I am a museum collection manager with over twenty years working with museum collections. I started cataloging costume objects when I was sixteen during my summer tour guide job at the Carroll County Farm Museum. I recently approached a local history collection (which will remain nameless, for the time being) for a photograph of an object to use in a Powerpoint presentation. I was impressed that they spelled out their collections access policy. It’s great to have a policy, and to make it visible to your constituents.
When I went to look at their research request form (which I think is very useful for preparing the museum for your visit), I noticed that this institution charges $25 an hour ($15 for members!) for access to collections. The average morning visit would cost nearly $75. As a museum professional and an independent researcher, I was shocked.
The relationship between museum and researcher is hardly ever exclusively a one way street – there’s an exchange of information, and that information provided by the researcher, such as mentioning comparative objects or relevant primary sources, can often become part of the permanent object file. The museum and subsequent researchers can then build upon that research as they plan exhibitions, write publications, and take that research to the next level. It hardly seems correct to charge an outside researcher that may possibly assist the museum in better understanding the object.
Museums must figure out how to generate donations and to cope with declining government support while striving to meet higher standards of preservation and access to collections. I expect to pay when I make lots of photocopies, or use an institution’s image in a publication. As a museum professional, I think also about the reciprocal relationship between museums involved in special exhibition loans. Some museums charge loan fees, beyond the actual costs of preparing and shipping an object to a borrowing institution. While a borrowing institution clearly pays for shipping, insurance, courier fees, required conservation, and packing and shipping, some museums place an additional fee on top, just for the privilege of borrowing the works. Many museums believe this is not in good faith, and begins to capitalize on the educational mission of museums.
Certainly, there are a lot of hard to capture costs when it comes to preparing loans, but getting out some collection objects for a visitor is one of the easiest things I can do. It is why I am there. I work with the researcher before their visit so we don’t waste time during the visit.
So I ask that museum charging $25 an hour for access to collections, where are your priorities? Every true museum holds collections in the public trust. You should be seeking contributors that you can energize about collection care to support you, rather than resulting to the extortion of your researchers. Visit Connecting to Collections to see a great Webinar on raising funds for collection care. It can be done.