Accession of Specimens

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Statement of Purpose

These links and documents contain information about best practices for accessioning specimens into natural history collections. Accessioning is the legal acquisition of specimens and differs from cataloging and, although it is sometimes used synonymously in some disciplines, should not be confused. The language below is based on the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute acquisition policy, which is also linked below in its entirety.

Introduction

An institution typically acquires specimens for its collections by field collection, exchange, gift, purchase, bequest, contract, abandonment, or other appropriate means. The institution is responsible for maintaining and conserving the specimens in collections in perpetuity as a public trust. For this reason, the institution accepts and acquires only those specimens for which it can provide proper care, conservation, and storage. Individual staff members and students act as agents for the institute when collecting specimens, but individuals do not own the specimens that they collect. Decisions concerning which specimens to accept for the collections are made by the appropriate institutional authority (e.g., administration, curator-in-charge, collection manager). Each division is responsible for the direction of growth of its collections. In general, collection acquisition is focused by research and tailored to resources. All specimens accessioned and cataloged by the institution must be obtained legally. All specimens should be documented with the necessary permits and licenses, and/or other documentation to show that they have been collected, and/or imported in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations. The institution may accept specimens that have been confiscated by government authorities. The institute adheres to the CITES convention and follows appropriate USFWS regulations.

Title to all objects acquired for the collections should be obtained free and clear, without restrictions on use, exhibition, loan, dispersal, or future disposition. All specimens obtained by exchange, donation, or purchase are documented by an invoice (the Accession Checklist) that documents that the specimens have (as far as can be determined) been legally obtained. The Accession Checklist is signed by a member of the curatorial staff (usually the collections manager) and a copy is kept on file as part of the permanent records of the appropriate division. The institution cannot and will not guarantee that donated specimens will be placed on long-term or permanent exhibition, that they will be exhibited or housed intact as a single collection, or that they will not be deaccessioned.

If a specimen of unknown origin or uncertain status is acquired by the institution, the specimen may be temporarily held for safekeeping. The appropriate state or federal authorities should be notified at once. The specimen is not to be accessioned and cataloged into the collection until after the authorizing documentation has been obtained from the government authorities.

The legal process of acquiring these specimens is through an accession or by means of repository agreements. In an accession, ownership of a collection is transferred to the institution. Under the terms of a repository agreement, the institution takes custody of a collection and provides curatorial services for the collection in accordance with a written agreement with another entity.

The word accession is defined in legal terms as: “a. The addition to or increase in value of property by means of improvements or natural growth. b. The right of a proprietor to ownership of such addition or increase.”

An accession is a specimen or group of specimens received from a single source, usually at one time, for which the institute has custody, right, or title. Thus, 400 specimens collected on one field trip to Canada, a single fossil from the Kansas River, or all birds from Kansas obtained by salvage during the calendar year could each be treated as one accession.

Accessioning is the formal process by which a specimen or object is legally accepted and recorded as an institutional item. Accessioning includes the process of the registration of specimens or objects into the institution, including the preparation and archiving of appropriate documentation.
To accession is to record and process an addition to the permanent collection. The accession process establishes the institution’s legal claim to the specimen. It involves the creation of an immediate, brief, and permanent record, with a control number or other unique identifier, for specimens or objects added to the collection. The accession process does three things: (1) it assigns a unique accession number to a specimen or group of specimens; (2) it describes (identifies) the specimens; (3) it establishes the provenance or the history of the specimens. The institution should not accession specimens or objects until it is legally feasible and financially viable to possess them. Specimens received by the institution and held pending an accession decision are not considered institution property.

An accession number is assigned to each specimen or group of specimens as part of the accession process. This number is used to relate all documentation and other records to that accession. The accession number also is included in the catalog entry for each specimen in the accession. All correspondence relating to an accession must be identified by the accession number. The accession numbers used by the KU Biodiversity Institute are unique, compound, sequential numbers (e.g., 2009-HR-001) where 2009 is the year of accession, HR is the unique two-digit acronym for the collection (in this case herpetology) and 001 is a sequentially incrementing number across the Institute. Accession numbers are assigned by the institute director or the director’s designee. In some institutions, a designated registrar fulfills this role.

