Every object you see when you visit our museum galleries, from tiny insects to the Nonsuch, has a special number assigned to it that helps us to track all its movements and link important information to the object. Assigned at the time the object is accessioned – when it officially becomes part of the museum collection – the catalogue number is always inscribed on the object in an inconspicuous place, which is why you’re not likely to see many of these numbers when viewing an exhibit.
Deciding where and how to apply these numbers is part of my job as the Human History Cataloguer. Methods of applying numbers depend mainly on the nature of the object – paper objects like certificates and books will get a number handwritten in pencil, for instance. A number should be removable, in case the object is deaccessioned, meaning we never ever use permanent marker or a knife to etch the number onto an object. Ok, fine, it’s happened once or twice well before my time. Museum practices have come a long way!
Harpoon Head (HBC 11-59). Catalogue number etched into metal, an example of how not to number an object. © The Manitoba Museum
A recent acquisition of material from the C. Kelekis Restaurant allowed me to practice the primary ways we apply numbers in Human History.
C. Kelekis Restaurant Menu (H9-38-491 A). Paper objects are numbered using a No./HB pencil.
© The Manitoba Museum
The most straightforward and simple application is by good old No. 2/HB Pencil. Pencil can be used on paper, wood, Ivorex or French Ivory, some plastics, unglazed ceramics, etc. All I need is a freshly sharpened pencil and I’m good to go!
Above: A selection of supplies used in the numbering process.
Below: C. Kelekis Restaurant Menu (H9-38-490 A). Catalogue number printed on acid-free paper is applied to this laminated menu with Acryloid B-72. © The Manitoba Museum
For metals, some plastics, glazed ceramics, glass, etc., things are more complicated. I use an in-house produced material called Acryloid B-72 to adhere a number printed on acid-free paper to the object. A second coat of B-72 is applied over the number to seal it. Waiting for everything to dry takes longer, but the number is easy to read and reversible, meaning it can be removed even after a long time.
C. Kelekis Restaurant Souvenir T-shirt (H9-38-489 A). Label with catalogue number is sewn onto garment.
© The Manitoba Museum
In the case of fabrics, such as a garment, flag or pillowcase, the number is written in archival ink on a synthetic fabric, called Hollytex, or cotton twill tape and sewn onto the object with a few quick stitches. I’m sure it goes without saying, sewing with Nitrile gloves on is challenging (one should always avoid getting blood on the artifacts).
Why number an object? The catalogue number itself reveals a lot about an object. It could tell us which department is responsible for the object, when the object was accessioned and even where the object comes from, in the case of archaeological specimens. The catalogue number links the objects to all their information in our collections database. Finally, with large numbers of similar objects (like 2,361 bottles or 688 dolls in our History collection, for instance), the catalogue number allows us to distinguish one object from another. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that is collections management!
Blog submitted by Cortney Pachet, Cataloguer (Human History)