Threatened and Orphaned Collections

From SPNHC Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

SPNHC Threatened Collections Toolkit

The aim of this page is to provide information about what to do if you are offered an "orphaned" collection, if your museum's collection becomes endangered, if you want to prevent a collection from becoming orphaned, or if you have to deaccession an orphaned collection.


Tiffany Adrain and Paula Work, SPNHC Threatened Collections Sub-committee

What are endangered and orphaned collections

  • Orphaned collection: A collection that has lost curatorial support or whose owner has abandoned it (Cato et al. 2003, p. 255)[1]. A collection that is no longer wanted by the institution or individual that houses it. The institution publicly renounces its responsibility to care for the collection. Often, the collection is offered and adopted by another institution but sometimes collections are disposed of without consultation.
  • Endangered collection: A systematic collection that, for any reason, is or soon may be no longer regarded as of value to its present ownership and thus in danger of becoming lost to the systematics research and education community (Duckworth et al. 1993)[2]. Collections that lack curatorial support at the moment or are in imminent danger of losing curatorial support, and may become orphaned in the near future (Hoagland 1994)[3].
  • Endangered/orphaned collection: “a substantive body of systematic material which is or soon may be no longer regarded as of value in its present ownership. This may be due to reduction of or absence of staffing or other support or negative or uninformed institutional policy decisions. The collection thus is in danger of becoming lost to the systematic research and education community…Adoption or acquisition of an endangered/orphaned collection is an activity independent of normal collecting activities of the museum, university or other entity.” (West 1988, p. 65)[4].

What natural history collections are at risk?

Museum collections, university collections, corporate collections, and private collections can be at risk of being orphaned. In addition, natural history specimens may be held by archives, public and academic libraries, historical societies, art museums, and history museums (Heritage Health Index Report). Once a decision has been made to dispose of a collection, often the owners want it removed immediately, causing an overwhelming problem for potential takers.

Why do collections become orphaned?

  1. Cuts in funding. Natural history collections, especially those in universities often receive a disproportional loss in funding during times of budget reduction (Heyning 2004)[5]. In some cases museums may find themselves in severe financial difficulty with the collections listed as a financial asset, e.g. Milwaukee Public Museum in 2006 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 2007)[6].
  2. Change in research focus. A shift away from whole organism research has been blamed for a decline in the use of natural history collections, as well as a lack of training in systematics. Many paleontology collections were orphaned in the 1990s when oil companies decreased oil exploration and research and cut their paleontology staff. This lack of paleontology jobs in turn affected universities with paleontology programs with the result that teaching collections were endangered or orphaned. It is not unheard of for a museum or university to start disposing of its collection, then stop halfway when a new faculty hire wants to use it (e.g. entomology collections at Towson University, Maryland).
  3. Change in teaching focus. Changing trends in science teaching means that some collections are no longer part of teaching and research programs.
  4. Retirement of person looking after collection, especially if there is no official curator post.
  5. Retirement, ill-health or death of private collector. A museum may find itself having to accept a collection at short notice either as the result of a bequest or at the request of relatives of the deceased.
  6. Institutional department collapses or changes focus leading to loss of interest in the entire collection and decision to dispose of it and use the space and funds for something else.

Warning signs of endangered collections

  1. No designated caretaker. A museum may be lacking a specialist curator or collections manager for a particular sub-collection. A university collection may be cared for by a faculty member or students under a voluntary arrangement that is not necessarily continued by their successor or supported by their institution. A collection may be lacking any curatorial support or may be the responsibility of someone with no training or background in collections.
  2. Lack of, or disassociation of, documentation. A lack of documentation decreases the research value and the interpretation value of a collection. Lack of documentation may be due to not acquiring data on arrival of collection, data buried in field notebooks that have since been lost or moved, data recorded in a catalogue that has since been lost or moved, no link made between data and specimens (e.g. specimens not marked with identifying numbers), several cataloguing methods used and forgotten over time, loss of information when caretaker retires.
  3. Lack of use (or perceived lack of use). Even if research focus or use of a particular collection has declined within the institution, there may be potential external users. The main problem is disseminating the information about what’s available and making the data and specimens accessible. Within a university, a collection can also be used to demonstrate collection care techniques or as part of a science education class.
  4. Removal to off-site or temporary storage. All museums and research collections find themselves running out of space at some point. Usually this is dealt with by moving some less-used collections to “temporary” off-site storage, often rented, frequently sub-standard. These collections then become endangered because of further lack of use, impaired accessibility, cost of storage, and in some cases, physical deterioration.

