Developing A Collection Management Plan For Ship Museums

by N.M. Cary and F.V. Thompson


The purpose of this sample collections management document outline is to initiate awareness in the historic ship community as to the importance of having a sound collections management policy. A collections management policy explains why a museum is in operation and how it goes about its business. It articulates the museum's professional and ethical standards regarding objects left in its care. The policy serves as a guide for the staff and as a source of information for the public. Without clear direction, poor decisions will be made and for a museum, many such "mistakes" have no easy solutions. Adopting a collections management policy not only helps prevent future mistakes, but helps correct those of the past. The collections management policy should not just be an internal guidelines document for the curatorial department only. It should be a policy document that has been read, discussed, understood, and approved by the historic ship museum's board of directors. A good collections management policy is vital to ensure the long-term preservation of artifacts entrusted to the care of your ship museum. The Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) also mandates having one in place if you wish to have historical objects from the NHHC's collection on loan to you. As of 2 January 2001, all historic ship organizations are required to have a collections management document in place and submitted to NHHC that meets NHHC's standards if they still desire to have access to our collections. As directed by the Chief of Naval Operations and as part of our relationship with the Navy Ship Donation Program Office of the Naval Sea Systems Command, we periodically inspect historic ships to ensure proper compliance with proper collections management procedures. As of 2 January 2001, adherence to your submitted collections management plan is a part of these inspections. For an organization in the process of acquiring a ship for use as a museum or memorial, a collections management plan is required before the Navy initiates any loans of historical properties.

The document below is intended as a guide only. It has been developed with input from several existing historic ship museums; however, it should be noted that what works at one museum does not necessarily work at another. This is not, by and large, a "fill in the blank" document; rather, it is our intent to give you some of the information necessary for you and your staff to develop a plan tailored to your specific needs. Since some of the historic ships are part of larger museum establishments, it is recommended that these ships review the collections policies of the whole museum and develop a version to meet their collections management needs within that context. The first step in developing an effective collections management plan is for your museum ship organization to carefully and honestly examine the conditions under which you operate or hope to operate and develop a plan that is realistic and accurately tailored to your specific circumstances.

Please note that you do not have to follow either this outline or format. Several of the historic ship operations already have effective collections management plans in place. We are not so much concerned about format as we are about whether or not your plan is professionally sound and ensures the proper long-term care and utilization of the museum ship's collection.

If you have any questions or comments about the below proposed outline, or need any help in developing your own collections management plan, please feel free to contact the staff of the Naval Historical Center for assistance. In specific cases, we may be able to recommend an existing museum ship with similar conditions and collections management challenges.

As conditions change, it will be periodically necessary for a historic ship organization to occasionally review its collections management policy and, if necessary, update it and bring it in line with existing museum practice. If this is done, a copy of the revised document should be provided to NHHC.

Head, Curator Branch


1 August 1999


Mission Statement of Organization

Should be a brief statement of purpose of the museum ship organization; i.e., why are you here and what do you hope to accomplish?


A. Statement of Purpose

  1. The curatorial department collects and manages material in support of the mission of the organization. This statement applies to all museum ship organizations. Some collections managers at these museum ship organizations may wish to expand on this statement to describe more precisely their function within their organization as a whole.
B. Scope of the Collection
  1. Simply put, based on its mission statement, this section defines in broad terms what the museum will and will not collect. It sets general parameters for the museum ship's acquisition policy. More detailed acquisitions guidance should be provided in the section of this document entitled "Acquisition of Collections"
C. Authority and Responsibility Regarding Museum Collections Policy
  1. Ethics: - A complete collections management policy outlines professional ethical standards for your museum. We strongly recommend that your museum organization incorporate the museum ethics adopted by AAM and AASLH into your collections management policy. Copies of these statements are at Appendix A. If you must amplify or modify these standards to meet specific needs of your organization, you should do so in this section.
  2. Care, Accountability and Management of the Collection - In this section, you clearly define who has authority over and who is responsible for the each aspect of the care, accountability and management of the collection. We would suggest an organizational flow chart showing the functions of the museum staff, particularly in regard to management of the collections
  3. Acquisition Authority - In this section, you clearly define who has the authority to accept items into the collection and for what purposes. All staff at your museum ship ought to know who is and is not authorized to accept material. Staff members who are not authorized to accept material should be able to provide potential donors the necessary information on how to donate materials. In order to avoid misunderstandings or confusion, the museum ship organization should look very carefully at who it wants to authorize to accept materials. It is our experience that, generally speaking, only the curators and the executive director should be authorized to accept artifacts on behalf of the organization.
  4. Deaccession Authority - In this section, you clearly define who has the authority and who has the responsibility for legally removing an item from the museum's collection. For more information, see the section below entitled "Deaccessioning of Collections".
  5. Access to the Collection - In this section, you define who has physical access to the museum's collection and under what conditions they may have access. The curatorial staff should publish a list of rules concerning this matter and post it prominently throughout the facilities where materials are stored.
  6. Use of Collections - In this section, you define the ways in which the collection may be used. Any restrictions of use should be stated here, including environmental concerns, legal and ethical restrictions, security risks, public safety, and concerns for the preservation of the collection. Not everything is suitable for exhibit, for reasons of condition, security, or content. It should be noted that, for ships under the Navy Ship Donation Program, one of the conditions of donation is that exhibit of the ship shall not bring discredit on the Navy.
D. Collections Management Activity
  1. Documentation:
    The museum must have documentation for every item in its collection. Documentation must provide the information associated with an item: what is it; who brought it in; when the item entered the custody of the museum; legal status (donation, loan, potential purchase, etc.); physical description of the item, including any special markings and condition; current location; permanent location; and information concerning the object such as who used it, how they used it and when and any other interesting historical information associated with the item. Documentation may also include information that places an artifact in its broader historical, technical, or cultural context such as the development of a particular weapon, the evolution of uniform designs, etc. Documentation usually consists of such things as deeds of gift or purchase receipts, correspondence with the donor, shipping documents, loan paperwork, copies of documents which help establish provenance or context, catalog and accession records, inventory records, condition reports, and, if applicable, information on the disposition of an object if it has been removed from the collection for whatever reason. For more information on the details of documentation, see the section below entitled "Collections Processing, Care, and Control".
  2. Acquisition of Collections:
    In this section, the museum defines the criteria that determine what items the museum will or will not accept into the collection. The museum's mission determines these criteria. As you are probably very much aware, there are a great many people out there who will offer you just about anything you can possibly think of, including a tremendous number of items which can be kindly defined as "extraneous" and more commonly referred to as "junk". This section will help you find a way to develop your collection intelligently and to politely decline material that falls outside the scope of your collections policy.
    1. Criteria that justify the acquisition of materials include:
      (1). The rarity, historical, aesthetic or display value of the collection justifies the cost of its acquisition, conservation, and upkeep.

