Cataloguing – scope

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Most museums create some kind of structured catalogue record for each object, or group of objects, either on computer or cards. Such records give an at-a-glance summary of key facts and they can be indexed so you can find information when you need it. Catalogue records should also cross-refer to other relevant information held on file (eg in another part of your computer-based system or in a filing cabinet of object history files) or published elsewhere.

Catalogue records are more than the inventory-level minimum that tells you an object exists and where it is. If you have met the Inventory requirements you know the numbers and locations of everything in your collection, but the names might be very general (eg pot, postcard, drawer of butterflies). Inventory-level records cannot tell you which pots are Roman, which postcards show your town in the 1920s, or which butterflies were collected by a noted Victorian naturalist.

Cataloguing fleshes out those bare bones with as much, or as little, extra information as you need. It gets down, in writing, knowledge your team already carries in their heads, and gives you somewhere to store new facts as they come to light. No museum has finished cataloguing, because there is always more to learn.

You may need to catalogue high-value objects to a standard specified by your insurers. The ObjectID standard, which requires photographs too, is used internationally to help recover stolen items.

Once you have met at least the minimum Inventory requirements, think less about ‘tackling the backlog’ than how you can capture the knowledge you will build through exhibition research and other projects. See Documentation planning for more advice on how to break cataloguing down into manageable chunks.

Note that Spectrum does not specify any particular level of cataloguing beyond the minimum needed to meet the Inventory standard. It does, however, ask you to think about the ‘core’ catalogue information you need and how you will achieve that.

Date created: 2017

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust