Collection Management Policy

The MCZ Collection Management Policy was prepared in 1996 by the Curatorial Associates, and reviewed and approved by the Director in conjunction with the Faculty-Curators.



  1. Scope
  2. Purpose
  3. Goals


  1. Environmental Conditions
  2. Pest Control
  3. Storage Consideration


  1. Acquisition
  2. Accessions and Deaccessions
  3. Loans


  1. Acquisitions, Accessions, and Deaccessions
  2. Personal Collections
  3. Appraisals
  4. Private Consulting



This document is a Museum-wide policy that governs the management of the research collections in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ).

It outlines the operations of collections within the museum but does not address policies for museum functions other than the collections.

This policy directs operations of the collections, outlines levels of responsibility, sets standards concerning collections, and serves as a guide for collections-related ethics. This document is integral to the management of the collections and often mandated by funding agencies (Malaro, 1985). This policy complies with University-wide policies and does not otherwise address policies set at the University level. The individual Departments will use this document as a guide when developing departmental policies.



The MCZ has 10 Departments with Natural History collections (Entomology, Herpetology, Ichthyology, Invertebrate Paleontology, Invertebrate Zoology, Malacology, Mammalogy, Marine Invertebrates, Ornithology, and Vertebrate Paleontology), with an estimated total of 15,000,000 specimens. The bulk of the collections are stored in the MCZ building, but several departments have major parts of their collection at the Concord Field Station.

The MCZ collections are world-wide in scope and span the entire history of animal life. The holdings include large numbers of types and voucher specimens plus many historically important collections. In addition to biological material, the collections include records relating to the specimens (photographs, field notes, etc.), collection-related correspondence, and archival records pertaining to the history of the departments.


The collections at the MCZ are used primarily for research and education; they are the basis for original scientific research by scientists around the world; they are educational tools; they are a depository for comparative material of critical importance; they provide documentation for use by conservation agencies; and they are often used for exhibits and other educational activities for the general public.

In the broadest sense, these collections serve as an archival depository that documents past and present day diversity and which may be used to measure biotic change. Preservation of type material is a necessary prerequisite to stabilization of zoological nomenclature. It is of critical importance that these representative samples of the natural world be conserved, maintained, and held in trust for study and exhibition.


The primary goal of the MCZ collections is to maintain, conserve and make the collections accessible. The collections will continuously be improved and upgraded by maintaining the present holdings, selectively adding new material to strengthen the collections, employing new research techniques to better preserve and conserve specimens, encouraging the use of outside consultants towards the upgrading and revising of nomenclature in the collection, utilizing computerization to allow more efficient cataloging, specimen retrieval, and record-keeping. In order to fully support these goals the MCZ strives to provide the highest quality service to the scientific and educational communities and endeavors to increase awareness of the irreplaceable nature of its collections as a historical baseline for all aspects of zoology.


In a museum setting, accountability has three major components: 1) supervision of personnel through delegated authority; 2) management of the collections and their records, and 3) management of equipment, tools, computers, microscopes or other objects of value.

The Director of the MCZ is responsible for all activities relating to the care, use and conservation of the collections. To facilitate these responsibilities effectively and efficiently, a Curator is delegated overall responsibility for departmental collection activities. The Curatorial Associate, typically under the direction of the Curator, is responsible for day to day management of the collections. The Director approves both the Museum and departmental collection policies.

1) MANAGEMENT. Broad areas of authority based on a general biological scheme defme the collection departments and each of these departments are staffed at various levels. Each departmental Curator is accountable for all activities within the unit and reports to the Director concerning collection activities. In the absence of a Curator, an appointed curatorial staff member will assume these duties and report to the Director. Most of the day-to-day collection care and maintenance is delegated to the Curatorial Associate who supervises support staff, student help and volunteers. The Curatorial Associate answers directly to the Curator for all collection activities. Much initiative is allowed at all levels of supervision in dealing with collection issues, provided University, Museum, and departmental guidelines are followed. Actions that fall outside the management procedures are acceptable only in cases of emergency.

2) INVENTORY OF COLLECTIONS. Acceptable accountability in collections includes: A) inventories of specimens, B) complete records of specimen movement, C) records of provenance at receipt, and D) a means of physically identifying specimens. Scientifically important or those with possible market value will be given priority during inventory efforts. Standards for specimen accountability will be part of all departmental policies.

A) An inventory of a collection is an itemized listing of all holdings: In its simplest form this may be a list of all available taxa in a collection. This list of taxa can be grouped to aid in placement and retrieval of specimens in the most efficient categories within the discipline.

B) Inventories require records that adequately show the location of specimens whether they are on loan, on exhibit, or are being used by in-house staff or students.

C) Files that document the receipt of specimens, proof of gift, collecting permits, purchase receipts, and any information dealing with legal provenance will be held indefinitely. The records will conform to accession procedures in the departmental policies.

D) Markers (catalogue numbers, tags, or labels) that cross reference permanent records will be placed on or with specimens. Specimens of high value may require additional security markings or supporting photographs.

3) MANAGEMENT OF EQUIPMENT. Each department will maintain an inventory of equipment or any other real property that relates to the collection and is the property of the University or Museum, and has a value in excess of 500 dollars. Identifying markings will be placed on such property if such markings are lacking. The inventory will include the name of the manufacturer, model, serial number, etc., following OEB purchasing department guidelines.


The collections are managed according to guidelines that are appropriate to individual departmental collections. These guidelines are specific to individual departments and in agreement with this Museum-wide Collection Management Policy.

The curatorial staff is responsible for proper storage, documentation, and conservation of the collections. Modem conservation procedures and techniques will be used. Collections, as considered herein, may include specimens, literature, and archival materials such as papers, manuscripts, photographs and slides, radiographs, video tapes, bioacoustic recordings, tissue samples, and molecular material. All procedures will be reviewed every five years.

Environmental Conditions

Various natural history materials require specific types of environmental conditions (i.e. temperature, relative humidity, air quality) both inside the storage containers and in the ambient room environment. Departments are responsible for the maintenance and monitoring of these conditions through properly trained staff or by contacting the appropriate University or external consultants. Proper environmental conditions must also be maintained to assure safety standards for personnel and visitors.

Pest Control

Natural history materials may be affected in many ways by pests. Pest control requires a strong monitoring program. All departments endeavor to identify specific pests that may be a threat to their respective collections in order to implement preventative measures.

Storage Consideration

Storage space will be critically evaluated before new acquisitions are made. The Curator, in consultation with the Director, is responsible for making decisions involving major acquisitions or significant changes in space utilization within their areas. General guidelines concerning space matters are included in Departmental Collection Management policies.


Registration encompasses all of the record-keeping activities associated with a collection: acquisitions, accessions, loans and exchanges, catalogues, and any other records necessary for tracking the location or disposition of specimens. Records may reside within the individual departments or, in the case of historical material, in the various Harvard archives. In the absence of a central registrar at the MCZ, the activities of such an office become the responsibility of the individual departments.


Specimens may be acquired through field collection, purchase, gift, bequest, exchange, or other appropriate means. Departments have a methodology for tracking newly acquired material prior to formal accession. Criteria for accessioning material into the collections are: 1) that the material be legally collected, exported and/or imported, 2) that material be acquired free and clear of any legal limitations or, if any exist, these be made clear before acceptance, and 3) that the department is capable of providing proper storage, curation, and conservation.

Specimen acquisitions are made at the discretion of the Curator. In cases involving unusually high monetary value or extraordinary space/storage considerations, the department will consult with the Director. Several criteria may serve as guidelines for acquisition: A) the material is cited in the scientific literature and/or documents current research, B) the material represents a significant contribution to the breadth of a collection or strengthens it in other ways consistent with departmental guidelines for growth, or C) the material is of historical significance. If these criteria are not met, the Curator may decide to discard part or all of the material, prior to accessioning.

Accessions and Deaccessions

Specimens may be given accession and/or catalogue numbers prior to inclusion in the collection. These numbers may refer to individual specimens or specimens collected or received as a lot. The numbers assigned are also cross-referenced to any written documentation associated with the specimens.

Records of specimens within a department's collection may be kept as written documents (card files, ledgers, labels, etc.) and/or in an electronic database. Data for a given specimen should be as complete as possible and in accordance with standards used within each discipline.

All specimens, once accessioned or catalogued, should be retained as long as they continue to be relevant to the long-term goals of the collections. Deaccessioning is normally warranted only if the specimen(s) have lost their physical integrity. Type specimens are to be retained regardless of their condition.


A loan is the temporary transfer of specimens from one institution to another, usually for research purposes, or occasionally for education and exhibition; no transfer of ownership is involved. Loans facilitate the study of specimens by the scientific community and are considered an integral part of collection use. Loan requests are to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Loans are made to institutions and not to individuals. All incoming loans are considered the responsibility of the MCZ. Each department, under the authority of the Director, has a loan policy that addresses such issues as loan conditions, specimen safety and storage, tracking methodology, and record-keeping procedures for receipt and return.