      (2). The collection is consistent with research, exhibition, loan, and publication plans and policies.

      (3). The collection augments, rather than unnecessarily duplicates existing holdings.

      (4). The collection can be appropriately stored and cared for by your organization.

      (5). The collection's provenance is established.

      (6). The collection is not encumbered by unmanageable donor, copyright, patent, trademark, or trade name restrictions.

      (7). The conditions accompanying the collection will not give rise to commercial exploitation or conflict of interest or do not appear to do so.

      (8). The collection is not by nature physically hazardous to the point that the physical hazard cannot be remediated.

      (9). If the collection is being acquired on loan for study or exhibit, the value of the collection for this purpose outweighs its potential legal and public relations liabilities in case of loss or damage.

    2. Criteria that mitigate against the acquisition of material include:

      (1). Have little or no meaningful historical relevance to your organization, either in terms of subject matter or historical connection.

      (2). Are so badly damaged as to be either unrestorable or require a degree of restoration far in excess of the historical value or artistic merit of the items.

      (3). The aesthetic and/or artistic value of the items is marginal at best.

      (4). The items are a reproduction of an original, are of marginal historical/financial/artistic value, and/or are in the collection in quantities far in excess of anticipated requirements.

      (5). May have meaningful historical relevance to your organization but are in your collection in quantities in excess of anticipated requirements.

      (6). Your organization cannot properly care for and store or display the object.

      (7). Objects have legal or owner-imposed conditions that create restrictions that outweigh the value of the objects for display or study.

    3. Acquisition of Materials from Sunken Naval Vessels and Naval Aircraft Wreck Sites. You are reminded that acquisition of materials from sunken naval vessels and naval aircraft wrecks is illegal unless sanctioned by the United States Navy. For detailed information on this subject, see Appendix C.
    4. Acquisition of Whole Collections. Whole collections may be acquired which include significant quantities of material not required for permanent retention by your organization. If you do not plan to permanently retain all portions of a collection at the time you acquire it, inform the donor up front so that there are no misunderstandings. It is advisable to put this in writing within the deed of gift. Such materials should be disposed of expeditiously except under the following conditions:

      (1). Materials in the collection having no meaningful historical value or provenance but of sufficient display quality can be retained for decoration of various facilities. Such items should be cared and accounted for as exhibit props, not as historical materials.

      (2). Materials are retained for the purpose of exchange or sale. This is a very delicate ethical area within the museum profession. It is strongly recommended that you consult your state's individual laws regarding such issues. As a matter of professional ethics, responsibility, and courtesy, such materials should be offered to other appropriate historical agencies for donation or exchange before they are offered for exchange or sale elsewhere. Care must be taken not to acquire excessive quantities of material solely for possible future exchange or sale. Such a procedure could be counterproductive because it requires considerable personnel resources and storage facilities to maintain adequate care and accountability for the material. It can also seriously damage your credibility within the museum ship community, the museum community as a whole, and with your constituency. We cannot emphasize too strongly the necessity of exercising due care in this area.

    5. This section also outlines the procedures required for acquiring items. These procedures should include, but are not limited to:

      (1). How to prepare and complete a proffer of gift agreement.

      (2). How to prepare letters of acknowledgement of gift.

      (3). What procedures to follow in case there is significant disagreement about whether or not to acquire a particular object or group of objects.

      (4). How to develop appropriate documentation.

