A GLANCE AT THE NUMBERING OF CULTURAL MUSEUM OBJECTS
By: Ntebaleng G. Tlailane, Junior Curator (Mix Media, Technological and Toys Collections) – DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History
Creating a link between an object and its associated information
According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM) every item in a museum collection needs to have a unique number that will separate it from other objects. DITSONG: Museums of South Africa (DMSA) acquires objects through donations, bequests, purchases, field collections, legal deposits and prescriptions. Proposed acquisitions (purchases and donations) are discussed and selected by the collections committees based on motivations regarding their significance, affordability, DMSA’s collection strategy, and the museum’s acquisition strategy as well as practical issues such as storage requirements and future costs of safekeeping and preservation.
When an object is accepted into a particular collection, it will be first be recorded in an entry form book. Thereafter it will be given an accession number when added into the register book and the Asset Verification System (AVS). Then either the collection custodian or the registrar will mark or label the object with the assigned number, and it will be put in the relevant storeroom.
Marking or labelling is one of the most crucial tasks in collection management, that is often overlooked. It is the method of identification that establishes a link between an artefact with the information. Marking separates or identifies an object from the rest. It has always been maintained that even the object with the most cultural significance loses their value if they are not correctly identified and the purpose of keeping such an object may be lost. In the past stolen artefacts were identified with their given unique number in antique shops and even overseas museums.
Marking involves the writing of the accession number on the objects while labelling means assigning a tag on the objects. Labelling or tagging is often done when an object is too small to be written on it or when marking will cause physical damage to the object. For example, the material used for marking is not suitable for synthetic objects. It is necessary for the collection custodians to agree on areas to be marked on objects, especially regarding objects that are comparatively huge in size, in order to avoid excessive handling of artefacts when conducting verification. It is important that the mark is not easily visible when the object is on display. The mark must also not spoil the appearance of the object or cover the important detail of the object. For example, no mark must be on top of the flower pattern on a ceramic object. The mark must be secure; it must be difficult for the number to be easily removed. Avoid surfaces that are cracked or unstable. When in doubt always use a tag.
A collection marking kit consists of the following:
• Paraloid B-72 (a durable and non-yellowing acrylic resin)
• Printed label
• White cloth mark
• Needles and thread
• Black and white ink
The process of marking
The area on which the objects are to be marked must be prepared before marking takes place. The museum official doing the marking must wash his/her hands and at least put on the hand that will be carrying the object, a glove. Some people can mark with both hands wearing gloves. No food or drinks are allowed as they may stain objects. Ensure that the marking kit with all the necessary material to be used is readily available on the table. Most importantly make sure that the number that is to be inscribed on the object is the correct one.
The first thing to be considered during marking is the material of the objects. Objects are made of different materials such as wood, synthetic or plastic, metal, paper, glass, ceramic, textile etcetera. Books, photographs and objects that are made of paper are usually marked with an HB pencil at the back. As indicated above synthetic objects are in most cases tagged as opposed to writing on the objects. Textile objects on the other hand are numbered by sowing a white cloth with a number, usually at the bottom of the object.
Figure 1. Collection manager marking a book (DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History).
Figure 2. Collection manager marking a textile object (DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History).
When marking metal, wood, ceramics and other objects that are not sensitive, one will start by applying a Paraloid B-72 coat on the appropriate surface for at least a period of 12 hours before marking. Thereafter you will mark the object and allow it to dry. This can also take 12 hours. After the object has been marked you then apply the Paraloid B-72 again as a topcoat, to make sure that the mark will not be easily removed.
During marking objects are to be handled according to the handling procedures as laid down by the conservation section. Even when the collection custodian is not sure of the method to be used, they must always consult the conservator.
DITSONG: Museums of South Africa: Heritage Management Policy.
DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History: Standard Operating Procedures (Mix Media collection).