Collections Care and Conservation at IMLS

Funding collections care at the nation’s museums has been a core function of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) since its earliest days as the Institute of Museum Services (IMS), founded in 1976. This year we are celebrating our 20th anniversary as an agency that serves both museums and libraries, and our commitment remains as strong as ever. We have helped museums conduct conservation surveys as important first steps in identifying collections care needs and priorities. We have funded environmental surveys and subsequent improvements to help ensure appropriate conditions in collections storage and exhibit areas. We have paid for conservation treatments to prolong the lives of specific objects that communities hold dear, and we have supported conservation research that has benefited museums everywhere by developing protocols, generating research datasets, and creating rigorous training programs in collections care. IMLS-funded projects have extended across the entire spectrum of museums as defined by our legislation, and they have touched on virtually all museum disciplines.


Over the years, there have been modifications in IMLS funding programs, including those devoted to collections care. For the 2016 Joint AIC 44th Annual Meeting and the CAC ACCR 42nd Annual Conference in Montreal, I pulled together some numbers to see if we could assess the impact of these shifts, and now I have added the 2016 data, which just became available this fall.

I focused on the records for our two large programs for funding conservation and collections care in museums: Conservation Project Support, which was active from the beginning of IMS days through 2012, and Museums for America, which came into being in 2004 and is now our largest grant program for museums. In 2013, we folded Conservation Project Support into Museums for America, and we went to a single deadline for all IMLS museum grant applications. In 2014, we introduced a $5,000-$25,000 funding level with no cost share in Museums for America. To get an idea of how these actions may have impacted our grant making from the standpoint of numbers of applications submitted, the amount of funding requested, the number of awards made, and the amount of funding provided, I went back to 2011. 

Figure 1. Number of applications submitted to
IMLS in museum collections care/conservation
grant programs, 2011-2016.

By Numbers

These charts show the number of applications we received for collections care projects (Figure 1), the number of awards made (Figure 2), and the percent success in applications funded by year (Figure 3).

The obvious outlier here is 2011.That was the final year of our American Heritage Preservation Grants, which was a three-year program in which grants of $3,000 were made for the treatment of a single object or small group of objects.

The trend in the number of grants made and the percent awarded is upward since 2013, the year we combined Conservation Project Support with Museum for America. Since then, collections care and conservation projects have competed with educational, program, exhibition, and other types of projects, and they have done very well.

Figure 2. Number of grants awarded by IMLS in
museum collections care/conservation grant
programs, 2011-2016.
Figure 3. Percent success in applications funded
through IMLS museum collections care/
conservation grant programs, 2011-2016.

That this trend continued in and beyond 2014, when we introduced the $5,000-$25,000 no-cost-share option, suggests that this innovation has been successful. It seems particularly attractive to small museums for rehousing projects and to museums of all sizes for the often-hard-to-cost-share treatment projects.

Figure 4. Dollars requested from IMLS in museum collections care/conservation grant programs, 2011-2016.

By Dollars

The second set of charts shows the dollars requested for collections care by year (Figure 4), the dollars awarded by year (Figure 5), and the percent success in receiving dollars requested by year (Figure 6).

The picture here is quite different. The 2011 figures don’t seem quite so anomalous, and that makes sense, given that this unusual opportunity involved small amounts of money. We see a general upward trend in the percentage of dollars awarded from 2013 to 2016, which might reflect the introduction of the $5,000-$25,000 no-cost-share option. Collections projects are very well represented and very successful at that funding level. Increases in numbers of applications, number of awards, dollars requested, and dollars awarded in 2016 may reflect the explicit invitation for projects designed to broaden access to and expand use of museum collections. Most of these projects involve digital asset management specifically and information management more generally.

Figure 5. Dollars awarded through IMLS museum collections care/conservation grant programs, 2011-2016.


Figure 6. Percent success in receiving dollars
requested through IMLS museum collections care/conservation grant programs, 2011-2016.

By Project Type and Museum Discipline

In addition to the “how many” and “how much” questions, we are also asked (and we ask ourselves), “What did IMLS fund in ‘X’ this year?” It’s a perfectly legitimate question, but one to which until recently we were only respond with examples—or long lists of examples. We did not have the wherewithal to talk about what we funded across grant programs nor to look at changes through time.