    6. Each museum ship organization should have a prepared procedure for how to politely decline the offer of a donation if it does not meet its acquisitions criteria. A suggestion would be referral to another museum or other historical organization where the material could be more appropriately used. Remember, you do not have to, and should not have to, accept everything offered to you.

  3. Collections Processing, Care and Control
    1. Processing - This includes registration, accessioning, cataloging, and marking of the objects acquired. For more details on these processes, see Dorothy H. Dudley and Irma Bezold Wilkinson. Museum Registration Methods, or Daniel B. Reibel. Registration Methods for the Small Museum, both cited in the bibliographical essay at Appendix B. Certain points should be made:

      (1). Materials should be properly registered and accounted for as soon as possible after receipt. Failure to do this will lead to serious title and accountability problems later on. We at NHHC know this from hard, unhappy experience. Make this process your first priority.

      (2). Cataloging should be done by those who know the material and can both properly identify it and put it into context. For purposes of proper documentation, we strongly recommend that the curatorial personnel for each museum ship establish clear guidelines for cataloging material. In particular, minimum standards regarding the basic information required when cataloging each object should be specified, to include weight, dimensions, markings, material/medium, source, brief description, and association and/or context. Photography of each object, if possible, is highly desirable. Again, we at NHHC know from hard, unhappy experience what unfortunate things can happen if you neglect proper cataloging.

      (3). Mark each object clearly and semi-permanently. The two above-referenced books tell you how to do this.

      (4). Your collections management document should specify clearly and step-by-step exactly how you process materials. This will significantly reduce the number of mistakes made in getting materials into the collection and will make your life easier in the long run.

    2. Care - This includes proper storage or safe exhibit technique, monitoring of environmental conditions, conservation and restoration when required, and periodic condition reporting. A few points:

      (1). Your storage and exhibits methodology will depend on your circumstances. The key is to provide your collections with safe, secure housing which will insure their long-term survival and prevent the need for expensive, unnecessary conservation and restoration. Your proposed methodology needs to be specified in some detail in your collections management plan. In developing your storage methodology, you should give some consideration as to how it fits into your risk management plan (see below in the section entitled "Risk Management").

      (2). Before implementing any conservation or restoration of objects in your collection, you must know in specific terms what you plan to do and make sure that your staff is competent to do the work. Conservation and restoration of historical objects is normally a tedious and difficult job that requires meticulous attention to detail, thorough documentation, and considerable technical expertise; for these reasons, it is normally best contracted out to experts in a particular type of conservation/restoration. As part of your collections management plan, you need to include at this point a section on how you plan to carry out conservation and restoration processes for your collection. Curatorial staff should develop a regular inspection schedule for artifacts both in storage and on exhibit which will enable your organization to carefully monitor the state of your collections. Monitoring procedures also ought to be a part of your collections management document.

    3. Control - This includes procedures for periodic inventory and tracking the movement of artifacts. An accurate inventory will save your museum unnecessary embarrassment and untold hours of unproductive effort. We have been there, done that, had egg on our face. Likewise, an effective system of tracking the movement of artifacts will help ensure that your organization knows where each object is at all times. Failure to properly control your collections can lead to serious legal and credibility problems for your organization.
  4. Deaccessioning of Collections

    1. This section includes the criteria and procedures used for removing an item from the collection. The criteria and procedure must meet all ethical and applicable legal requirements. As custodian of a significant collection of art and artifacts, your organization has as one of its most basic functions the care and preservation of this collection. To execute this responsibility effectively, your organization must continuously review and evaluate its artifact collection to ensure they grow and develop in concert with its basic mission. Every museum-type organization has from time to time accessioned into its artifact collection items that are no longer required. In the interest of economy, scarce resources should not be expended on accounting and caring for unnecessary material; rather, these items have to be deaccessioned and disposed of properly. In reducing the size of the collection, however, extreme care must be taken to ensure the process is neither capricious nor arbitrary and that the selection of objects to be deaccessioned is a careful, rational process based on informed professional judgment. It is inevitable that your organization will acquire materials that, on later reflection, you find you no longer need. You must have a procedure in place as part of your collections management policy that meets the standards of the museum profession and the legal requirements of your state.

    2. Candidates for potential deaccessioning have the same basic characteristics as those objects that should not be acquired in the first place. Criteria include the following:

      (1). Have little or no meaningful historical relevance to (Your Museum Ship Here), either in terms of subject matter or historical connection.

      (2). Are so badly damaged as to be either unrestorable or require a degree of restoration far in excess of the historical value or artistic merit of the items.

      (3). The aesthetic and/or artistic value of the items is marginal at best.

      (4). The items are a reproduction of an original, are of marginal historical/financial/artistic value, and/or are in the collection in quantities far in excess of anticipated requirements.

      (5). May have meaningful historical relevance to your organization but are in your collection in quantities in excess of anticipated requirements.

      (6). Your organization cannot properly care for and store the object.

      (7). Objects have legal or owner-imposed conditions which create restrictions that outweigh the value of the objects for display or study.

  5. Risk Management (includes Security, Disaster Planning, Legal and Financial Issues)
    1. Security: In this section, outline the security procedures required to safeguard the museum's collection both in storage and on exhibit. The museum must also outline procedures for safeguarding its collections management system, i.e., its written and automated documentation. This is very important. Most of the items in your collection are considered pilferable and irreplaceable. You must make extra efforts to guarantee their physical security. The professional reputation of your museum, and your continued ability to acquire additional items for your collection, depend on this.

