Museums and cultural institutions use a database system better known as a collections management system (CMS) to help care for their collection of archives, historical objects, and artifacts. Galleries, museums and even libraries use a museum CMS to track and control all data and information related to the objects in the collection. Since a CMS touches every part of your organization and records the movements of your most valuable assets, it’s critical to choose the right one.
Selecting a CMS is a huge investment, both financially and in terms of level of effort. And given the dozens of options available in the marketplace and the endless possibilities for customization, selecting a CMS can seem like a particularly daunting task. Fortunately, with a little up-front planning and investigation, there should be no need to evaluate every single available system.
In our experience, the biggest mistake that CMS selection committees make is to start evaluating systems before fully establishing their requirements. This type of misstep can result in frayed nerves and wasted time. Starting with a thorough needs assessment will help your CMS selection committee work more efficiently to select and reach consensus on the best museum CMS for your organization’s particular requirements.
#1 Identify Your Users
The first and one of the most important steps you need to take is to determine your key CMS users. It’s critical that you include the full range of possible users, from current users to people who may need access in the future. From website managers to the head of the collections, each of these individuals will use the system in entirely different ways and you’ll need their input to make the best decision possible. Here are some examples of potential CMS users:
- Database Administrators
- The General Public
- Website Manager
- Head of IT Department
- Media Manager
- Marketing Department
- Collections Manager
- Executive Director
#2 Know Your Data
Next, you need to gain a full understanding of how your current collections are managed and stored and what the shortfalls are in your current system. Are you moving from a paper system to an electronic CMS? Or you might have multiple collections management systems that need to be merged together in order to streamline your processes. It’s important to anticipate how much data storage you’ll need and have a good understanding of what types of data you currently have in order to fully determine your CMS needs. Here are some other data considerations to consider:
- Anticipate issues with data obsolescence.
- Understand how often you will need to share data or your collections.
- Ensure that your data can be exported into a variety of different formats.
- Be prepared to hire an IT expert to migrate any out-of-date data to a newer version.
#3 Know Your Collections
Knowing the full spectrum of the types of collections you are responsible for is another important step in the CMS selection process. Knowing your collections also means anticipating possible future gifts or museum loans that you may be responsible for in the future as well. Take into account how dynamic your organization is and how it may expand and grow over time. Even if your organization doesn’t currently manage multimedia files in your system, consider how these formats may play a role in the future, and plan for that in your new CMS. Planning for the future collections needs of your organization can save you time and money down the road.
#4 Determine Where and How A Museum CMS Can Increase Efficiency
This is where some of the “meat” of your decision will come into play and this step will require a substantial amount of input from your team. Take the time to sit down with your team and map out both the short and long-term goals for your new CMS. Maybe one CMS goal is less duplicated effort. Or you might want to take your collections online to increase website engagement. Before you can nail down how your new CMS can increase efficiency, you’ll need to get consensus on the project goals. When selecting the ideal functions for the new CMS, prioritize and categorize them as “mandatory” or “wish list” items. Here are some other efficiency considerations for choosing a CMS:
- Select a CMS that can streamline your current processes.
- Choose a CMS that can be customized to your team’s reporting needs.
- Ensure hassle-free collaboration between different parties.
- Choose a CMS that offers standardized surveys and reporting.
- If you send or receive items, choose a CMS that streamlines shipping and receiving processes.
- Make sure your CMS can read and decipher any file format.
- Ensure that users can access the CMS from virtually any location.
#5 Decide Where Your Data Will Be Stored
There are several pros and cons to traditional collections management systems that store data on-premise versus those that are cloud-based. When deciding between the two, consider: accessibility, software and hardware management, cost, security, migration and export. Cloud-based products offer a centralized system that provides the capacity to identify, describe and account for collection assets in a similar manner as an on-premise based CMS. The difference is that cloud-based systems utilize SaaS programs to provide hosted software and storage space, data security in the form of access and integrity and ongoing development and implementation of software functions. When investigating a cloud-based CMS, evaluate it the same way you would an on-premise CMS, but understand that the basic costs of a cloud-based CMS are largely influenced by the amount of storage space used, service agreement/support charges and add-ons.
#6 Know Your Budget
If you’ve reached this step in the process, then you’ve established what type of CMS you would like to have. Next, you need to establish what kind of CMS you can afford. When hashing out your budget, it’s important to look at the total costs of the new system as well as all of the associated costs related to implementation. Here are some costs that will need to be included in your budget:
- Initial purchase.
- Installation of any hardware and software.
- User licenses.
- Transfer of existing data to the new system.
- Ongoing maintenance of the CMS.
- Add-ons and system upgrades.
- Testing the new system.
- Overhead costs for meetings and training.
- Working with vendors to develop customized solutions.
#7 Reach Out and Get Support
Selecting a collections management system may seem like an exhaustive task, but talking to others who have previously been through the process can be helpful. Be sure to coordinate and collaborate with all parties involved, and peruse online forums for advice and help in choosing a CMS. Specifically reach out to organizations that are similar in size and scope as yours and ask if they have been through this transition before. Also, many CMS vendors offer test sessions that allow you to utilize and evaluate their product before you make any decisions. This is absolutely necessary. Museum technology organizations such as MCN may be helpful in providing you with information as well.
If you have a limited amount of in-house resources and knowledge, consultants like History Associates can make sure that you don’t have to “go it alone.” We offer the experience and expertise to ensure that your transition to a new CMS is as seamless and painless as possible. Using museum-quality standards and practices, we can help you avoid mistakes while transferring your collections data into your new CMS. We can translate your goals into clearly-defined tasks for IT vendors and ensure that you are up and running with new processes in place.
Although selecting a CMS can seem overwhelming, taking the extra time at the start of your project will help ensure that you choose the best possible system for your organization. For assistance with your museum CMS selection, contact the Collections Management team at History Associates online or by calling (301) 279-9697.