The National Law Enforcement Museum: A Collecting Institution


The Sheriff of Anne Arundel County, MD, explains an object as part of the donation process.  The Museum accepted the “Wheel of Felons” because it fits within the parameters of the collections policy and helps to tell the story of American law enforcement.

The National Law Enforcement Museum: A Collecting Institution

What is a collecting institution? A lot like it sounds, really. It’s an institution that collects and preserves a collection of items, which can include objects, books, documents, and other materials. Collecting institutions include museums, libraries, archives, historic sites and societies, and archaeological or other research centers. In its Heritage Health Index Report on American museums’collections, the Institute of Museum and Library Services states that “U.S. collecting institutions hold 4.8 billion artifacts” and “44 million feet of archival records/manuscripts and maps/oversized items.” It is the crucial role and responsibility of collecting institutions to properly care for these billions of items.

How does the process work? First, a collecting institution carefully selects what items to add to its permanent collection. Much of the decision-making process—choosing which objects to include in a collection—is based on something called a collections policy, which is a document that includes a statement and guidelines pertaining to collecting. The collections policy is rooted in the mission of the institution and guides daily decisions about the collecting process.

As a collecting institution, the National Law Enforcement Museum has a collections policy and also abides by standards of collecting as laid out by the American Association of Museums, a national organization tasked with establishing standards and best practices for the professional museum field. Our collections policy sets parameters for what we will and will not accept into the collection based on how an item contributes to the Museum’s mission to tell the story of American law enforcement.

How do collecting institutions and collectors differ? Although museums are collectors of objects, being a collecting institution is not the same as being a collector. A collector is a person or group that gathers together like objects, often based on a personal interest in the subject matter. Collecting is most often considered a hobby, and hobbyist collectors may engage in trading items with other collectors.

In contrast, a collecting institution like the Museum will never trade objects from its collection. Once an item is accepted into our collection, it remains there forever. These items may be exhibited in the Museum, used in educational programs, or offered as resources for research.

Hobbyist collectors, however, can make an important contribution to the efforts of collecting institutions like the Museum which are trying to build a collection. If it weren’t for avid collectors of law enforcement items from history to the present, the Museum’s collection would not include many of its most fascinating items.

How does a collecting institution care for its collection? Once an item is made a part of the Museum’s permanent collection, it is treated with the same quality of care as every other item in the collection, regardless of appraisal or universal value. Collecting institutions strive to maintain their entire collections for future generations’ benefit. One way we maintain our collections is by using only archival quality storage materials, including storage boxes, photo covers, folders and labels. Archival products are acid-free, lignin-free, constructed of materials that will not damage objects over time, and may even aid in neutralizing acids for sensitive substances like metals. Companies like Gaylord, Hollinger Metal Edge, and University Products are professional suppliers of such products.

Objects not being exhibited are kept in our offsite storage facility where they are handled as little as possible to prevent any accidental damage and wear. No item is left out in the open; everything is kept in a closed folder, box, or cabinet with other like objects. Metal items are kept separate from plastics because plastic can break down and lead to deterioration of metals over time. Textiles are laid out flat in large cabinet drawers or long textile boxes and covered with un-buffered, pH neutral, paper. Photographs are kept in separate boxes from other documents and are kept in clear, mylar (a polyester film) covers to protect the photographic paper and ink. 

All items in the permanent collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum are cared for under the highest standards of collecting institutions. The value of our artifacts is measured not by monetary value, but by how the objects contribute to telling the story of American law enforcement. The story the Museum will tell is enhanced by each and every item in our collection.

If you have any questions about our collection, please contact



901 E Street, NW, Suite 100 | Washington, DC 20004-2025 | phone 202.737.3400 | fax 202.737.3405 |