The difference between the museum and archive approach

From Our Toolkit

To the casual eye museums and archives, and even libraries, all look like similar types of organisations. All are repositories of cultural items. However they differ in their approach to what they collect, how they collect it, how they organise their material and how their users can access it.

The Museum approach

Broadly speaking Museums are curator driven. Each museum decides what they will collect based on themes, activity, geographic areas or time periods. Information is collected and recorded on each donated item and recorded in a catalogue. The museum will aspire to collect detailed information on each item in its collection. Links between items are cross referenced allowing groups of items to be stored separately.

Museums can hold a large number of items of which only a limited number of curator chosen items are displayed for their users to enjoy. The curator, sometimes in partnership with other museum staff, chose the context in which the items will be displayed and provide explanatory and interpretative text to this end. If a visitor wishes to view items not on display this can be arranged at the curator’s discretion by appointment.

The Archive approach

In contrast, Archives are research driven. Some are open to the public and others are only accessible by appointment. Users can search the archive catalogue listing and request material to see. They can handle and explore the archive holdings first hand rather than look at it in a display. Historically archives do not have dedicated display areas. Little or no interpretation of the items is provided by the archive allowing the user to draw their own conclusions. Information is recorded in a hierarchical structure about each item in the collection but for details the user must investigate the documents themselves. Archivists apply the principles of provenance and original order when managing their collections.

Which approach to chose?

Deciding on the best approach for your organisation depends on a number of factors:

  • If you have a collection of artefacts and archive material you may wish to choose the museum approach and use one approach for your whole collection
  • If you have mainly archive material, even if you have a small number of artefacts, you may wish to choose the archive approach
  • If you have archive material but would like to actively collect artefacts you may wish to choose a mixed approach as laid out in The National Archives’ very thorough and detailed Managing Mixed Collections For Archives document
  • If you are looking to lodge your collection with an external organisation it is best to identify who you wish to partner with and speak to them about the approach they use.
  • If you are looking for an organisation who will care for your collection in the long-term please speak to Sporting Heritage.

The most important factor in managing and caring for collections is that your approach is consistent.

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