Inventory (Spectrum 5.0 consultation draft)

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Use this procedure to check you have the basic information to be accountable for the objects in your care. If your museum has always met the minimum requirements for the other primary procedures, the answer will be yes and you should just keep up the good work. If no, this procedure will help you tackle the backlog.

The core inventory information you need for each object (or group of objects) is:

  • A unique number.
  • An object name.
  • A brief description (or image), including the number of objects if a group.
  • An up-to-date location.
  • A record of who owns it (and, if you do, where it came from).

You will know when it makes sense to group your objects together. An example might be a cabinet of pinned insect specimens acquired as a single accession. For inventory purposes, you might record the whole cabinet and note how many specimens are in each drawer.

This procedure is about being able to list all your objects if and when you need to. If your collection has been well documented from the start, the information will be spread between accession registers, catalogue records, object entry forms, loan forms and other records. It might never get brought together into a single list, but it could be without too much difficulty.

If your collection has not been well documented, and you do not have this minimum information (even for groups of objects where appropriate), you should read the guidance below and develop a policy and procedure appropriate to your own museum. Your governing body should aim to achieve the minimum standard for this procedure within an agreed time period, and do all it can to make this happen.

[Subject to approval by the Accreditation partners, it is proposed that Inventory should replace Retrospective documentation as a Spectrum primary procedure. The latter, renamed Documentation planning, would deal more broadly with how to tackle any kind of documentation backlog. So far as Accreditation is concerned, the end result is the same: museums have an acceptable inventory of their collections.]

The Spectrum standard

You must have a policy on how you maintain inventory information for all the objects in your care. This could either be a standalone document or part of a wider collections management policy. Either way, you should include answers to these questions:

  • Where is key inventory information held in your documentation system?
  • How will you make sure this information is kept up-to-date?
  • How will you audit inventory information?
  • If you do not meet the minimum requirement, how will you achieve it within the next five years?
  • How will the governing body enable this to happen?

You must also have a written procedure that explains either how you will keep your existing inventory information up to date or how you will tackle your inventory backlog. Spectrum’s suggested procedure is a useful starting point, and is available as a workflow diagram or as a text file you can edit. However you do it, you must meet the following minimum requirements:

Minimum requirement Why this is important See (cross-references to be added in final version)
You have met the minimum requirements for all other primary procedures. You are not creating a new backlog of objects without basic information.
From the various records in your system you could, if required, produce a complete list of every object (or group of objects) in your care. You can account for every object you are responsible for, including your own collections, loans and items temporarily left with you.
Every object (or group of objects) has a unique number securely associated with it, linking your records to the physical items they describe. You can identify the object you are looking for among a shelf of similar objects.
If a unique number refers to a group of objects, or one object with several parts, you record the number of individual items. You can quickly make one inventory record for a drawer containing many insect specimens, for a box containing many pottery shards.
Every object (or group of objects) has a recorded name and brief description (or image). You know broadly what each object is (eg ‘pot’, ‘postcard’, ‘drawer of butterflies’) even if it has not been catalogued in more detail.
You know the current location of every object (or group of objects) and when it was noted there. You are able to find objects when you need them.

You could produce an accurate list of the objects in a location if needed for an audit or insurance claim.

You know who owns each object (or group of objects) in your care, and how your objects were acquired. You can contact the owners of objects due to be returned.

You have no ‘orphan objects’ whose ownership is unclear.

If you do not currently meet the above requirements, you have an appropriate plan to do so within an agreed time period. Your governing body is not meeting the minimum standard of accountability for the objects in its care.


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  1. I support the previous comments on the need to clarify whether this is replacing ‘retrospective documentation/documentation planning’ as a primary procedure or whether this is required in addition to documentation planning. Indeed Accreditation is just as confusing when it comes to Inventory and cataloguing and in order for Spectrum and Accreditation to work together they need to reflect each other consistently.

  2. General Comments Applicable to all procedures: The inclusion of references to policies is beneficial but many of the questions that should be covered are more procedural than policy and would sit better within an organisation’s individual procedures than at the higher policy level. It isn’t clear how these questions sit with PAS 197 and Accreditation and could be difficult to answer in a general collections management policy without this running into many pages. The use of simpler terms and clearer language again is to be welcomed but there is a concern about the use of ‘you’ throughout this document. Without defining this term it can easily be read as an individual and therefore places the emphasis on a single person within an organisation to take responsibility for all these activities. This is a change from Spectrum 4.0 where the emphasis was at an organisational level and allowed the document to be used for advocacy to Trustees and Senior Management for the importance of these activities and how they affect those at an organisational level. Without clarity that the responsibility sits at an organisational level through the definition of ‘you’ this has the potential to de-value the nature of these activities and reduce support from senior management.
    It would also be beneficial to include references to other sources of guidance and legislation in the supporting notes where applicable and available although this will vary from country to country.
    Comments specific to this procedure: The whole standard is very object centric and for those of us who are managing buildings where the architecture is considered as much part of the collection as the objects this and the cataloguing procedure pose particular difficulties. I would echo the comments regarding collection status. I would also welcome clarity about whether this is replacing ‘retrospective documentation/documentation planning’ as a primary procedure or whether this is required in addition to documentation planning as this isn’t clear.

  3. Some interesting comments below. The whole standard is very object-centric in it language, and although natural science examples are used, Rupert’s suggested qualification below would be helpful.

    One note regarding temporary numbers, it would be good to starte explicitly that they should be of a unique format. We for instance already have a run of accession numbers prefixed with a T in our Science and Technology department.

  4. This certainly seems a more realistic approach in dealing with natural history collections, where much of the information is housed with the collections themselves.

  5. ‘Identifying objects without numbers’ should include checking journals and publications. Also, many museums have research and/or handling collections, and over time objects can easily move between permanent collections into these sometimes less well recorded collections (or vice versa) so recording collection type may also be an important piece of information for inventory purposes.

    For museums without wifi or techno capacity to inventory straight into a CMS, ensuring that a record of the inventory check is made in object records is important. If an object if found to be missing at a later date, it ensures a record of ‘last sighting’ is in each object record which can help with focused research in the event that an object is subsequently mis-located (also helps to support audit processes).

  6. As a beginner, I find it difficult to differentiate between a Catalogue and an Inventory. What document(s) / paperwork should be generated to meet this standard? eg An Inventory (hard copy or digital). Example pages might be helpful.

  7. As promised, a draft form of words for the policy section to cover my point about different types of collection:

    “If you have more than one type of collection (e.g. accessioned objects and a handling collection),* how do you identify which collection an object belongs to?

    * The status of each collection – what you can and can’t do with it – should be laid out in your collections development policy.”

  8. I think one key thing that is missing here is what any given object’s status is: e.g. loan in, handling collection, accessioned object, etc. If you have collections with different statuses, this information is crucial if the different collections are each to be managed appropriately. Whilst the precise statuses of different collections would probably be laid out in the collection development policy, I’d expect to see in the inventory policy a note of how each collection is differentiated from the others, whether by number format or some other system such as coloured marks on the objects.

    Regarding Tanya’s point about the kind of information that is useful, perhaps we might say something like ‘sufficient information to identify the object; this may vary according to the kind of object and extent of the museum’s collection, but is likely to include at least …’?

  9. As I have pointed out at our Museum, Inventory fields like those recommended here oversimplify the situation and treat all objects as the same.
    If all your objects are the same type, Object name is not helpful, but Producer, material of Findspot may be.
    Dimensions are critical for inventory.
    Acquisition is not, in my view, although ownership is!
    Thank you

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Date created: 2017

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust