Access to collections


Some of the key tasks of organisations holding natural science collections are to help in answering scientific and societal questions and to provide the basis for public engagement activities. Access is the key to keeping the collections relevant. Access is not one-way. Use adds value to the objects by connecting them with information, placing them in another, new context that builds the basis for new questions and uses. It should be in the core interest of any organisation holding collections to encourage and facilitate access and open the collection up for a broad range of uses and user groups. As museums and research institutes, it is part of our mission to support use and give access to our collections.

On the other hand, we are responsible and accountable for the protection and preservation of the objects we are managing. The goal for all collection professionals, whether in the arts and humanities or natural sciences, should be to enable access while minimising risks. The framework in which access is allowed is set by (inter)national rules and regulations, institutional priorities, laws and policies and by conditions such as staff resources and structure, and the accessibility of the collections. General principles help to deal with different types of uses and to decide on whether and how collections might be used and by whom. As managers responsible for access we are faced with the challenges of barriers, both new and longstanding, and new trends.


  • • What is access to collections?
  • • What are the restrictions on access and who is responsible for allowing access?
  • • What are the principles for physical access to collections?
  • • What are the principles for digital access to collections?
  • • What are the benefits of access and how can we measure them?
  • • What does access cost and how can those costs be reduced?
  • • What are the “right” decisions to make on access?
  • • What are the major barriers to access and how can you overcome them?
  • • What will access look like in the future and how can we be prepared?

What is access to collections?

Authentic physical objects are the core of our activities as research institutes and public museums, be they scientific studies, student courses or exhibits. Access to collections comprises all activities from research and education to public engagement. Access to objects and related information is provided to enable their manifold use. Access can be given directly to the physical objects by individual visits or loans (physical access) and to (meta-) data and information linked to them, e.g. through requests or digital access to online databases. In recent years, there has been a shift from physical to digital access. Still, enabling physical access to the objects remains one of the central services of organisations holding natural science collections. Very specifically for these kinds of collections, there is a strong focus on research.

As an example, the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany, holds about 30 million zoological, paleontological and mineralogical objects. On average they are visited by 600 external visitors, mainly researchers, each year. Altogether, these visitors spend almost 2,000 days per annum in the collections. Almost 40,000 objects, mainly insects, are sent on loan in more than 600 loan procedures. 80% of the successful loan requests are for research purposes, 20% for exhibitions. 90% of the objects are sent to researchers for scientific investigations, only 10% (about 4,000 objects) are part of loans for exhibitions. Whereas the annual variation in scientific loans is rather low, the number of loans and objects for exhibits changes considerably between years depending on ongoing exhibition projects.

Access versus use – a brief explanation

  • • Physical access: access to the physical objects through visits and loans.
  • • Digital access: access to object information via databases, images, scans, etc.
  • • Uses: research, display, education, art, commercial.
  • • Users: internal/external researchers, amateurs, general public, companies, agencies.

Use of natural science collections, particularly in larger organisations, focusses mainly on research and includes comparisons of morphological characteristics, sampling, databasing and imaging. Exhibitions of objects in public galleries or open store depots enable the public to access the physical collections. The public display of objects is probably the most restricted and controlled way of physical access as collections security and health and safety issues are primary. Physical access puts the objects at risk through direct agents such as poor handling, sampling, loss or theft, or indirect agents such as changes in storage conditions when specimens are removed from storage. Users themselves can also be at risk as most biological collections have been treated with biocides such as mercury, arsenic or naphthalene in order to protect them from pests. It is important that visitors and borrowers are aware of these risks and are protected by the right safety precautions. Legal aspects and regulations, such as access and benefit sharing (ABS), health and safety and transport of dangerous goods, are setting a framework for deciding whether access can be provided or not (see Chapter 4).

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