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Inventory – suggested procedure

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You should 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. This suggested procedure is useful starting point. It is given as text and also as a workflow diagram. However you do it, your own procedure should meet the minimum requirements of the Spectrum standard.


Having the primary procedures in place


Check you meet the Spectrum standard for the other eight primary procedures.

First, check that you meet the minimum standard set out in the following primary procedures:

  • Object entry
  • Acquisition and accessioning
  • Location and movement control
  • Cataloguing
  • Object exit
  • Loans in (borrowing objects)
  • Loans out (lending objects)
  • Documentation planning

Do you meet the Spectrum standard for all the other primary procedures?

If you do, move to the next step below. If not, do not start this procedure until you have the other basics in place. Otherwise, you have no way to keep your core inventory information up to date as objects enter, leave or move around your museum for any reason, and no plan for tackling any backlog.


Checking you have core information


Do you have core information for every object (or group)?

Although, as noted, some museums may have more detailed in-house requirements, the core information for each object (or group of objects) is:

  • A unique object number (from which it should be clear whether the object is from your accessioned collections, on loan, or has some other status such as a handling item) – Object number.
  • An object name – Object name.
  • The number of objects (if a group) – Number of objects.
  • A brief description (or image) – Brief description.
  • The current location – Current location.
  • If not your museum, a record of who owns the object – Current owner (and, if your museum does own it, a record of where it came from).
  • A note of who recorded this information and when – Recorder and Recording date.

This information is likely to be split between several kinds of documentation (eg object entry forms, accession register, catalogue records or cards). If you use collections management software, the core information for most objects should be recorded there, but you may only have paper forms for newly-arrived objects or short-term loans. You only need to bring this information together into a single list for specific purposes such as an audit.

If your museum has always met the minimum standard for the other primary procedures, you should have this core information for all the objects in your care. If it has not, there will be a backlog of some kind.

If you are not sure how accurate or complete your existing information is, you might audit a random sample of your collection to assess the scale of the problem. See the Audit procedure for guidance.


Create a plan for tackling any inventory backlog.

If you know you have a significant number of undocumented objects, or that your location records have been poorly maintained, you should probably start by listing the objects (or groups of objects) in your museum, room by room, shelf by shelf, following the steps recommended below. But first, you need to create a plan for doing this in a systematic way.

Go to, and return from, Documentation planning.


Producing an inventory


Go around the locations you are inventorying and list every object (or group) in them.

Start from your list of locations within your museum. If you meet the minimum standard for the Location and movement control procedure, you should have listed all your locations already. If not then do so now. The number or name should be detailed enough to locate any object precisely. It may be expressed as a hierarchy (eg building/room/case). Greater detail may be needed for smaller objects (eg fossils in a drawer).

You will probably need to record some material in bulk. When to do this is usually a matter of common sense. 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. Other examples might include boxes of pot sherds, or albums of photographs.

Does the object have a number marked on it or on a label?

If an object has an accession number marked on it, or on an attached label, make a record using this number. If there is no number labelled or marked, give the object a temporary identity number. This could be a simple running number sequence (eg prefixed by a ‘T’), but should on no account risk being confused with any other numbering system previously used in your museum. Use a temporary method (eg a label) to attach this number to the object.


Create or update records for objects that have accession numbers.

It is likely that objects already marked or labelled with an accession number will already be documented somewhere in your system, if only in the accession register. For these objects, either update your existing records (particularly their location) or create a new catalogue record if one does not exist.


Checking discrepancies


Try to identify objects with temporary numbers.

For the objects you have labelled with temporary numbers, go systematically through existing documentation looking for possible matches. This will probably take much longer than the previous steps of listing the physical objects. Possible sources include:

  • Accession records.
  • Transfer of title forms.
  • Catalogue records.
  • Correspondence.
  • Entry records.
  • Exhibition catalogues.
  • Field collection notes.
  • Financial records.
  • Indexes.
  • Labels.
  • Loan agreements.
  • Reports and minutes.
  • Journals and other publications.
  • Newspaper cuttings.
  • Research notes.
  • Staff memories.

Some museums have found it most efficient to transfer information from such documentary sources into searchable digital form, which takes time and effort up front but which can speed up the matching process once done.


Mark or label any objects identified this way with its number.

If you are able to match an object with a temporary number to an existing record for an accessioned object, remove the temporary number and apply the correct accession number, following your museum’s labelling and marking guidelines.


Update or add core information (including location).

Create or update records for these newly-identified objects, as you did for those objects already marked with their accession numbers.


Resolving outstanding problems


Decide how to deal with unidentified objects.

When all reasonable avenues have been explored, you will be left with unidentified objects that have probably never been accessioned. Following your policy you will need to decide whether to accession them or dispose of them. If you decide to accession, record the acquisition method as something like ‘found un-accessioned in the stores’.

Date created: 2017

Publisher: Collections Trust