Active Collections: How to Create a Leaner Collection for Greater Impact

Looking to explore options of what it means to steward leaner, more sustainable collections with greater impact? Join Elee Wood, Rainey Tisdale, and Trevor Jones for a lively interactive discussion of ideas and action items on innovative and possibly unconventional ideas for collections stewardship and management. Topics will include new approaches to collections development, cataloging, policy, deaccessioning.  Participants will gain practical strategies and tools to shape your collection for greater impact.



Date: November 7, 2017

Time: 3pm Eastern/2pm Central/1pm Mountain/12pm Pacific/10am Hawaii/4pm Atlantic

Cost: $40 members/$65 nonmembers

Closed captioning available upon advanced notice. Please contact for more information.


About the Speakers:

Trevor Jones is Director and CEO of the Nebraska State Historical Society. He believes that museum collections have the power to tell amazing stories, and has helped museums of all sizes rethink how artifact collections support their mission. Trevor holds BA degrees in history and German from Grinnell College, an MA degree in history and Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute.



Rainey Tisdale is an independent curator who leads for change on field-wide issues including place-based interpretation, collections stewardship, creative practice, and museums & well-being. She has held curatorial positions at the AFL-CIO’s museum, the US Senate’s Office of Senate Curator, and the Bostonian Society; she was a Fulbright Scholar in Helsinki, Finland and a community fellow at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities; and taught in the Museum Studies Program at Tufts University. She is an international expert on city museums and a co-founder of the Active Collections Project. With Linda Norris, she co-authored Creativity in Museum Practice.



Elee Wood is professor of museum studies, and public scholar of museums, families, and learning in the Museum Studies Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and Associate Dean of Student Affairs in the School of Liberal Arts. Wood’s research includes the study of visitor-object experiences in museums, object-based learning, critical museum pedagogy, and evaluation capacity building. She is co-author of The Objects of Experience: Transforming Visitor-Object Encounters in Museums with Kiersten F. Latham (Routledge, 2014) and joined the Active Collections Project in 2014.


Do History Museums Still Need Objects? I'm Not Sure

I’ve been pondering the central question of Rainey Tisdale’s article (“Do History Museums Still Need Objects?”), since History News published it last summer. Our museum staff members have had some delightful (and some not so delightful) discussions about it.  We even sent a copy to our advisory board for them to discuss. Many of them, though, feared we wanted to deaccession our entire collection.


Here are the article’s main points:

  • we need objects, but we must do something great with them;
  • we may not need the objects (or multiple copies of objects) we’ve collected;
  • we need to restore the links between objects and places;
  • we need a different model for access;
  • do history museums still need curators?

After attending Rainey’s session at October’s AASLH Annual Meeting, I started thinking about this issue again.  That’s when I got into real trouble.

Our museum staff spent most of October moving our collections from a dilapidated building into a new storage facility.  This gave us a rare opportunity to review EVERYTHING in our collection.  We found (and, frankly, had suspected) that many objects were 20th century mass-productions lacking any provenance.

We’re not alone, particularly in the West, where many communities developed and boomed during the era of mass production.  How do we handle these items?  The easy solution might be to keep the objects with provenance and to deaccession ones that don’t.

But even the objects with provenance may be problematic. Yes, we have typewriters owned by every mayor during the 1920s. But do we need all five of them?  Do these objects have a story? If so, could one typewriter tell all of those stories?

Or take another example, something every museum has: Singer sewing machines. We have at least six of them. The problem is:

  • they drain our museum’s resources;
  • they take up valuable storage space;
  • they’re ridiculously heavy to move to a new storage facility; and
  • we’ll never show all six at the same time (unless we open the highly anticipated blockbuster Singer sewing machine exhibit…).

I admit, I don’t have an answer to these questions. I do know we can’t collect every sewing machine and typewriter that comes our way, regardless of the stories connected to them.  So what are we to do?