Taking in an orphaned collection

If you are offered and orphaned collection:

  1. Consult your written collection or acquisition policy for the acquisition of collections from outside organizations or individuals. Don’t have one? West’s 1988 report [4] found that 59% of natural history and anthropology collections did not have an up-to-date written policy for this type of acquisition. Hopefully this number has improved. There are many examples of collection policies available on museum websites and guides to writing a collections policy are included in John Simmons’ 2006 book [7]
  2. Consider the dollar cost of incorporating the collection including packing and transport, staff time, storage facilities, and impact of long-term care. Large acquisitions can cause financial distress if not properly planned for.
  3. Consider the impact that providing space for the orphaned collection will have on your short-term and long-term collection goals.
  4. Consider the amount of staff time required to curate the collection after arrival. Will you be able to make it accessible straight away or will there be a time-lag between acquisition and research access? What types of data accompany the collection? Are there electronic catalogues, written catalogues, or specimen labels? How long will it take to make these data available to researchers?
  5. Funding for acquisition. Some institutions are lucky enough to have internal funding for the costs of acquiring orphaned collections (e.g. for shipping costs). If your institution does not have a fund like this, and you have taken in several orphaned collections already, think about setting up an emergency fund for this purpose. Otherwise, consider applying for external grants, or negotiating with the owner of the collection for a contribution towards costs. Be prepared to justify the cost of accepting the collection if applying for institutional or outside funding.
  6. Make an on-site inspection of the collection before you accept it. This will give you a better idea of what state it’s in (physical and curatorial), its size and composition, preservation requirements, storage requirements, and moving requirements. This will help in planning for acquisition, immediate and future curation, and use. Take digital photos and make a basic inventory. If you don’t intend to take the entire collection, decide what you will be taking at this point.
  7. If the disposing institution threatens to destroy or throw away the collection within a short timeframe, retrieve the entire collection and then make decisions about what to keep and what to dispose of before accessioning (adding to your permanent collection).
  8. Make sure your institution receives a Memorandum or Understanding or Deed of Gift legally documenting the transfer of the collection.
  9. Recognize the legal implications of accepting the collection. You are obliged to care for it and make it accessible for the foreseeable future.

Preventing orphaned collections

Museum and university research collections

  1. Communicate the importance of natural history collections. There are many resources and references that advocate for natural history collections. See Importance of Collections for additional details.
  2. Justify the cost of collections care and management. Collect all data on use, services and income generation (e.g. grants awarded) associated with the collection and provide an annual report for administrators.
  3. Document the collection at a bulk level and improve access and use by disseminating the information to potential users and making it electronically available. The University of Iowa Paleontology Repository received an NSF grant that included funding for outside researchers to assess underused collections, and make recommendations for their improvement.
  4. Catalogue the collection. Most collections only have a small percentage of specimens that are actually catalogued. Identify priority sub-collections and apply for funding to get them catalogued and available on the Internet.
  5. Create a group to advocate for the collection. Join forces with other collections and museums for support. For example, staff at 17 different collections (including 3 natural history/archaeology collections) at the University of Iowa have formed the University of Iowa Collections Coalition to advocate for, and support, each other. The most recent project is the drafting of a Campus-Wide Collections Policy for approval by the University administration. Don’t wait until the last minute to get supporters mobilized.
  6. Join data portal and web-based community biodiversity databases, e.g. GBIF, National Biological Information Infrastructure, and the Paleontology Portal.
  7. Have a formal written collection policy that is accepted and recognized by your administration or parent organization. This will prevent hasty disposal without following recognized procedures.
  8. Keep a formal list of potentially endangered collections in your institution and monitor any activities that improve or deteriorate the situation. Don’t be caught unprepared in the event a disposal decision is made.
  9. Training: staff in museums and especially in smaller collections should be fully supported and encouraged to continue professional development in museum training. Often a single curator in a small museum has a wider range of natural history and archive material, and administrative aspects to deal with than someone working in a museum with a large staff. Attending conferences, workshops, and other events can also provide a support network. Recommendation: add information to the SPNHC website about training courses provided by museums for collection managers from outside institutions.
  10. Educate managers and administrators. While very qualified individuals may be in charge of collection management in an institutional system, they may not have the authority for essential decision-making and resource management, or the collection may be effectively controlled by the research interests directly or indirectly associated with the collection (Simmons 1993[8]; Williams and Cato 1995[9]).
  11. Forward planning. Every institution should have a written long-range plan for the care of their collections. However, the Heritage Health Index Report showed that between 40 and 50% of natural science museums do not have such a plan, nor do approximately 60% of scientific research collections/archaeological repositories.

Private collections

  1. Private collections may be inaccessible to museum staff and not known about until they become orphaned.
  2. Create effective contact with private collectors through local clubs and specialist groups.
  3. Collections are often offered after the death of the owner, either by bequest or by relatives seeking to dispose of it. Obtain prior arrangement where possible, but be aware that the timing of transfer is unpredictable.
  4. If you have notice of a bequest before the owner dies, suggest that funds be made available to care for the collection (provide cabinets, curatorial supplies, extra staff etc.). It is very rare to get accompanying financial support for an unexpected bequest, so if no such provisions are made, make a polite and reasonable request to the executors.
  5. If possible, ask the future donor to make sure the collection will be accompanied by a catalogue or some sort of inventory.

