Collections Care Network Preservation Planning Discussion Session Round 2: Prescriptive Standards versus Performance Management

Part two of the Thursday May 30th collections care session started with a brief recap of Round 1 by Collections Care Network Chair Joelle Wickens. Introducing Round 2’s speakers, Kristen Overbeck Laise of Heritage Preservation and James Reilly of the Image Permanence Institute, CCN editor Rob Waller presented the session’s aims to offer opposing views on the role of standards in guiding collections care decisions.
In her talk titled Importance of Standards and Guidelines to Inform Preventive Conservation Initiatives in Museums, Kristen Overbeck Laise underlined the importance and benefits of collections care standards as ways of focusing performance goals, educating and motivating museum staff, and highlighting conservation’s role as part of a larger museum context. Laise provided a compelling argument in favor of the adherence to standards by pointing to guidelines cited in the American Alliance of Museums’ core documents, which include a collections management policy ( She also pointed out that museums accredited by AAM tend to have stronger collections care policies. However, Laise did note that the committee who oversees AAM accreditation is made up primarily of museum directors, rather than other museum professionals such as conservators – a surprise to me and I am sure others in the audience. Laise cited two other organizations who promote collections care standards, including the American Association for State and Local History (see their Stewardship of Collections Standards workbook online:, as well as Collections Trust, a UK charity whose goal is to be a leader in the management and use of collections and technology in museums, libraries, and archives by 2015 ( In all Laise made clear that collections care standards are valued by the professional organizations that write the guidelines for best practices, and are considered important points of credibility and accountability for cultural institutions.
In his talk titled Standards Make us Myopic: We Focus on Specific Values at the Expense of Real Issues, James Reilly of the Image Permanence Institute argued that such prescriptive standards do not necessarily reflect the real needs of collections. Reilly provided an amusing analogy in the form of a Gary Larson cartoon (, alluding to the fact that we tend to oversimplify the statements that are made in environmental standards publications such as Thomson 1978, 1986. The resulting De Facto standards we set for ourselves, Reilly argues, have not evolved over time, and have been applied to collections where they might not be appropriate. He also pointed to the fact that these publications were made before certain measurement technologies –like digital dataloggers – were available. Reilly points to what is important – actual documents, measurements, and the known vulnerabilities of specific collections – and to future trends such as risk management, and more active environmental management. Reilly offers PAS (Publicly Available Specification) 198: 2012 as an example of how standards are being increasingly used; in this specification, the manager is asked to prioritize from a list of risks and mechanisms of decay, based on their understanding of the needs and vulnerabilities of their collection ( In short, according to Reilly, standards are meant to inform us, but it is up to us to determine how to interpret and apply them.
The afternoon round of talks and subsequent group discussions were quite engaging, thanks to the compelling arguments made by both Laise and Reilly. I came away with a sense that there is truth to both sides – that standards do keep us focused on the fundamental importance of collections care, but that the decisions we make on how to care for collections are, with good reason, based increasingly on data and observation.