    2. Disaster Planning: Every museum must have a disaster plan that outlines how the museum will handle conditions such as terrorism, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes that threaten the physical survival of the museum and its collection. Natural disasters occasionally present museum ships with challenging problems that most museums do not have to face. It is vital that your operation have a detailed plan for securing your collections during such times and that the plan be understood thoroughly by all staff members.
    3. Legal and Financial Issues: The museum must seek competent legal and financial counsel regarding insurance and other financial risk management issues pertaining to your collections, such as capitalization of assets and personal property law. It is recommended that the museum consult other reputable museums in your area. In this arena, you cannot afford to fly by the seat of your pants. You must know the rules, and you must ensure that you have done what you are required to do in order to avoid financial hazard and bad publicity.
  6. Loans

    1. This section outlines the procedures for handling the outgoing and incoming loan of artifacts. Loans involve items in an organization's legal custody to which it does not have legal title.

      (1). Outgoing Loans - This section defines specifically the conditions under which the museum will make outgoing loans. Loan agreements should be legally valid and clearly specify any restrictions or requirements on use and care of the loaned items, duration of the loan and financial responsibility for transport of the loaned materials. Seek qualified legal counsel to ensure that your loan agreement meets proper museum standards and is in compliance with local and state law. Special note: No materials on loan to your museum ship organization from the Naval Historical Center may be loaned by you to a third party unless specifically authorized by NHHC in writing.

      (2). Incoming Loans - This section defines specifically the conditions under which the museum will accept incoming loans. Loan agreements should be legally valid. All restrictions and requirements imposed by the lender should be clearly understood prior to transfer of the loaned items. In the museum profession, it is normally considered poor practice to borrow or loan materials for extended periods. The only time your organization should borrow materials for an extended period is when the material is absolutely vital to your immediate exhibit needs and it cannot be acquired on a permanent basis through other sources. Remember that most museums that lend materials to your organization will require you to have insurance. It is strongly recommended that you consult with local museums about insurance management issues.

    2. Proper management of loans, both incoming and outgoing, is a vital part of your collections management operation. If you do not manage your outgoing loans properly, you risk the permanent loss of that portion of your collection. If you do not manage your incoming loans properly, you risk loss of professional credibility, access to your sources of material, and legal action.




The American Association for State and Local History is a membership organization comprised of individuals agencies, and organizations acting in the public trust, engaged in the practice of history, and representing a variety of disciplines and professions. The Association expects its members to abide by the ethical and performance standards adopted by the appropriate discipline-based and professional organizations. (A bibliography of organizational standards can be obtained from the Association.) In addition, Members of the Association shall meet the following ethical standards. Demonstrated failure to meet these standards may result in suspension or loss of membership in the Association.


Historical collections, including structures, are the bedrock upon which the practice of history rests. Association members shall always act to preserve the physical and intellectual integrity of their collections.

  1. Institutions shall maintain and abide by comprehensive collections policies officially adopted by their governing authorities.
  2. Priority shall be given to the care and management of collections.
  3. Collections shall not be capitalized or treated as financial assets.
  4. Collections shall not be deaccessioned or disposed of in order to provide financial support for institutional operations, facilities maintenance, or any reason other than the preservation or acquisitions of collections.
  5. Collections shall be acquired, cared for, and interpreted with sensitivity to their cultural origin.


Historical interpretation may be presented in a variety of formats.

  1. All interpretation must be based upon sound scholarship and must accurately reflect the facts as they have been documented.
  2. Interpretation must take special care not to dilute or ignore historical accuracy and inclusiveness for the sake of public entertainment and popularity.
  3. Interpretation must accurately reflect the cultural context of the subject matter.
  4. No interpretation shall use collections in a consumptive manner except as categorically delineated and specifically allowed within the collections policy.


The primary responsibility for governance, institutional policies, financial stability, and legal accountability of a historical organization rests with the governing authority. Operational responsibility rests with the staff. Individuals employed in the practice of history deserve respect, pay, and benefits commensurate to their training, dedication and contribution to society. Volunteers deserve the same consideration as their paid colleagues.

  1. All institutions must have a personnel policy, adopted by the governing authority, which is distributed to all staff, documenting the terms of employment.
  2. All institutions have the responsibility to engage personnel, including volunteers, who have appropriate training and expertise and to provide them with opportunities for additional training necessary to continue to meet their responsibilities.
  3. If the governing authority employs an administrator, that person alone is responsible for the employment, discipline, and release of all other staff, subject to established personnel policies.
  4. All historical institutions shall maintain financial records from which accurate information can be generated to manage the organization in a fiscally sound manner as a matter of public trust.


Activities that involve the marketing and sale of products, programs, services, and facilities are acceptable ways to produce support revenues and increase public awareness of and participation in historical activities. No such activities shall be undertaken that violate or compromise the integrity of an institution's mission, the ability of an institution or individual to meet professional standards, or an institution's not-for-profit status. Control of a product (e.g., exhibition, publication, program) shall neither be delegated nor abrogated to outside parties in order to obtain financial support.


