Accessions, Cataloging, and Collection Maintenance at a Small Museum

EDIT 9/2/2014: Wow, this post blew up fast. Thanks for the link, Henry Strobel!

For anyone interested in learning more about accessions, cataloging, and collection maintenance (functions often referred to as museum registration) these books may be helpful:

Museum Registration Methods, 5th Edition (American Alliance of Museums Press), edited by Rebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore ~ often called “The Bible of Museum Registration” in the professional world

Registration Methods for the Small Museum (American Alliance of Museums Press), by Daniel B. Reibel

Also see my Resources page and scroll to the bottom for useful links about collections management.

[Another long post–procrastinating on work again]

Don’t think this can’t happen to you.

Today I wanted to write about a “behind the scenes” aspect of museum life that the public rarely sees and that museums rarely talk about: the accessions process. This is my primary job at my little museum, and in my (non-humble) opinion, it’s the most important job. Without it, despite all the grant money and publicity, the museum can’t fulfill it’s mission of historical preservation and education.

So, how do museums keep track of all their objects? It’s a simple and easy system–and surprisingly hard to maintain unless you have a dedicated staff. Here’s the process:


First, the museum must decide to accept an object or collection that a donor has offered. Sometimes our museum does purchase things, in which case this step is a little different. Basically, we have a standard one-page “gift agreement” form which we ask the donor to fill out with their name, address, and phone number. I then make a quick list of the items in the collection on the “description of items” section. I have the donor sign and date the form, which has a one-paragraph agreement on the back saying the gift is unconditional and permanent. I make the donor a copy, and they’re good to go.

With a purchase, I simply ask the executive director for a copy of the receipt. On the gift agreement form, I write “purchase” and note the date of the purchase and the price. The copy of the receipt gets stapled to the form.

I wrote earlier about some of the eccentrics of gift agreements, so see my earlier post for that.


Now for the most important part: Each object needs to have a unique identification number. It doesn’t matter what system you use for this, but it MUST be CONSISTENT. Our little museum uses the year.number.item list system. For example, If a collection was donated in 2008, and it was the third collection donated that year, the first part of the accession number would be 08.03. Then, each item in the collection gets a unique number. So, if we get a collection of five pieces of pottery, for example, the first pot would be 08.03.1, the second would be 08.03.2, and so on.


These numbers, along with the date of donation, donor’s name, artist’s name, price paid (if any), description of the item, and the item’s dimensions (in metric!) must go into an accession book. This lists (by year) each collection that comes in and each item within those collections, along with their numbers. The book can be either digital or “analog,” although I recommend doing it on an Excel sheet. Make sure the descriptions of the objects are reasonably detailed–instead of “vase” or even “floral vase,” write “black/blue/yellow oval floral vase with spike design around collar.” Trust me, this will help you a lot if the number ever becomes disassociated from the object and you’re trying to match them up again. I learned that!

When people stop maintaining this book, the first step toward total chaos in the museum has been taken, one that your successors will be cleaning up for (sometimes) generations after. That’s because objects will be running around with no context, no information, no story, and no clear ownership–do you really the own the objects? What if someone comes in a claims it’s theirs? How will you rebut them? Yikes.


Next, you have to write or affix the accession number to each object. This is where it can get tricky. The number should be sufficiently permanent, but should also damage the item as little as possible. The ideal way to do this is to buy some white Liquitex and a long, thin paintbrush from an art supply store. Apply a thin strip of Liquitex to the bottom/non-public side of the item and let it dry. Then, with an acid-free pen, write the accession number on that white strip. Let it dry. Finally, put a clear coat over it to protect it–if you’re poor or time-pressed, clear nail polish will do, although with some objects the alcohol in nail polish can present a problem, in which case archival sites like Light Impressions can extort you out of about $30 for acid- and alcohol-free clear lacquer.

This is a process derived from archaeology (my own background). Sometimes, though, you can’t do this. Like, for example, with basketry. With less expensive basketry, I simply find a good spot on the bottom and write the accession number right on the basket with a good pen. Other times, I’ll take a small price tag, write the accession number on it, and tie it through the weaves. I’ve also used small price stickers when I wasn’t comfortable slapping Liquitex on something. There are a number of ways–the most important thing in most cases is that the accession number is visible, accurate, and permanent.


Next to your description of the items on the gift agreement, put both the measurements for the objects (length, width, and height) and the accession number you wrote on the object.


I need to emphasize this again: Take good measurements, including length, width, and height, for each object and put it in the accessions book. This will also help you if you’re ever trying to reunite an object with it’s accession number. Make sure the measurements go into the book!


This is the logical conclusion and another very important part of the process. Get a manila folder. Make a label for the tab that has the following information: donor’s name (last name first), the accession number (very important!), and a brief description of the collection. Put the gift agreement and any other information you have about the collection into this file. Next, get a green hanging folder. Put the donor’s name (last name first) on the tab. Put the manila folder into the green hanging folder, and then put the green hanging folder into a specific accessions filing cabinet drawer. This drawer should be arranged by the donor’s last name if your accession book is digital (and thus searchable) and by accession number if your book is “analog.” Our book is digital, so we go by last name.


Oh, please, please, please do this. I promise, everyone in the office after you will thank you. I am convinced that your status in paradise increases with every artifact picture you take in a curatorial office.

Why? Because, to put it bluntly, shit happens. Staff members leave. Accessions books go unattended. Artifacts “walk away” or accidentally get auctioned or get misplaced or languish in exhibits so long no one knows where they came from anymore. When (NOT IF) objects become disassociated from their numbers, this picture will be priceless.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It can even be one of those dime store cameras. Take a picture of each item, get them printed, LABEL THEM with donor name and accession numbers on the back, and put them in the collection’s file.

CONGRATS–THE OFFICIAL PROCESS IS DONE! You now have a four-fold system: the objects, their accession numbers, and their descriptions are in the accessions book, on the objects, in the file, and on the picture. If someone picks up an object and wants to know who donated it and its story, they find the accession number, look it up in the accession book, then look in the corresponding file–yay! Information has been passed on!

NOW THE HARD PART BEGINS: TRUE RESEARCH. The accessions process can be fun, in that mind-numbing labor kind of way. The real work of it, though, is getting research done on the objects. The key aspect of this is that you MUST WRITE STUFF DOWN.

For this, we use a “curatorial worksheet” for each object, which lists the accession number and all other information about where the object came from, its dimensions, etc. Then, at the bottom, we list references to books, articles, little snippets of history, what culture the pattern comes from, etc., all of which must be actively researched, sometimes by the curator himself but usually by volunteer research assistants. If an exhibit is looming–the most dangerous time for any accessions book, as will be explained at some later date–the research will usually get done.


Finally, I pack the items that aren’t going on display. I use acid-free paper and lining for the box, and then label the box with–you guessed it–donor’s name, accession number, description of collection.

And that’s that!

At large museums, a cadre of volunteers usually does this stuff (although not always well, which is a story in and of itself). At a small museum, it’s usually one or two people. Things go south quickly, though, when it’s nobody. This isn’t theoretical–I saw it.

Next time you go to a museum, see if you can find the accession number on the exhibit items. I’ll be you can on at least some! See if you can figure out their system. It’s a little open secret about museums that I think is pretty fun.


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