Corporate collections

  1. Natural history specimen collections in corporate organizations are more likely to have been collected and used for research than corporate heritage collections, and are more likely therefore to be recognized as needing to be placed in other research collections if orphaned. Nevertheless, they may suffer from the same problems as institution and privately owned collections, namely a lack of proper care, funding, or space.
  2. Unlike museum collections, corporate collections are not held to codes of ethics and can be viewed as financial assets.
  3. Corporate collections may be orphaned when companies go into receivership, merge, or are taken over, or when whole industries deregulate (Mulhearn, 2006)[10].

Deaccessioning an orphaned collection in a museum or university

  1. Review the legal aspects of deaccessioning a collection and consult the part of your collection policy that deals with deaccessions.
  2. Consult museum codes of ethics (e.g., AAM).
  3. Consult all “shareholders” of the collection, e.g. researchers, students, local public, “friends” organizations. Cutting them out of decision processes can cause bad relations and press.
  4. The collection should be exchanged with or donated to another comparable institution. If the collection has low research value, its educational value should be considered.
  5. Break up and dispersal of collections is regarded as unfortunate. The historical essence of the collection is destroyed, and it becomes difficult for researchers to track down specimens at multiple institutions.
  6. Sale of collections is strongly discouraged. Museum collections are held in trust for the public and are supported financially by the public through donations and federal funds. When they are sold to private collectors they leave the public domain and are potentially lost to science. Public auction should be a last resort only after other alternatives have been exhausted. Any proceeds from a sale should be used to enhance the remaining collection. Sale of collections may cause controversy and public distrust of the institution.
  7. Specimens should be offered to the original donor if no alternative home is found. This may have tax implications for the donor if the return is within two years of the donation.
  8. Witnessed destruction of specimens should only be used a last resort for very low quality specimens.
  9. Type specimens and specimens of historic importance must be placed with other museum or research collections. Unfortunately the orphaning institution may not realize they have these specimens in their collection, but the onus should be on them to check.
  10. Recognize the pressure you are placing on other institutions to take the collection. They will need time to assess the potential acquisition, acquire funds, and reorganize space and staff time. Consider providing funds towards the cost of transferring the collection.
  11. Moving a collection is not something that can or should be done in a hurry. The preservation and protection of the collection is paramount. Donate staff time to help pack the collection and assist with the moving logistics. If possible, include storage cabinets and other storage materials in the transfer.

Case Studies

  • Smithsonian Off-site Enhancement Program (large portions of collections sent to other institutions for fixed period of time)
  • University of Iowa Herbarium (acrimonious transfer)
  • University of Iowa Crossman Collection (large bequest with no funds)
  • University of Missouri Conodont Collection (encouraged to donate to University of Iowa by NSF, subsequent funding awarded to Missouri to curate the collection before transfer in 2010)


Advocacy and support

Collections Preservation

Data sharing projects

Funding sources

  • National Science Foundation Biological Sciences Directorate: Biological Research Collections Program. The Biological Research Collections Program provides support for biological collection enhancement, computerization of specimen-related data, research to develop better methods for specimen curation and collection management, and activities such as symposia and workshops to investigate support and management of biological collections. Biological collections supported include those housing natural history specimens and jointly curated collections such as frozen tissues and other physical samples, e.g. DNA libraries and digital images. Such collections provide the materials necessary for research in a broad area of biological sciences.


The authors gratefully acknowledge input from the following people: David Furth (Entomology, Smithsonian), Jessica Rosales (Texas Natural Science Center, The University of Texas at Austin), Deb Lewis (Ada Hayden Herbarium, Iowa State University), Andrew S. Doran (University & Jepson Herbaria, University of California, Berkeley).


  1. Cato, P. S., J. Golden, and S.B. McLaren. 2003. Museum Wise: Workplace Words Defined. Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, Washington, DC, 380 pp.
  2. 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 , DC, 140 pp.
  3. Hoagland, E. (ed.) 1994. Guidelines for Institutional Policies and Planning in Natural History Collections. Association of Systematic Collections, Washington, DC, 120 pp.
  4. 4.0 4.1 West, R.M. 1988. Endangered and orphaned natural history and anthropology collections in the United States and Canada. Collection Forum 4(2): 65-74.
  5. Heyning, J. E. 2004. The Future of Natural History Collections. Collections 1(1): 6-9.
  6. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel March 30 2007. “Gift may spare museum.” Article by Steve Schultze, accessed online at on 05/16/07.
  7. Simmons, J. E. 2006. Things great and small: Collections management policies. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.
  8. Simmons J. E. 1993. Natural history collections management in North America. Journal of Biological Curation 1 (3/4): 1-17.
  9. Williams, S. L. and Cato, P. S. 1995. Interaction of research, management, and conservation for serving the long-term interests of natural history collections. Collection Forum 11(1) 16-27.
  10. Mulhearn, D. 2006. Firm Foundations. Museums Journal, January 2006.