Historical organizations and agencies exist to serve the public interest and must always act in such a way as to maintain public confidence and trust.

  1. All governing authority members, administrators, volunteers, and staff members shall avoid carefully the reality and the appearance of using their positions or the information and access gained from their positions for personal gain.
  2. Board members, volunteers, and staff shall refrain from personal collection in any manner that conflicts with the interests or credibility of the Institution. Institutions are encouraged to obtain statements of person collection interests before individuals become associated with the institution.
  3. Collections shall not be made available to any individual on any basis for personal use, either on or off the premises, or for any other purpose contrary to the adopted collections policies.


All members of the Association shall ensure actively that the variety of American cultural experiences in all programmatic and operational activities is represented accurately. The Association expects its members to assist the field in becoming more representative of our diverse society through equity in staffing, training, collecting, programming, and marketing. All professional activities, programs, products, and services shall be provided in such a way as to maximize access to all people.


Historical scholarship and interpretation demand intellectual freedom, with no qualification. Members shall refrain from any activity that willfully restricts or discredits free and open exploration and interpretation of the human experience.


This is an updated version of the Curators' Code of Ethics that appeared in Museum News in March 1983.

Throughout this document, the need for awareness of the law; adherence to written museum policies; knowledge of and concern for the collections and sensitivity to the public's interest in them; propriety in one's dealings; and open and frank disclosure of private holdings and transactions have been stressed.

An ethics code for curators is difficult to formulate because curators in one discipline may be called on to perform duties that curators in another discipline would find, at worse, unethical or, at best, inappropriate. Like the American Association of Museums' Code of Ethics for Museums, this code offers a set of guidelines. Curators are also urged to familiarize themselves with the Code of Ethics for Museums, to consult codes of ethics that deal specifically with their own disciplines, and to adhere to policies of their institutions. Disciplinary action will not result from any violation of this code. Rather, it is intended as a support document for curators. In light of this, an ad-hoc committee, appointed by the Board of the Curators Committee of the AAM, will be available for guidance.

A curator is a person who is knowledgeable about and trained in a field related to the collection in his or her care and is responsible for maintaining the overall well - being and scope of that collection. A curator initiates proposals for acquisition and disposal, supports preservation, grants access to the greatest extent possible, provides information for interpretation and display, produces exhibitions, conducts research and publishes findings, and contributes to the educational mission of his or her institution. This code of ethics endorses the 1994 Code of Ethics for Museums.

I. The Curator and the Museum

Curators must operate within the institutional framework and carry out their assigned duties and functions according to the guidelines stated by the director and the museum's mission. They work in cooperation with the registrar, collections manager, conservator, educator, and other staff.

II. Curatorial Roles

Curators are the staff advocates for the collection. As caretakers, curators ensure that the collections, including loans, and related documentation are well maintained and that a collections management policy is in effect. As interpreters, they provide the scholarly and philosophical foundation for the collection. As connoisseurs, they use their experiences and trained eye to make informed decisions about objects in or related to the collections. Given this multifaceted role, curators must work with all other museum departments.

III. Responsibility to the Collection:

Acquisition and Disposal

The formal process of acquisition and disposal begins with the curators. They must provide compelling reasons for both acquisition and disposal.

Curators are responsible for developing their collection in conjunction with the museum's stated mission. Curators should review the objects in their collection periodically to assess the collection's continued relevance to the museum's purposes. Curators identify and fill deficiencies in the collection and further refine its scope through collecting or disposal.

Curators must adhere to the acquisition and disposal policies of their institution. If written policies do not exist, curators should urge that such documents be developed.

Curators should not offer deaccessioned objects for private sale and consider their transfer to another institution or their sale and a well - publicized public auction as the most ethical methods of disposal.

Although the authority and final decision for deaccessioning always rests with the board of trustees or other governing authority, curators must offer professional guidance and expertise, in order that the organization not suffer legally, financially, scientifically, or aesthetically through disposal of objects from the collection.

Collections must not be used as financial assets or collateral for an institution.

The Curators' Code of Ethics endorses AAM's Code of Ethics for Museums regarding the use of funds from the sale or deaccessioned collections objects: "use of the proceeds from the sale of collection of materials is restricted to the acquisition of collections or the physical care of existing collections."

Curators should be familiar with codes of ethics related to their own disciplines and must be cognizant of all laws (international, national, and local) affecting the acquisition or disposal of objects in their area of responsibility. Curators must avoid acquiring stolen, illegally exported, or improperly collected specimens. They must consult documents such as the UNESCO Convention, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), state and federal wildlife laws and regulations, and the guidelines of their professional societies. The provenance of all objects should be researched and must be recorded to the fullest extent possible.


Curators may estimate insurance values for loans and internal use, and with the permission of their museum for other nonprofit institutions, but they must not prepare appraisals for gifts, objects to be deaccessioned, private purchase and sale, or any other reason.


In collaboration with the conservator, curators should evaluate and support only those proposals for commercial replication that guarantee the safety of an object, ensure that the copy will be accurate, and the use, appropriate. To the extent possible, any object should be marked as a copy in as permanent a manner as possible.