The accession record contains the essential information describing the transactions through which the institute acquires specimens. An accession record consists of archival documents (e.g., the accession form, permits, letters, Deed of Transfer form, and other appropriate documentation maintained by the collections manager of each division, and the accession database maintained by the institution administration). The accession record is part of the permanent documentation of the institute.

Specimens may not be cataloged until they have been accessioned (assigned an accession number by the administration). Catalog numbers may not be “reserved” for unaccessioned specimens, as reserving a catalog number constitutes the first step in cataloging a specimen.

Specimens received on loan or under a repository agreement may not be accessioned. A loan is defined as specimens or objects that have been loaned to the institute by the owner. The institution is responsible for the care and return of specimens or objects on loan, but cannot take possession of them unless the lender provides the documentation necessary to convert the loan to a gift, purchase, exchange, etc. Specimens received as part of a repository agreement are not accessioned (because ownership is not transferred), but may be cataloged.

All accessions of specimens of wildlife originating both inside and outside the US are subject to the limitations of the Lacey Act. Under the terms of the Lacey Act, the term wildlife includes arthropods and all other invertebrates, as well as vertebrates. All institution specimens may be subject to one or more laws or regulations at the state, national or international levels.

Deaccessioning is the process of permanently removing accessioned materials from the collections.
A specimen is a whole plant or animal or any part of a plant or animal, including all genetic material and fossils.

A repository agreement is a written contract that transfers specimens to the institution, allows the institution to provide curatorial services for the specimens and to use the specimens for research purposes, but does not transfer ownership of the specimens to the institution. The repository agreement establishes the time period for the deposit of the specimens, describes standards of collection care and management, and specifies what rights and privileges (which may include compensation) the institute will receive for the services it provides. A number of international countries are now requiring repository agreements for collecting while other entities like the National Park Service also enter into such agreements with repository institutions. Repository agreements may be multi-year agreements that encompass multiple independent acquisition events by the same collector under the same permitting structures.

Accession procedure

Specimens are not automatically accessioned when they are received. Because accessioning initiates ownership, specimens are not accessioned until all documentation is in order. All specimens must be accessioned in order to be cataloged.

Before specimens are acquired for the institute, the following procedure must be followed:

  1. Review the Specimen Acquisition Checklist.
  2. Request copies of the appropriate permits held by the institute from the director (or person designated by the director).
  3. Obtain or apply for the documentation needed to possess, export, and import the specimens legally.

Once specimens have been obtained, the following accession procedure is followed to assume legal ownership of the specimens:

  1. Obtain a signed Deed of Transfer form or other acceptable documentation.
  2. Compile the documentation necessary for specimen accession.
  3. Complete the Accession Checklist – a signature authorizing the accession must be obtained from a staff member with the division accepting the specimens
  4. Submit the completed and signed Accession Checklist and supporting documents to the director (or person designated by the director).
  5. Obtain an accession number (accession numbers are issued by the institute administration once the appropriate documentation is approved and the accession information is entered into the accession database).
  6. File the Accession Checklist and associated documentation in the permanent accession records of the division.

Specimens may be cataloged only after the entire accession procedure is completed.

If the director or the director’s designee declines to approve the accession, the specimens may not be cataloged into the collection. The director will resolve such cases with the individual responsible on a case-by-case basis.

ACCESSION RECORD All documentation (or copies of such documentation) relating to the legality of an accession and the accession process must be kept as part of the accession record labeled with the accession number. This record should contain copies of all collecting permits, licenses, export and import permits, species-specific permits, correspondence, and the signed Accession Checklist; it does not necessarily contain field notes. The accession record is retained by the collections manager (or another staff member) of the appropriate division for the institute. The accession record is a legal, permanent, archival record of institute activity.

