a different story and involve a bit more in-depth understanding on our part of the evolution of firearms. Long-arms are primarily firearms that you have to nestle against your shoulder to fire them and there are many, many different kinds and nearly as many terms in Nomenclature 3.0. The basic identification is this: if you shine a light down a barrel and it doesn't have spiral lining down it's length it's either a musket or a shotgun. Here's where the evolution knowledge comes in handy. Early muskets have fairly thick barrels, round or octagonal and are fairly long in length. Shotguns, at least those that I've ever seen, have fairly thin barrels and are a little shorter. If you see the spiraling, it's a rifle and for some museums, that's good enough for naming, but the nomenclature can be very specific; it's up to you and your institution to determine if a more specific name should be used. Machine and sub-machine guns are a little harder to identify unless you do it everyday and it may be necessary to bring in an expert for those. When you throw carbines, target rifles, gas guns, etc. into the mix, it does seem daunting, but reach out to another museum who might have a larger collection and ask them for advice. Firearms aren't meant to be overly complicated and museums, collectors, gun shop owners are nearly always willing and able to help identify a puzzling piece.

We've Got You Covered. Standards and Ethics Committee Update

Summer is in full swing and plenty of outdoor activities beckon, though I am sure you are busy pondering matters of ethics and standards instead. Well, don’t feel badly if you aren’t because the AASLH Professional Standards and Ethics Committee is hard at work.

The Committee’s charge is to help our membership better understand the ethical ramifications of organizational and individual behavior, to develop and advocate for professional development opportunities related to ethical issues and standards, and to respond to situations as they arise.

Avenues for disseminating the committee’s work include white papers, technical leaflets, articles and sessions at the AASLH annual meeting. We've developed a short list of potential topics including financial transparency, museum shop management, and collections use.

Perhaps not surprisingly we have spent a fair amount of time dealing with an oldie but goodie as several organizations struggled publicly with the ever-thorny but critical “what to do with the proceeds from deaccessioned collections” question.

Recently the National Trust for Historic Preservation consulted the Committee on the Trust’s work to roll out their decision to treat historical buildings held in the public trust as collections. This allows the Trust, in some instances, to use funds from deaccessioning for direct conservation care of certain buildings. There will be an article on this in the next issue of History News so stay tuned.

Our efforts also extend to active participation in vetting future changes or additions to standards and performance indicators used in StEPs.

I am joined on the committee by a stellar team of Lynne Ireland, Donna Sack, and Sally Yerkovich. Cherie Cook is the staff liaison.

We welcome your input. If you have suggestions for areas or topics where an ethics or standards update would benefit the profession let us know.

So hit the beach, take in a softball game, have an ice cream cone and relax. We’ve got you covered.

Nina Zannieri is Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association and Chair of the AASLH Standards and Ethics Committee.

Postcards: Messages, Mediums and Materials

Last winter, I fielded a question from a colleague which spurred on some deep thoughts on postcards and the importance of descriptive words and cross-indexing.

“In the past, I have used the term Postcard, but I recently noticed that the lexicon in my collections software offers the option of Postcard or Postcard, Picture. How do I decide which one to choose?”

My answer:
This is a great question! Revised Nomenclature placed Postcard in two categories: Written Communication T & E (blank postcards) and Documentary Artifacts (non-blank) postcards. In Nomenclature 3.0, Postcard is only listed once. This provides the opportunity to assign a term(s) which adequately describes the medium and/or content. For more details, read Textbox 1.5 Cross-Indexing Documentary Artifacts in Nomenclature 3.0.

A blank postcard: Postcard
A photographic postcard: Postcard, Picture or Print, Photomechanical

Colleague’s follow-up question:
“Where is the Textbox? I am not finding it in my software's lexicon. Also, what if it is a photographic postcard and it has writing on it? I also have postcards in my collection that contain advertising.”

After reading this question, it also occurred to me that the colleague may not have a copy of the Nomenclature 3.0 book, and was exclusively using the collections management software’s preloaded lexicon. If you are in the same situation, I highly encourage you to get a copy of the book.

The content and medium of postcards contain a great deal of variance. Any time a cataloger comes across an object that could potentially have multiple terms – careful consideration of cross-indexing should occur. So, if a postcard is both photographic and contains inscriptions such as writing – consider using all three of the following terms: Postcard, Picture; Print, Photomechanical; Correspondence. Depending on whether or not the card was exclusively made for advertising, Card, Advertising may be considered as a term. Or this can be addressed by including advertising in the description and/or subject categories.

Postcard, Smoky Hill Museum Collections, Salina, Kansas
Postcard, Smoky Hill Museum Collections, Salina, Kansas

Over the last couple of years, I have come across some postcards where I took a few moments to pause, and reassess the object term. During inventory, I found a handmade postcard which included a painted drawing of a flower. There was also a photographic stamp adhered to the postcard. It also includes correspondence on the reverse side of the postcard. This object had originally been assigned the term Drawing. Needless to say, I spent some time re-cataloging.

I also recall a time when I was reviewing some unclassified terms in the lexicon; the term had been entered as “Fragment, Leather.”  When I reviewed the catalog record, the description on the registration sheet read “thin leather with decorations painted on card.” The vagueness of the description led to curiosity – I immediately went to storage to find this object. The object was a leather postcard.

Leather Postcard, Smoky Hill Museum Collections, Salina, Kansas
Leather Postcard, Smoky Hill Museum Collections, Salina, Kansas

I expected to find a fragment of leather with paint on it. Based upon the description and no photographic documentation at the time – I certainly did not expect to find a postcard! The person who originally cataloged this item in the 1980s was thinking more about the material composition of the object rather than its medium or content.

We all from time to time encounter catalog records that do not meet the current museum field standards. Sometimes the catalog record lacks an important descriptive word and/or assigned a wrong term. (At least, I hope I’m not the only one…) Instead of allowing stress and frustration to set in, take some time to breathe and learn from the experience. What I learned from this experience is the value of cross-indexing and descriptors.

Answers to questions like these can be found in the introduction of Nomenclature 3.0. If a question arises that cannot be addressed by the book’s introduction, please contact a member of AASLH’s Nomenclature Task Force.