Access to Collections

A delicate balance may exist between object preservation and object access. Curators and conservators should confer to determine the needs and allowable access for each object.

Whenever possible, legitimate requests for information and/or examination of objects must be granted. This access shall include loans to responsible institutions as well as use within the owner institution. When granting access to objects or information, curators must also consider the cultural sensitivities of the object's creators.


Loans from the collections are granted following the institutional policy. The curator must ensure proper documentation and, in collaboration with other departments, ensure the overall well being of the collections for the duration of the loan. Curators must never lend museum collections for personal gain. Curators must ensure that loans to the collection be offered the same care and protection as the collections under their care.

Use of Collections

As the advocate for the collections, the curator must make every effort to discourage the handling of collections that can unnecessarily hasten their degradation or deterioration.

Documentation and Interpretation

Curators are responsible for the accuracy of their research, analysis, and interpretation and for the content of written description and documentation of the collections under the jurisdiction, whether prepared by themselves or others.

They must be aware of current scholarship and appropriately acknowledge the scholarly or artistic efforts of others.

Curators also have responsibility to an object's creators and should make an effort to incorporate accurately and sensitively the creator's perspective and the object's cultural content.

Human Remains and Sacred Objects

While issues related to Native American human remains and sacred objects are being addressed through NAGPRA, curators must extend the same respect to the human remains and sacred objects of all cultures.

Curators, in consultation with the director, trustees, and other departments, must be willing to exchange ideas with cultural representatives concerning the acquisition, exhibition, storage, interpretation, and physical care, or possible return, of such culturally sensitive objects.

Conflict of Interest

The relationship between curator and institution must be based on mutual trust and sound judgment. Curators must be committed to the mission, goals, and policies of their institution and avoid conflict of interest or even the appearance of conflict of interest with their institution. Critical areas for potential conflict of interest include personal collecting, dealing, gifts, and outside employment and consulting. In all such areas, the open and frank disclosure by the curator of all private holdings and transactions is essential.

Personal Collecting

Curators are strongly discouraged from collecting in the same field (the same types of objects) that they collect for their institution. They must never compete with their museum for an object.

Curators that do collect privately, in the same field that they curate for their institutions, must adhere to the following guidelines.

Curators must follow the personal collecting policies adopted by their institution. If a written document does not exist, curators should urge that a policy be developed.

Curators must give their institutions first option to acquire an object that they have purchased for themselves, at the same price, before adding it to their personal collection.

Curators must never purchase objects deaccessioned from their own institution or trade objects from their personal collection for objects from their museum's collection.

Curators should not store personal collections on museum property or do research on or have their personal collections conserved on museum time without the permission of the institution.

If curators lend objects for an exhibition in their museum, they should lend them anonymously. Similarly, illustrations of works in a curator's collection should be credited anonymously in the museum's publications.

If curators decide to dispose of part or all of their personal collection, they should offer it first to their museum at fair market value or as a gift. If their museum chooses not to acquire the collection, curators should first consider sale at public auction rather than to a dealer. All such transactions should be documented.

Curators should not negotiate personally with a dealer with whom the museum also does business. Neither friends nor relatives should engage in a transaction on behalf of the curator that is not in compliance with the above stated principles.


There is a distinct difference between dealing (buying and selling for personal profit) and occasional sales to upgrade a personal collection. To avoid conflict of interest or even the appearance of conflict of interest, curators must not become involved in dealing.

Gifts, Favors, and Discounts

Curators should accept gifts only for their institution. A gift relevant to the museum's collection should not be accepted for personal use. When, however, a close personal relationship exists, regardless of a professional one, and a colleague, donor, associate, or anyone else wishes to offer a curator a personal gift, curators may accept the gift, even in his or her own area of responsibility, provided it is in accordance with institution policy.

Curators must not accept personal discounts from a dealer if their museum also does business with that dealer.

Curators who are artists must not use their position to advance their own work.

Outside Employment and Consulting

Outside employment includes any situation where curators work for an organization, an individual, or themselves on their own time and are privately paid.

Curators should conform to their museum's personnel policy concerning outside employment.

Curators should not allow outside employment to interfere with the full and conscientious performance of their museum duties.

Curators should conform to their institution's conflict of interest guidelines when undertaking outside employment.

Curators should not draw on any of the institution's resources when involved in outside employment, except with the institution's approval.

Teaching, lecturing, writing, and professional consulting have the potential to increase a curator's knowledge and abilities and contribute to public understanding of their institution or field. Before engaging in any of these activities, however, full time curators should obtain clearance from their supervisor.

Curators should urge their institution to prepare a written policy that deals directly with the disposition of lecture fees, royalties, and the ownership of scholarly material and copyrights.

Steven Kern, Curator of Painting, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Joan Lester, Native American Curator, The Children's Museum, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts



Operating a museum program and caring for museum collections is a much more complex operation than most people realize. The ever-increasing sophistication and complexity of the museum business demands that those persons responsible for the care and exhibit of museum-type collections must be familiar with the basic literature of the profession. There is a considerable amount of literature out there on all aspects of museum operations. The purpose of this essay is not to list it all, but is instead to identify some major readily available sources of museum literature and information and to make the reader acquainted with some useful museum publications.