ACCESSION CHECKLIST Each accession must be accompanied by a properly completed and signed Accession Checklist that includes the following documentation (as applicable).

For RECEIPT OF SPECIMENS PREVIOUSLY CATALOGED IN ANOTHER MUSEUM (specimens received via donation, exchange, gift, abandonment, or purchase):

  • Transmittal form or letter of transmittal from the appropriate authority at the institution of origin
  • Signed Deed of Transfer form or acceptable substitute documentation
  • Export permit (if from a non-US institution)
  • Import permit (if from a non-US institution)
  • CITES permits if a transaction involves CITES-listed specimens
  • APHIS certification
  • Original or copy of field notes for specimens in the accession
  • Originals or copies of any correspondence relating to this accession


For RECEIPT OF SPECIMENS NOT PREVIOUSLY CATALOGED IN ANOTHER MUSEUM (specimens received via fieldwork, gift, exchange, purchase, donation, bequest, or contract):

  • Original or copy of collecting permit(s)
  • Original or copy of export permit (if from a non-US locale or institution)
  • Signed Deed of Transfer form or acceptable substitute documentation
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service ESA permit
  • Copy of the 3-177 Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife form (see Appendix B)
  • CITES permits (if transaction involves CITES-listed specimens)
  • Other permits as required (see Specimen Acquisition Checklist)
  • APHIS certification (if applicable)
  • Original or copy of field notes for specimens in the accession
  • Originals or copies of any correspondence relating to this accession

Deed of Transfer

A signed Deed of Transfer form (or acceptable substitute documentation) must accompany each accession, including those from staff members and students, for all material obtained by fieldwork, gift, exchange, purchase, donation, bequest or contract. The information needed for the Deed of Transfer form (or acceptable substitute documentation) includes:

  • Date of preparation of the document
  • Name, address, telephone, and electronic address (email) of the agent/donor that the Deed of Transfer form (or acceptable substitute documentation) is received from
  • A short description of the contents of the accession, including the number of specimens
  • The agent’s/donor’s signature to acknowledges the terms of acceptance of the accession, and to confirm that a good faith effort has been made to ensure that the specimens and/or objects comprising the accession were obtained legally.


Acceptable Substitute Documentation

In lieu of a signed Deed of Transfer, an agent/donor may provide a signed letter or an electronic message providing the following:

  • Date of preparation of the document
  • Name, address, telephone, and electronic address (email) of the agent/donor that the documentation is received from
  • A short description of the contents of the accession, including the number of specimens
  • A statement that the agent/donor acknowledges the terms of acceptance of the accession and has made a good faith effort to ensure that the specimens and/or objects comprising the accession were obtained legally.
  • Terms of Acceptance of Accessions:
  1. All donations, exchanges, gifts, purchases, or bequests of specimens or objects are considered outright and unconditional accessions to be used at the museum’s discretion.
  2. The University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute does not promise and is in no way obliged, to exhibit or restrict the use of these specimens and/or objects and may deaccession or dispose of these specimens and/or objects, if appropriate.
  3. Donations to the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute may be tax deductible but the institute cannot provide appraisals of donations.
  4. The University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute shall have the absolute and unconditional ownership of the specimens and/or objects included in this donation, exchange, gift, purchase, or bequest.
  5. The agent/donor has agreed to these terms of acceptance.
  6. To the best of the agent’s/donor’s knowledge, the specimens and/or objects comprising this accession were obtained legally.

Example Repository Agreement Policy

The following is the Repository Agreement Policy of the KU Biodiversity Institute.

The Biodiversity Institute acquires specimens under the terms of a Repository Agreement by field collection, exchange, contract, or other appropriate means. The institute is responsible for maintaining the specimens on repository agreement with the same level of care as it provides for accessioned collections. For this reason, the institute accepts on repository agreement only those specimens for which it can provide proper care, conservation, and storage under the terms of the particular repository agreement.