Figure 7. Like the Sharpie, one grant project can have many tags. Source: 

We decided to do what taxonomically inclined museum people do, which is develop a system for classifying the awards we make according to some predetermined characteristics, record the data in a way that we could extract it easily, and then manipulate it to answer not only this question but also to discern patterns across grant programs and across time. Over the course of a few weeks, our indefatigable Museum Program Specialists tagged every grant award we had made since 2011, not only in collections care and conservation but in all areas of museum work.

Something to keep in mind here is that tags are not counts (Figure 7). One project may have a single tag, or it may have half a dozen, and for these purposes, that’s just fine. We just need to avoid the temptation to expect counts of tags to somehow equal the counts of projects we fund or to reflect a preferential emphasis of some kind.

For this look, we expanded beyond our large programs typically associated with collections care and conservation to include all our grant programs. In addition to Conservation Project Support and Museums for America then are National Leadership Grants for Museums, Museum Grants for African American History and Culture, and Native American/Native Hawaiian Museum Services. By using tags of “conservation,” “collections management,” and “digital asset management,” we can see how our grants have been distributed by both project category and by museum discipline for 2011-2016.

For this six-year period, the majority of conservation grants (Figure 8) have been awarded to art museums, followed by history, natural history/anthropology, general museums (which address more than one discipline), specialized museums (which address one very specific topic), and historic house/site museums. Internally, we always look carefully each year to see if there is a difference between what came in as applications and what we funded according to discipline. We are pleased to see that without fail, it is in alignment.

Figure 8. Number of funded conservation-tagged projects in all IMLS museum grant programs, 2011-2016, by museum discipline.

When we look at collections management work (Figure 9), best represented are art, history, general, and natural history/anthropology museums, followed by Native American/Native Hawaiian organizations, specialized museums, and arboretums/botanical gardens.

Figure 9. Number of funded collections management-tagged projects in all IMLS museum grant programs, 2011-2016, by museum discipline.

And when we look at the projects with digital asset management tags (Figure 10), they are most common in art museums, followed by history and natural history/anthropology museums (tied), general museums, Native American/Native Hawaiian organizations, and arboretums/botanical gardens and specialized museums (tied).

Figure 10. Number of funded digital asset management-tagged projects in all IMLS museum grant programs, 2011-2016, by museum discipline.

Continuing Commitment to Collections Care and Access

So what does all this tell us? I think it confirms that the changes we have implemented have worked well so far. IMLS continues to be committed to helping museums of every kind manage, care for, preserve, broaden access to, and expand the use of the collections that define the nation’s cultural and natural heritage.

Each of our four museum grant programs provides funding opportunities for collections care. Museums for America supports projects that strengthen the collections care capabilities of individual museums. National Leadership Grants for Museums support innovation in addressing field-wide collections care challenges through research, training programs, and/or coalitions resulting in tools or services that can be adapted by other institutions. Our two smaller programs—Museum Grants for African American History and Culture and Native American/Native Hawaiian Museum Services—fund collections care in these very specialized environments. And lastly, our grants at $5,000-$25,000 levels with no cost share appear to be an effective way to fund collections care projects at small and medium-size institutions as well as projects that are difficult to cost share, such as conservation treatments.

And now what?

We had just over 700 applications come in on December 1, and I for one can’t wait to see how the great ideas I’ve heard about (and those I haven’t) have been translated into doable projects that will benefit collections—and by extension communities—across the country. If you, as a collections care/conservation professional, would like to be part of all this, consider applying to be a peer reviewer this year. It’s a great way to see what others are up to, share what you know, and in so doing, provide a tremendous benefit to your peers and to IMLS. I would be happy to talk with you about what’s involved in the actual work and how we choose reviewers, but if you’re ready to commit, visit, complete the application, and attach a PDF version of your most recent resume.

I feel so very privileged to play a small part in the important work of caring for the nation’s collections, and I look forward to continuing to work with many of you over the coming months. Thank you for what you do every day, and thank you for the tremendous help and counsel that you provide to IMLS. Wishing you best of everything in 2017.