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Collection Inventories

October 19, 2016 6:20 PM | Rob Layne (Administrator)

By Peggy Schaller [reprinted from the Northern States Conservation Center Collections Caretaker eNewsletter - October 15, 2016]

Why are periodic inventories important?

There are two main reasons for doing periodic inventories. No, it is not just to make you do more work! Inventories are an important function of museum collections management. The main reason is to keep track of your collections. You cannot display or otherwise utilize what you cannot find. If you cannot find it, you have not lived up to your public trust responsibilities regarding your collection and the object might just as well be gone. And how do you know it is not gone? Maybe there has been a theft of which you are not aware?

Secondly, periodic inventories allow you to monitor the condition of the objects. Doing an inventory forces you to look at each individual artifact as you are verifying that it is where it is supposed to be. This is the perfect opportunity to make an examination of the current condition of your objects. If that small crack you noticed last time has gotten bigger, maybe the environmental controls need to be checked. If there is evidence of insects where there was none before, maybe you have an infestation that needs to be dealt with. Many small or large changes can be caught by regular examination of your collection.

Who will do the Inventory?

Only those persons authorized to be in the collection areas should be in charge of doing a Collection Inventory. All helpers during this process must be trusted Collection Staff, another staff member or background checked volunteers. All volunteers must be paired with a staff member and should never be allowed to work in the collection unaccompanied.

Collection Inventories, at their most efficient, are done with teams of two--one person to handle and describe, the other to record the information on the Inventory sheet. One member of this team should be a collection staff member, the other may be a volunteer or other staff member.

Before beginning an inventory, each person involved should go through a short training session on proper handling of collections and how to describe artifacts. Remember, the descriptions required during an inventory are NOT cataloging descriptions, but short, concise descriptions that will allow you to tell one artifact from others of a similar nature.

So how do you go about doing an inventory?

To avoid having your inventory turn into an exercise in frustration, you must have a systematic plan. Do not hop from one shelf to another, or one room to another, you will tend to forget where you have been and will surely miss something. Do one room or section of the museum at a time. Choose a starting point within that room or section and proceed in a logical manner one shelf or case at a time. Always finish each section/shelf/cabinet/drawer before moving on to the next.

To learn more join Peggy Schaller in MS218: Collections Inventories starting November 7, 2016.

Peggy Schaller, founded Collections Research for Museums in 1991 to provide cataloging, collection-management training and services. She has worked with a large variety of museums and collections for more than 20 years. Peggy, who lives in Denver, Colorado, has a bachelor's degree in anthropology with minors in art history and geology from the University of Arizona in Tucson. She has a master's degree in anthropology with a minor in museum studies from the University of Colorado in Boulder and is a Certified Institutional Protection Manager II. For more information visit her web site  Collections Research for Museums. Peggy is also the Publications Manager, Certificate Program Coordinator, and Course Monitor for Northern States Conservation Center and museumclasses.org.