Decisions concerning which repository agreements to accept are made by the Repository Agreement Committee. This committee is appointed annually by the director of the institute and consists of the director’s designee(s), a curator, and a collections manager, plus representatives of the division requesting the repository agreement. The Repository Agreement Committee should review a draft copy of the Repository Agreement before it is signed. The division requesting a repository agreement must demonstrate that it has the resources (time, space, and materials) to properly house the collection for the duration of the agreement.

Specimens accepted on repository agreements can be cataloged and managed as regularly accessioned collections, according to the terms of the particular agreement. Databases and catalogs must indicate that the institute does not have ownership of specimens accepted on repository agreement, as well as indicate any other restrictions or required notifications as stipulated in the repository agreement.

Each division is responsible for the direction of the growth of its collections. In general, collection acquisition is focused by research and tailored to resources.

All specimens accepted on repository agreement must be obtained legally by the institute. All specimens should be documented with the necessary permits and licenses, and other documentation to show that they have been collected, exported, and imported in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations. The institute adheres to the CITES convention and follows appropriate USFWS regulations.

All specimens obtained on repository agreement are documented as specified by the repository agreement. This documentation is kept on file in the permanent records of the appropriate division.

REPOSITORY AGREEMENT AND ACQUISITION PROCEDURES Repository agreements must be approved by the Repository Agreement Committee. Specimens covered by a repository agreement may not be cataloged until the agreement has been approved.
Before specimens are acquired under a repository agreement, the following procedure must be followed.

  1. Review the Repository Checklist.
  2. Submit a draft copy of the Repository Agreement to the Repository Agreement Committee for review.
  3. Request copies of the appropriate permits held by the institute from the director (or person designated by the director).
  4. Obtain the documentation necessary for approval of the Repository Agreement.
  5. Obtain the documentation needed to possess the specimens legally.


Once the repository agreement has been approved, the following procedure is followed when specimens are acquired under the agreement.

  1. Complete the Repository Checklist for each acquisition under the repository agreement.
  2. Submit the completed Repository Checklist and supporting documents to the director (or person designated by the director).
  3. Obtain a repository acquisition number (repository acquisition numbers are issued by the institute administration once the appropriate documentation is approved and the repository agreement information is entered into the accession database. A repository acquisition number is equivalent to an accession number).
  4. File a copy of the Repository Agreement and associated documentation in the permanent records of the division.


Specimens may be not be collected or otherwise obtained until the repository agreement has been approved. Specimens may not be cataloged until the repository acquisition procedure is completed.

Legal definitions

The legal definitions for most of the terms used in federal wildlife law can be found in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 50 CFR.

Some of the more commonly requested definitions from 50 CFR are provided below.

Accredited scientist
“Accredited scientist means any individual associated with, employed by, or under contract to and accredited by an accredited scientific institution for the purpose of conducting biological or medical research, and whose research activities are approved and sponsored by the scientific institution granting accreditation..” —CFR 50, §14.4.

Accredited scientific institution
“Accredited scientific institution means any public museum, public zoological park, accredited institution of higher education, accredited member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, accredited member of the American Association of Systematic Collections, or any State or Federal government agency that conducts biological or medical research.” —CFR 50, §14.4.

Animal
“Animal means an organism of the animal kingdom, as distinguished from the plant kingdom; including any part, product, egg, or offspring thereof, or the dead body or parts thereof (excluding fossils), whether or not included in a manufactured product or in a processed food product.” —CFR 50, §10.12.

Fossil
“Fossil means the remains of an animal of past geological ages which as been preserved in the earth’s crust through mineralization of the object.” —CFR 50, §10.12.

Plant
“Plant means any member of the plant kingdom, including seeds, roots and other parts thereof.” —CFR 50, §10.12.

Public
“Public as used in referring to museums, zoological parks, and scientific or educational institutions, refers to such as are open to the general public and are either established, maintained, and operated as a government service or are privately endowed and organized but not operated for profit. —CFR 50, §10.12.