1. The American Association of Museums, 1575 Eye Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005, Web Site: The American Association of Museums (AAM) is the largest museum professional organization in the United States. Their professional journal, Museum News, is published bimonthly and is an excellent source of information on what is happening in the museum profession. They also have a very large annual conference. On a regular basis--at least twice a year--the AAM issues an extensive catalog of publications relating to all aspects of the museum profession.

2. The American Association for State and Local History, 1717 Church Street, Nashville, TN 37203-2991, Web Site:

The American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) is both a history and a museum professional organization. Its emphasis is that portion of the American museum and historical communities--primarily smaller museums and historical organizations--which specialize in local or regional history. Their quarterly publication, History News, is a very useful reference source for those working in this venue. They too have an annual conference. The books offered by this organization are available through Altamira Press, A Division of Sage Publications, Inc., 1630 North Main Street, Suite 367, Walnut Creek, CA 94596. Various other publications are available directly through AASLH. Of particular interest is their excellent Technical Leaflet series. Each technical leaflet is a brief (8) page discussion of a particular topic, such as training docents or planning museum tours.


Ellis Burcaw. Introduction to Museum Work. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1997. For a brief overview of the museum profession, one can hardly do better. A must read for those unacquainted with professional museum practice.

Gerald George and Cindy Sherrell-Leo. Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1986. The basics of getting a museum started.

Marie E. Malaro. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Washington,: AAM, 1985. All persons even peripherally involved in running a museum should have this book on their bookshelf and read it cover to cover at least once a year. This is an essential volume for helping to keep your museum and staff out of legal trouble.

Marilyn E. Phelan. Museum Law: A Guide for Officers, Directors, and Counsel. Washington: AAM, 1994. Another very useful publication on legal issues in museums.

Dorothy H. Dudley and Irma Bezold Wilkinson. Museum Registration Methods. Washington: AAM, 1979; Daniel B. Reibel. Registration Methods for the Small Museum. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1997. Both of these volumes have been standards in the museum profession for a number of years on how to register and account for museum collections.

Mary Case, ed. Registrars on Record: Essays on Museum Collections Management. Washington: AAM, 1988. A very interesting and useful volume for both the museum professional and the non-museum professional associated with a museum. It provides valuable insights into the work of those museum professionals who do day-to-day management of museum collections.

American Association of Museums. Caring for Collections: Strategies for Conservation, Maintenance, and Documentation. Washington: AAM, 1984. A valuable reference on how to provide basic care and accountability to museum collections.

Arminta Neal. Help for the Small Museum. Washington: AAM, 1987. A standard in the museum profession on how to build, organize, and display exhibits in the small museum.

Michael Belcher. Exhibitions in Museums. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992; available through the AAM. A good volume on exhibition planning, design, and presentation.

Beverly Serrell. Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1996. Label writing for museum exhibits is a rather difficult art to master. This volume provides comprehensive guidance on how to do it right.

Mary Candee and Richard Casagrande, ed. Prep: Planning for Response and Emergency Preparedness. Texas Association of Museums, 1993; available through AAM. A valuable reference for how to deal with natural and other disasters.

Registrars Committee, American Association of Museums. Standard Facility Report. Washington: AAM, 1989. This report details an institution's physical specifications and staff practices in standard form to expedite the exchange of information critical to lenders and insurers.

Marlene Wilson. The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs. Volunteer Management Associates, 1976; available through AAM. Managing volunteers properly is not an easy process. This volume helps you set up a volunteer program that works.

Museum News reprint package. Professional Codes of Ethics. Articles include: Code of Ethics for Curators; Code of Ethics for Conservators; Code of Ethics for Registrars; Code of Ethics for Museum Stores; Museums and the Public Interest; On the Ethics of Museums. Washington, AAM. AASLH Statement of Professional Ethics. Nashville: AASLH. What are the professional obligations of those who work in museums toward their collections, their institutions, and the communities they serve? These codes of ethics help define these responsibilities and the basic components of the professional ethical framework in which museums are supposed to operate.


Common Questions about Submerged Aircraft and Shipwrecks Federal Laws & Regulations Relating to U.S. Navy Submerged Aircraft and Shipwrecks:

Department of the Navy ship and aircraft wrecks are government property in the custody of the U.S. Navy. These seemingly abandoned properties remain government-owned until the Navy takes specific formal action to dispose of them.

Navy custody of its wrecks is based on the property clause of the U.S. Constitution and international maritime law and it is consistent with Articles 95 and 96 of the Law of the Sea Convention. These laws establish that right, title, or ownership of federal property is not lost to the government due to the passage of time. Only by congressional action can ship and aircraft wrecks be declared abandoned.

Through the sovereign immunity provisions of Admiralty law, the Department of the Navy retains custody of all of its naval vessels and aircraft, whether lost within U.S., foreign, or international boundaries. Past court cases supporting this doctrine include litigation in Hatteras Inc., v. the USS Hatteras (1984) and U.S. v. Richard Steinmetz (1992, also known as the "Alabama bell case"). The treatment of historic naval aircraft throughout the world's oceans has also conformed to these laws.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the U.S. Navy is obligated to protect its historic properties, including ship and aircraft wrecks, for which it has custodial responsibilities. The NHPA directs federal agencies to manage their cultural resource properties in a way that emphasizes preservation and minimizes the impact of undertakings that might adversely affect such properties. It is important to note that the management of Navy cultural resources such as ship and aircraft wrecks is not simply a matter of historic preservation. The issues of war graves, unexploded ordnance, and potential military usage of recovered weapons systems must also be addressed in wreck-site management.

