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In Brief: Collections Accessioning at the National Museum of Natural History, No. A-10-10 Issued November 18, 2010

Why We Did This Audit

We conducted this audit to assess whether NMNH followed the Institution’s and museum’s collections management policies and procedures. Specifically, we determined whether NMNH had effective controls in place to (1) align its collecting activities with collecting goals; (2) accession items in a timely manner; and (3) comply with applicable laws and regulations.

Our intent for the first objective was to address the risk that NMNH may acquire and accession items that are not aligned with its collecting goals and priorities, thereby diverting its limited resources away from managing important collections.

What We Found

Although the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) has effective controls to ensure that its accessioned collection items comply with applicable laws and regulations, we found that NMNH needs to strengthen controls over all acquisitions. Smithsonian Directive 600 on collections management and NMNH policy state that all of the museum’s acquisitions must comply with relevant laws. Yet, the museum may not provide adequate review of collections that curators obtain directly or collections that are not intended to be added to the museum’s accession collections. Not all items that curators obtain directly pass through control points, and the centralized registration process does not include non-accession collections despite their potential legal risks.

NMNH also may not always provide timely review because the museum does not have required accessioning timeframes. Two divisions did not accession in more than five years. Furthermore, we found that the museum’s current method of ensuring that its staff members know the relevant laws and regulations – relying on staff to educate themselves – is inefficient and may be ineffective.

The museum’s ineffective controls over all acquisitions are primarily caused by NMNH’s lack of written policies and procedures. Inadequate controls over all collections acquisitions increases the risk that the museum may not comply with applicable laws and regulations. Nonetheless, both the Smithsonian’s Office of General Counsel and museum collections management staff told us that they have few legal disputes involving NMNH’s collections.

Additionally, we observed that collections management resources are unbalanced.

Although NMNH is collecting items that align with its collecting goals, these goals are extremely broad and do not serve to focus the museum’s collecting activities. The museum’s current collections growth, combined with its long-standing staffing shortages, have resulted in NMNH limiting access to parts of its collections, thereby reducing the museum’s ability to fulfill the Smithsonian’s mission of increasing and diffusing knowledge.

We also observed that NMNH could improve documentation of title in some of its accession files.

What We Recommended

To strengthen the museum’s accessioning process and reduce the risk of non-compliance with relevant laws and regulations, we recommended that Smithsonian and museum management strengthen policies and procedures, as well as evaluate opportunities to centralize training and registration for all acquisitions.

Management concurred in whole with our recommendations and proposed corrective actions that will resolve all 13 of our recommendations.

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