Accessioning is the formal, legal process of accepting an object into a museum collection. Because accessioning an object carries an obligation to care for that object in perpetuity, it is a serious decision. While in the past many museums accepted objects with little deliberation, today most museums have accepted the need for formal accessioning procedures and practices. These are typically set out as part of a museums Collections Management Policy or CMP.
While each museum has its own procedures for accessioning, in most cases it begins with either an offer from a donor to give an object to a museum, or a recommendation from a curator to acquire an object through purchase or trade.
Several issues must be considered in the decision to accept an object. Common issues include:
- Is the object relevant to the museums mission and its scope of collecting, as defined by its governing body?
- Was the object lawfully acquired and if foreign in origin, imported in compliance with international law?
- Does the owner of an object have legal title to the object and therefore the right to transfer it?
- Are there any other parties with an interest in the object (e.g. heirs of a donor, descendant groups for cultural objects, etc.)?
- Is the object encumbered by any legal obligations or constraints (e.g., natural history objects that require special permits)?
- Would the object pose any threats or dangers to other objects or staff?
- Does the museum have the resources to properly care for the object (e.g., appropriate storage space, adequate funding)
- Is the object encumbered by any donor restrictions?
Answering these questions often required investigating an objects provenance, the history of an object from the time it was made.
Many museums will not accession objects that have been acquired illegally or where other parties have an interest in the object. In art museums, special care is given to objects that changed hands in European countries during World War II and archaeological objects unearthed after the 1970 UNESCO Convention covering the transport of cultural property. Other disciplines have different concerns. For example, anthropology museums will pay special attention to Native American objects that may be subject to repatriation, and paleontology museums may look carefully at whether proper permitting procedures were followed when they are offered fossil collections.
While in the past, museums often accepted objects with donor-based restrictions, many museums today ask that gifts be given unrestricted. Common donor restrictions include requiring that an object always be exhibited, or that a collection stays together. However, such restrictions can prevent museums from changing their exhibits as scholarship evolves and may introduce conservation issue for delicate objects not suited to continued display.
Final decision to accept an object generally lies with the museums board of trustees. In large museums, a special committee may meet regularly to review potential acquisitions. Once the decision has been made to accept an object, it is formally accessioned through a Deed of Gift and entered into the museums catalog records. Each object is given a unique catalog number to identify it. Objects are then packed for appropriate archival storage, or prepared for exhibition or other educational use.