Collections at the San Diego Museum of Man

Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology Collections

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On June 20, 1916, the directors of the Panama-California Exposition sold the exhibits in archaeology, ethnology, and anthropology to the San Diego Museum Association for $1.00. This original collection included about 5,000 items.

Today, the Museum of Man’s collections number in the hundreds of thousands. The Museum now stewards over 150,000 ethnographic objects, over 300,000 archaeological objects, 100,000 photographic images, and a small archival collection. Our collection covers the far reaches of the globe, with pieces hailing from large empires to tiny islands. The collection contains thousands of compelling objects – ranging from local Kumeyaay baskets, Egyptian sarcophagi, painted aboriginal shields, and delicate Chinese textiles — that help drive programming at the Museum.

Have you ever wondered how we manage such a large and diverse collection?

Preserving and managing these vast collections is integral to the Museum’s mission and vision. Our objects help illustrate the diversity of the human experience, and they inspire human connections across time and geography. Our efforts to steward our collections are guided by a carefully written Collections Management Policy (known by our staff as the CMP).

The CMP establishes guidelines around the types of material and objects we collect and what objects we do not collect. Because of the large size and scope of our collections, the Museum of Man must very carefully consider all potential donations to the collection. All new acquisitions must help us further our mission to explore the human experience. We make sure not to collect objects that duplicate things we already steward. We also make sure that we can care for any objects we accept. Most importantly, we want to make sure that every object at the Museum is consistent with our ethical and legal collecting parameters.

As a growing and evolving institution, the Museum is continually undergoing change and inappropriate items must occasionally be removed our collections. This process, known as deaccessioning, helps the Museum improve its collections in both quality and quantity by following collection strategies that support our mission. Items can be removed from the collection for a variety of reasons, including if an object is outside our mission, lacks physical integrity, or duplicates other items in the collection. The Museum is aware of its role as trustee of the collections on behalf of the public so our deaccession process is cautious, deliberate and scrupulous. Each potential object must pass through multiple committees for review so that we can make sure an item really does not belong at the Museum of Man. When our review committees and Trustees approve an object for deaccession, our first goal is to find the artifact a new home in another museum. If that is not possible, we might choose to sell an object at public auction with proceeds strictly limited to acquiring new artifacts for the collection. Objects that cannot be sold might be used to help train future museum professionals in proper care and conservation techniques. In accordance with museum standards and our ethics policy, objects are never given or sold directly to private individuals. Members of the staff or our trustees are also not permitted to acquire deaccessioned objects through public auction.

To learn more about the policies guiding the care and stewardship of the Museum of Man’s collections, you can read our Collections Management Policy.