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Janet Smart

By Janet Smart

Museums and lean inventory

Just over a year ago, in September 2014, we began a multi-disciplinary project on collections management in museums. My background is in Operations Management, and so I began by applying an operations perspective on the problem of getting museum acquisitions documented and onto the catalogue. A bit like inventory management in a factory.

Inventory management is important for many kinds of organisations, but would the usual concepts apply to museums? We’ll see.  After all, inventory management is about knowing what you’ve got and where it is, which applies to museums too.

The first big difference between museums and other organisations is the idea of lean inventory management, closely linked to Just In Time manufacturing. The idea is to store inventory for as short a time as possible, so that the goods you are holding don’t have time to deteriorate or become obsolete. Therefore, your stock of car body panels, paper, fuel or whatever is held for the shortest possible time before being built into your organisation’s product, and shipped out the door as finished goods.

This does not apply to museums in quite the same way. Museums are keen to hold stocks in perpetuity. Once they acquire something, their responsibility is to keep it safe, to make whatever careful interventions are necessary to preserve their objects for as long as feasibly possible, and to enable access to their collection. Acquiring an object is a commitment therefore to store, preserve, document and manage this object for possibly hundreds of years. This can be expensive, especially for large, rare, valuable or fragile objects.

Factories are keen to keep their inventory moving along, so that they can be paid as quickly as possible for the finished goods. But museums are very reluctant to sell or discard their items. This is true even when they may have several hundred similar items, with no (currently) discernible differences. From time to time, museums may sell off items from their collections to buy new works, or to cover expenses. This is always controversial and frowned upon, especially if the items in question were donated to the museum.

Lean and Just In Time ideas changed manufacturing processes fundamentally, leading to reduced stocks, faster turnover of inventory, and a new focus on improving manufacturing processes. This post has argued that museums and factories are fundamentally different in their attitudes to reducing inventory, but we’ll look at other ways in which operations thinking can apply to museums in future posts.

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