Questions and information concerning U.S. Navy ship and aircraft wrecks should be addressed to:

Naval Historical Center
Office of the Underwater Archaeologist
Washington Navy Yard
805 Kidder Breese SE
Washington, DC 20374-5060
202-433-3593 (fax)

Common Questions

Who owns U.S. Navy ship and aircraft wrecks?

The Department of the Navy retains custody of all its ship and aircraft wrecks unless specific, formal action is taken to dispose of them. The administrative act of striking an aircraft or ship from the active list does not constitute disposal. Even aircraft and ship wrecks that are stricken from the active list remain the property of the United States until such time affirmative action is taken to dispose of these properties, such as sale, or other action in accordance with law.

What do I do if I want to dive on Navy ship or aircraft wrecks?

Divers may dive on Navy ship and aircraft wrecks at their own risk. However, federal property law dictates that no portion of a government wreck may be disturbed or removed. Unauthorized removal of any property from a U.S. Navy wreck is illegal. Sections of the U.S. Code have been successfully applied in prosecuting individuals who violate Navy wreck sites.

Navy wrecks may contain unexploded ordnance and other hazards and should be approached with the utmost caution. Please note that diving on wreck sites located in National Park or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sanctuaries requires a dive permit available through those agencies. The Navy strongly encourages cooperation with other agencies and individuals interested in preserving our maritime and aviation heritage. The diving public is encouraged to report the location of underwater ship and aircraft wreck sites to the Naval Historical Center. Documentation of these wreck locations allows the Navy to evaluate and preserve important sites for the future.

What if I witness another diver removing parts from a Navy wreck?

If you witness the theft of material from a Navy wreck, report it to the U.S. Coast Guard, the Naval Historical Center, and to your State Historic Preservation Officer or State Underwater Archaeologist. Vandalism of public property is both illegal and inconsiderate to other divers. If theft or destruction is unreported, underwater sites will soon be destroyed and unavailable for future use.

What if I want to recover a Navy-owned wreck?

Recovery of historic ship or aircraft wrecks will be considered only for educational or scientific purposes. It is unlikely the Department of the Navy will recommend the disposal and sale of historic ship or aircraft wrecks. It has been Navy policy not to dispose of historic ship and aircraft wrecks for the following reasons:

Congress has mandated through the NHPA that the Department of the Navy make every effort to preserve its historic cultural resources. The remains of crew members, if any, deserve proper retrieval and burial. There is a possibility that live explosives or ordnance may still be on board. Arbitrary disposal and sale of wrecks may foster commercial exploitation of cultural resources. Abandonment of wrecks could deplete a finite inventory of significant cultural resources.

The Navy does consider and encourage requests for loan of historic aircraft. Museums or other private parties interested in recovery of wrecked Navy aircraft for display, educational purposes, or archaeological investigation should contact the Naval Historical Center for guidance at 202-433-2210.

Under no circumstances should salvage of naval ship or aircraft wrecks be undertaken without prior and specific written approval by the Navy.

What about wreck sites that are debris fields rather than whole aircraft or ships?

Wreck sites that are not entire aircraft or ships, but are parts strewn in a debris field are considered archaeological sites. Such sites still contain Navy property and must be managed by the Navy in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act. This means that anyone wishing to recover parts from a debris field is required to contact the Navy for review of the project. Does the Navy have a Permitting Policy? Yes, the Naval Historical Center has an application process and guidelines for submitting archaeological research permits. The NHHC may issue permits to a qualified person or persons subject to appropriate terms and conditions. For an application, please write to: Naval Historical Center, Office of the Underwater Archaeologist, Washington Navy Yard, 805 Kidder Breese, SE, Washington, DC 20374-5060.

Federal Laws and Regulations Relating to U.S. Navy Submerged Ship and Aircraft Wrecks

*Antiquities Act (16 U.S.C. 433).
*National Historic Preservation Act of 1966(16 U.S.C. 470).
*Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 (16 U.S.C. 469).
*Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (16 U.S.C. 470aa). *Theft of Government Property (18 U.S.C. 641).
*Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 (43 U.S.C. 2101).
*Documents, Historical Artifacts, and Condemned or Obsolete Combat Material: Loan, Gift, or Exchange(10 U.S.C. 2572).
*Archaeological Resources Protection Act Final Uniform Regulations (32 CFR 229). *Protection of Historic Properties (36 CFR 800).
*Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Preservation Projects (36 CFR 68).
*Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines (55 FR 50116).
*National Register of Historic Places (36 CFR 60). *Determinations of Eligibility for Inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (36 CFR 63).
*Recovery of Scientific, Prehistoric, Historic, and Archaeological Data (36 CFR 66)
*Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archaeological Collections (36 CFR 79).

3 August 1999

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