To fulfill its goals, the MCZ is committed to providing students and researchers access to the collections. At the same time, the MCZ has the responsibility of enforcing high security standards to safeguard the collections. Access to each collection is at the discretion of a Curator. Visitors must follow MCZ/OEB security procedures.

All researchers are expected to understand and follow standard museum procedures regarding the proper handling and use of specimens. The integrity of the specimens and their associated data are to be maintained by all who use the collection. Any alteration which would affect specimen integrity, such as DNA sampling, SEM preparation, skeletonization, etc., may not be performed without permission of the Curator. Permission will be based on criteria such as uniqueness of the specimen, degree of alteration or destruction, and significance of research, as established by each department.

The highest standards of security are accorded to type specimens and other material of high value.


The Museum adheres to established collection management standards that require professional, ethical, and legal conduct of all staff (American Association of Museums, 1991). This is particularly true in areas where conflicts of interests may arise as discussed below. In all collection-related activities, the staff must act in accordance with the most stringent ethical principles and keep the highest standards of objectivity. The MCZ advocates prudent and ecologically responsible collecting procedures and standards.

Acquisitions, Accessions, and Deaccessions

The intrinsic value and replacement costs of natural history specimens require that exceptional care be taken be taken to follow the procedures outlined herein in order to avoid errors of judgement, oversight, or inadvertent misapplication of policies. Specimens from the collections are not to be sold or given to individuals or organizations, except under department policy guidelines or, under special circumstances, as approved by the Director.

Personal Collections

Curatorial staff as well as students and volunteers are discouraged from establishing or further expanding personal collections of the types of specimens housed in the department in which they work. Staff are prohibited from collecting for personal gain. In questionable cases, the Director should be consulted.


Responsibility for monetary appraisals of donated collections or materials are to be delegated to outside appraisers.

Private Consulting

Curatorial staff may engage in paid consulting activities during non-working hours provided it is made clear that the staff member is neither acting as a representative of Harvard University nor using Harvard University facilities or property. In questionable cases the Director shall be consulted.


American Association of Museums. 1991. Code of ethics for museums. American Association of Museums. Washington, D.C.

Association of Systematic Collections. In Prep. for 1994. Guidelines for Institutional Policies and Planning in Natural History collections. Assoc. Systematic Collections., KS. Ca. 120 pp.

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., 140pp.

International Union of Biological Sciences. 1985. International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Third Edition.

Lee, W.L., B.M. Bell, and J.F. Sutton (eds.). 1982. Guidelines for acquisition and management of biological specimens. Assoc. Systematic Collections, KS.42pp. Malara, M.C 1985. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Collection Management Policies:

1) Smithsonian Institution Collections Management Policy 1984.

2) The University of Iowa Museum of Natural History Collection Management Policies and Procedures 1991.

3) The University of Kansas Museum of Natural History Collection Management Policy 1991.

4) The University of Nebraska State Museum Collection Management Policy 1987.


accession: an object acquired by a museum as part of its permanent collection; the act of recording and processing an addition to the permanent collection.

archival records: records deemed to be of continuing value.

biodiversity (or biological diversity): terms used to describe the sum of the variety of life on earth; diversity of ecosystems of species, and genes.

catalogue number: unique, department-specific number assigned to specimen or lots of specimens.

collections management: policies and procedures involved in the development, processing, documentation, organization, maintenance and use of collections.

conservation: the application of science to the evaluation and treatment of museum objects/specimens and to the study of the environments in which they are stored.

curator: individual responsible for all activities within each collection.

curatorial staff: as used here, this term applies to staff directly involved with curating a collection (curatorial associate, and curatorial assistants) under the direction of a curator

department: as used in this policy, the word is synonymous with a specific collection, or groups of collections, e.g. mammal department, entomology department, etc.

field notes: documentation made concerning specimens, their habitat or environment, field conditions, at the time the specimens were originally collected.

sampling: the act or process of selecting and removing some part of an object or specimen for testing, analysis, or other use.

type(s): the specimen(s) upon which a taxon description is based, designated at the time of description, or subsequently, as needed, under the international code of nomenclature.

voucher specimen: any specimen identified by a recognized authority for the purpose of physically and permanently documenting data from a report thus, verifying the identity of the organism(s) used and ensuring that a study can be accurately reviewed or reassessed.

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