Home » Museum Access Guides » Researchers: A Guide for Visiting Museum Collections

Researchers: A Guide for Visiting Museum Collections

Are you thinking about accessing and using museum collections in your research? You should do – they are a great source of information and museums have a wealth of material BUT there are things you as a researcher should be aware of and consider before accessing a collection. This page intends to provide some guidance and points of consideration that are important and may make your life as a researcher a little easier when visiting a museum’s collection.

Please note, however, all of the guidance given below has been gathered through personal experience and individual communications with museum staff. There may be points and considerations that have not been included. I welcome any advice, comments and new additions to the list so please get in touch. I would love to hear from both museum staff and researchers who have further tips and advice that would be useful for others.

Further to this, each museum will have a different policy, a different work environment and difference restrictions. It is therefore extremely important that you communicate with the relevant  staff members at the museum to know what information you need to provide, what you are allowed to do with the material and how any subsequent publications or research outcomes should be dealt with.

Overall, museum staff are friendly, helpful and want to learn more about their collections. In my experience, museum staff are welcoming of researchers, but they can be limited with the access they can provide due to a lack of resources. Please bear this in mind and be patient!

Before Your Visit

  • Response to inquiries can take time, do not expect an immediate response.
    • Many museum staff are stretched and may have to cover a number of roles, plus they may receive multiple inquires on a daily basis. It can, therefore, take a little time to get back to each individual query. Don’t bombard them with emails – be patient.
  • When inquiring provide as much information as possible
    • E.g. Site name, period of interest, object type, sample size
    • This will help the staff with their search so they can provide you with as much, relevant information as possible.
    • The member of staff you are communicating with may not be overly familiar with your area of study so be as clear but concise as possible.
  • If the museum has an online database – use it!
    • You may be able to identify some objects of interest which can help with y our inquiries and give the museum staff a good idea of what you are looking for.
  • Do not expect to access the material immediately.
    •  Museums may have to fit your visit in and around other events or staff availability. Plan ahead and be aware you may have to wait to access the material.
  • Museums often have an off-site store where your material of interest may be held.
    • These stores may not be permanently staffed so can only be open for access on particular days. Consider how many days you need with a collection and communicate this clearly with the museum to arrange access.
  • Read any museum documentation regarding visiting researchers.
    • These can differ for each museum so make sure you read them to understand the restrictions and expectations of the museum.
  • Be aware that some museums may charge for access to their material
  • Check and read industry/sector guidelines for working with research material.
    • In the field of osteoarchaeology there are publications setting out general guidelines for working with human remains. Make sure you find any relevant publications for your area of work. This ensures that research is conducted safely, with respect and attempts to create consistency between projects.
    • If working with human remains check out the publications produced by BABAO and Historic England.


Your Visit

  • Take any equipment you require with you to the museum
    • E.g. camera equipment, tripods, lamps/lighting for photographs, measuring equipment, laptops
  •  Make sure your equipment is fully charged (e.g. laptop)
    • It is not guaranteed that you will have access to a power socket.
  • Workspace may vary
    • You may be in a lap or a table in store. If the space you need to work in is important make sure to communicate this to the museum.
  • Be prepared some museum staff will want to supervise your work whilst others will leave you to it.
  • Make sure to handle the objects with care. Makes sure they are returned to the correct boxes and back from where they came from.
    • Make sure the museum staff and future researchers can find the object again!

After Your Visit

  • Thank the staff
  • Leave your work space as you found it
  • Acknowledge the museum in any publications using the collection
  • Inform them of any publications that you produced using the material.
    • This includes published journal articles, a PhD thesis or proceedings from a conference.
    • This adds to their knowledge of the collection and allows future researchers using the same material what research has already been conducted.
    • It is your responsibility to tell the museum. They are unlikely to chase you.
  • Return any research material that they loaned you.

Hope you found this tips and guidelines useful – if you think there is anything missing or have any suggestions please let me know!


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