Thursday, June 30, 2011
You've donated an artifact...so what happens then?
A couple of years ago, we covered the artifact donation process...i.e. what to do if you have an item you would like considered for donation into our collection.
But if an item is accepted by our museum, what happens next?
So glad you asked!
Once we accept legal title to an item, we follow a detailed process of assessment, stabilization, record-keeping, and storage or exhibition. In layperson's terms, we check the item out, clean it up, assign it a number so we know where it came from, and decide where to put it.
The numbering process is as (if not more) important than the preservation aspect of museum work. If we don't have the artifact marked correctly, then we may not be able to associate it with its correct provenance (history and geography). This provenance is critical for passing long term information on to future visitors and museum professionals!
When an item is accepted into our collection, the first thing we do is make sure the donor fills out a deed of gift. This transfers legal title of the object to us, allowing us to care for it. We then assign the object an accession number, which allows us to track when the artifact entered our collection and what items came with it at the same time. For example, if Jane Doe donated 32 items at the same time, these items would all be considered one accession. If Jane donated two items in one year, and two items in the next year, they would be considered two separate accessions.
Confused? Just think of the word accession as meaning "batch."
From the accession or "batch," comes a more specific number called the catalog number. When an artifact is catalogued, it is more thoroughly assessed and each item within the accession is given a unique number to distinguish it from its "batch-mates."
Most museums follow a three or four part numbering system that tells you a lot about the item just by looking at the number. The first number is typically the year the item was accessioned, the second number is the number of the accession within that year, and the third number denotes the item number within that accession. For example, if Jane donates her 32 items in 2011, and her items were the third batch donated that year (Tom Jones and Sue Blue got there before her), one of her items' catalogue numbers might be 2011.3.12. This number serves as a unique identifier, much like a Social Security number.
Here at the Village we use a slightly different system replacing the second number in the series with a donor number. In this case, each donor is given a unique number relative to the overall number of donors we have. If Jane was the 546 donor we'd ever had, then one of her items donated in 2011 might have a number that looks like 2011.546.12. This only becomes an issue if Jane donates more than one accession/batch of items in 2011. In that case, careful record-keeping can help distinguish the timing of each donation.
Still with me?
Our brave curatorial/collections ancestors had to keep track of every museum item through a series of printed pages, card catalogues, and eventually primitive databases. Thankfully NOW we can rely on sophisticated museum management software that allows us to include artifact photos and detailed records that are available at the click of a mouse. We still have to keep backups of our records (CDs stored off-site and printed copies in a binder), but the ease with which we can locate our items is amazing.
The computer records are worthless, however, if we cannot match them with a specific artifact. Since we've already determined what the item's unique number will be when we catalogued it, we need to make sure this number is directly, visibly, and physically associated with each item. Museums adhere to the principle of reversibility when dealing with artifacts. This means that any action we take MUST BE REVERSIBLE. While early and well-intentioned folks may have marked their collections with Sharpie marker, this practice is NOT appropriate with current standards.
Depending on the item, its physical properties, and the quality/sensitivity of its material (wood, cotton, glass, metal), it can be marked a number of ways. Most items here at the Village are marked using a "painted" number. A barrier layer of B-72 is applied, the catalog number is applied with white or black fluid acrylic, and the number is "sealed" with a topcoat of medium gloss. This combo can be dissolved in acetone should the number need to be removed (reversibility). Catalogue number placement is also important. The number should be legible and positioned where it can be easily located by a collections staff member but can be somewhat concealed while on exhibit (i.e. inside the rim of a cast iron dutch oven). It does, however, need to be placed where it won't easily be rubbed off over time (i.e. not on the bottom of a cast iron dutch oven). Other methods for marking items include sewing a Tyvek label inside/on textiles and tags made from inert paper and material.
Once the item is marked, it is then fully entered into our collections database. We use PastPerfect, but there are a number of options from which a museum can choose. The database is where we enter all donor and provenance information. And even though we have carefully marked each item, we record other identifying information such as dimensions, materials, maker's marks, etc. This information aids in identifying objects should the numbers become illegible or separated from the artifact.
We also complete a "condition report" on each item. This allows us to note damage, irregularities, and, as the name implies, overall condition so that we can determine how an item is faring while on exhibit or in storage. This helps ensure that we are caring for each and every artifact in the best way possible! Condition reports are completed at the time of each donation and then periodically throughout the item's lifespan. At this point, we can also recommend what action can or should be taken to prolong the life of the artifact (i.e. remove dust, apply protective artifact wax, seek professional help from a conservator, remove item from exhibit).
This just a small taste of what goes into processing an artifact donation. Other steps include item research (to flesh out provenance), creating storage or exhibit mounts, and educating our historical interpreters about the new items they may be telling visitors about!
Correct accession and cataloguing procedures, while time-consuming and labor intensive, are truly rewarding and satisfying. They enable us to give an object "life" and meaning. They allow to us to locate a family treasure within minutes instead of months. They ensure that each artifact's story will be able to be told for generations to come. And that's a pretty great trade-off, if you ask me.