Scientific specimens
“... dead, preserved, dried, or embedded scientific specimens or parts thereof....” —CFR 50, §14.24.

KU acquisition documents

KU specimen acquisition checklist

KU accession checklist

KU repository checklist

KU Deed of Transfer

KU Model Repository Agreement

KU Orphan-Gift Collection Aquisition Planning

Contributors

Andrew Bentley, Ichthyology Collection Manager, KU Biodiversity Institute, Lawrence, KS, USA

Source material

KU Acquisition Policies and Procedures document

References


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Anon. 1995. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees to modify regulations: new Federal Register Notice due out: will relax requirements for museums and scientists. Association of Systematic Collections Newsletter 23(1):1; 3.

ASC. 1991. Guidelines: the ethics and responsibilities of museums with respect to acquisition and disposition of collection material. Association of Systematic Collections Newsletter 19(6):77-79.

Bellardo, L.J. and L.L. Bellardo (compilers). 1992. A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Record Managers. Society of American Archivists, Chicago, viii + 45 pp.

Buck, R.A. and J.A. Gilmore (editors). 1998. The New Museum Registration Methods. 4th edition. American Association of Museums, Washington D.C. 427 pp.

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Duckworth, W.D., H.H. Genoways, and C.L. Rose. 1993. Preserving Natural Science Collections: Chronicle of Our Environmental Heritage. National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, Washington, D.C. iii + 140 pp.

Estes, C. and K.W. Sessions (compilers). 1983. Controlled Wildlife. Volume II. Federally Controlled Species. Association of Systematics Collections, Lawrence. vii + 327 pp.

Estes, C. and K.W. Sessions (compilers). 1984. Controlled Wildlife. Volume I. Federal Permit Procedures. Association of Systematics Collections, Lawrence. vi + 304 pp.

Federal Register. 1985. Endangered species convention. 50 CFR Part 23

Federal Register. 1987. Importation, exportation, and transportation of wildlife. 50 CFR Part 14

Federal Register. 1994. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; animal candidate review for listing as endangered or threatened species; proposed rule. 50 CFR Part 17

Guthe, C.E. Documenting Collections: Museum Registration and Records. Technical Leaflet 11, American Association of State and Local History, Nashville.

Hoagland, K.E. (ed.). 1994. Guidelines for Institutional Policies and Planning in Natural History Collections. Association of Systematic Collections, Washington, D.C. vi + 120 pp.

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Hoagland, K.E. 1995. ASC comments on import-export of wildlife Revised Rule. Association of Systematic Collections Newsletter 23(3):31-32.

Johnson, P.J. 1994. Lacey Act 1. Insect Collection News number 9.

King, S.T. and J.R. Schrock. 1985. Controlled Wildlife. Volume III. State Wildlife Regulations. Association of Systematics Collections, Lawrence. x + 315 pp.

Lewis, R.H. 1976. Manual for Museums. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. xiii + 412 pp.

Littell, R. 1993. Controlled Wildlife: Volume I. Federal Permit Practices. Second edition. Association of Systematic Collections, Washington, D.C. 264 p.

Malaro, M.C. 1979. Collection management policies. Museum News 58(2):57-61.

Malaro, M.C. 1985. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. xiii + 351 pp.

Miller, J.Y. 1994. Systematic collections and the law: the Lacey Act. Association of Systematic Collections Newsletter 22(6):77; 80-83.

Phelan, Marilyn E. 1994. Museum Law. A Guide for Officers, Directors, and Counsel. Kalos Kapp Press, Evanston.

Porter, D.R. 1985. Current thoughts on collection policy. AASLH Technical Report no. 1, American Association for State and Local History, Nashville. 12 pp.

Santiago, M. 1988. The registrar in the cabinet of curiosities. Pp. 58-75 in Case, M. (ed.). Registrars on Record: Essays on Museum Collection Management. American Association of Museums, Washington, D.C. xiv + 257 pp.

Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. 1994. Guidelines for the care of natural history collections. Collection Forum 10(1):32-40.