Connie Cox Bodner, PhD
Supervisory Grants Management Specialist
Office of Museum Services

Do you ever wonder, “How do I create a proposal that transforms a good idea into a full-blown IMLS-funded collections care project?”

Attendees at this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) in Houston heard from a panel of speakers who have served as peer reviewers for IMLS. They shared their experiences with the peer review process, as well as some practical tips for applicants. Here are some of their insights:

The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois
The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois
  1. Clearly define the problem you want to solve and what you intend to do. Describe your collections and what you want to improve. Is it storage, environmental conditions, intellectual/physical control, accessibility, condition, or some combination of these? Then, throughout the proposal, show how all your project activities and expenses will contribute directly to the problem’s resolution. Ask colleagues for help developing your ideas and presenting a solid case. Don’t be shy about including photographs. Images help reviewers understand what you’re up against.
  2. Demonstrate that your project is high priority. Use Collections Assessment for Preservation (CAP) surveys, Preservation Assistance Grants (PAG) reports, or your organization’s long-range collections care plan to demonstrate that your project will help address your highest priority collections care need. Be sure to cite the executive summaries and relevant sections in your narrative, and where feasible, include them verbatim as supporting documents. If you completed a CAP survey but have not addressed all the recommendations, explain why and be honest. If you’ve completed several projects already, tell the reviewers so they’ll understand why you’re working on something further down the list. It’s also good evidence that your organization is committed to collections care.
  3. Reference your work in documenting and assessing risks. If your project is about environmental improvements, provide the data that helped you identify the problem. If your organization does not have an emergency preparedness/disaster response plan, provide information about how often your area is subjected to natural disasters and what you stand to lose by not having a plan and people trained to carry it out. If you are concerned about pests, tell the reviewers what kind you have and how bad the situation is.
  4. Be sure the appropriate conservation/collections care voice comes through. If you’re the expert, demonstrate it in the way you define concepts, establish priorities, and use terminology. Don’t hesitate to get outside help from a specialist if you need it. Secure letters of support, especially if you’re using a non-traditional approach, and letters of commitment from those who will be directly involved in your grant-funded project. Ask them to address what you are proposing and tell us why it’s appropriate.
  5. Devise a solid work plan that specifies who will do what, when, how, and in what time frame. Use narrative, Gantt charts, or other tools to show how your activities will be structured and timed. Prototype your work flow. If your project will involve several steps, such as cataloging, photographing, and rehousing, then try it out on a sample of objects to determine average times and costs per object as well as the most efficient sequence of activities. Reviewers may be impressed with your legwork, and you can be realistic about what you can accomplish during the grant period. If there is too much to do in one project, phase the work. Look for efficiencies through reusable content. For example, if you will rely on student interns or entry-level staff for labor, develop solid training materials once and then refine them for using again as staff or interns change.
  6. Be clear in how you will measure success. Use outputs (i.e., things you can count such as objects rehoused) and/or outcomes (i.e., measurable changes that occur such as improved environmental conditions). Tie your success measures to the problem you’re addressing and allow time in your work plan to measure and compile the results.
  7. Use your project for professional development and/or building staff capacity. Consider structuring your project to be scalable and involve others. Create opportunities for interns and volunteers to participate in meaningful work. With a deeper understanding of the collections, they’re more likely to become effective ambassadors for your museum. Involve members of other departments directly or host brown bag lunches and other presentations to keep them informed.
  8. And one last thing…please follow the instructions. These are some examples of the panelists’ pet peeves:
L.C. Bates Museum
L.C. Bates Museum, Hinckley, Maine
  • “I hate it when pages have to be removed because a section is too long.”
  • “Inconsistencies between the selected project category and the narrative can be distracting.”
  • “Spell check. You have it; use it.”
  • “Be judicious about how many supporting documents and links you include. We reviewers are only human and only have so much capacity.”
  • “Make it easy for us to follow your thoughts and find the information we need.”

The participating panelists were collections care professionals with experience as federal grant applicants, IMLS peer reviewers, and grantees. We appreciate their time and expertise.

  • Gretchen Anderson, Head of the Section of Conservation at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Dawn Kimbrel, Registrar at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
  • Emily Williams, Ph.D., Senior Conservator for Archaeological Materials at Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

To apply for an FY2019 grant to support your museum’s work in conservation and collections care, please search IMLS’s available grants and explore our Notices of Funding Opportunities. If you have questions or would like to discuss your project ideas, please reach out to us. We would love to hear from you.

Connie Cox Bodner, Ph.D.
Supervisory Grants Management Specialist

Kelsey Monahan
Museum Program Specialist

Note: Please keep in mind that these suggestions reflect the opinions of individual reviewers and following them will not guarantee that an application will be funded by IMLS. Please remember to review and follow the requirements of the particular grant program to which you are applying.