Documenting Your Documentation – Overview

What makes your collection special?

Documenting our documentation is new for us all. Let’s start simple!

First you need to decide if you make a documentation of your whole museum or if you split it into different collections. That depends how large your museum is and if different people are responsible for different collections.

Overview of the collection

  1. Elevator Pitch: Imagine a very important person is visiting your collection. They know nothing about it. You have 30 seconds on the elevator to tell them the most important facts.
    Describe your collection in three sentences. (Normal sentences, not scientific-paper-five-comma-sentences). Important are : Content of the collection, size, significance.

    On your way to the storage there are a few polite questions. Now you have a bit more time to answer, but stay focussed: Give an overview, do not go into details of collection concepts or the donor’s biography. That will come later.

  2. Collection in context: Is your collection part of a larger museum collection? Is there any way to distinguish your collection from the others? (separate storage, different inventory number, classification,..)
  3. Significance of the collection: How important is your collection in comparison to the other collections in your museum/to similar collections in other museums? What are the main differences?

Maria Scherrers

Maria Scherrers is museum specialist with degrees from HTW Berlin and the University of Leicester. She spent most of her working life so far in company museums and collections. She is fascinated by the way our everyday life is changed by brands and how that influences our cultural history and what we will be collecting in the future. In the mean time she is a consultant for company that wish to build and use historic product collections.
She spends her little free time on her family and on politics.


Beyond the Index Cards – Documenting Documentation

Documenting what you did and why will help your future self.

Collection work is more than just storage and object information in a database. Sometimes we only realize how much more there is when important people leave or when we have to painfully puzzle together different information to answer simple questions.

Just imagine 20/50/80 years ago one of your predecessors had documented what they did, why they did it and how they did it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to understand where this object numbering system comes from, who meticulously documented that part of the collection on index cards or where that part of the collection was stored over the years.

Over the next weeks I want to post some questions you might want to answer for yourself. Think of what all the people coming after you might want to know about your collection work.

These topics will be part of the questionnaire:

1. Overview

2. History of the Collection

3. Collecting and Collection Criteria

4. Documentation and Documentation Criteria

5. Digitisation and Object Photography

6. How the Collection is used

7. Storage and Conservation

8. Plans and Future Developments

Stay tuned!

Maria Scherrers

Maria Scherrers is museum specialist with degrees from HTW Berlin and the University of Leicester. She spent most of her working life so far in company museums and collections. She is fascinated by the way our everyday life is changed by brands and how that influences our cultural history and what we will be collecting in the future. In the mean time she is a consultant for company that wish to build and use historic product collections.
She spends her little free time on her family and on politics.


Tell Me More, Database – The FIC Song

Recently a mail from a colleague reminded me of an incident that made me write some new lyrics to the old John Denver campfire classic “Country Roads” after we solved the issue:

It was a dark Friday in February when I checked and rehoused some enamel signs together with one of my student assistants. We came across two road signs who looked fairly similar and had the same accession number written on their back. Of course, there was no picture in the database. We called our database manager for help. After a while, she found an orphaned photo in the files that showed that one sign had the arrow pointing to the left while another sign with a different accession number had the arrow pointing to the right. Its catalog entry was marked with “location unknown” a long time ago. Finally, we were able to assign the correct numbers.

So, for all the missing and found objects in our collections, will you please join me in this song… a-one, a-two…

Almost Weekend, in the storage
Found a sign there, right next to another.
Both look similar, similar like twins,
And they both have same accession number.

Database, tell me more,
Where the things do belong.
Show the files me,
Backlog Mamma, tell me more,

Unwrap the sign now, take a look there,
Accession number, written on the backside.
Dark and dusty, written black on black.
Misty taste of neglect, teardrops in my eye.

Database, tell me more,
Where the things do belong.
Show the files me,
Backlog Mamma, tell me more,

I find a file in the “missing things”, it calls me
Seems a lot like one we missed a long time ago
Looking at the pic I got the feeling
That we finally solved this mystery, mystery!

Database, tell me more,
Where the things do belong.
Show the files me,
Backlog Mamma, tell me more,


Things Greater and Smaller

book coverAbout a year and a half ago, my editor at Rowman & Littlefield asked if I was interested in preparing a new edition of my book, Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies. The first edition had been published in 2006 which meant that it was long overdue for an update, so of course I said yes (I wanted to call the second edition Things Greater and Smaller, but, alas, that didn’t happen).

As I started working on the project, I realized just how much some aspects of the museum field had changed since 2006, particularly the amount of information and how we access it. As I reviewed several score of new books, journal articles, and listserv discussions, I was struck by how many more resources are now available than when I wrote the first edition. I also thought back to when I started my museum career―admittedly this was back in the Pleistocene, also known as the 1970s―at that time, the museum literature was very sparse and there were no internet resources (because there was no internet). The only way to consult with one’s colleagues was to call them on the telephone (back then you actually paid for each long-distance call) or wait until you bumped into them at some meeting or other. The rich variety of print publications and web resources that are readily accessible now and our ability to instantly consult with a brain trust of seasoned museum professionals via cell phone, email, or web-based discussion groups has changed the field considerably, and much for the better.

When I mentioned that I was preparing a new edition of the book, people would usually ask what I was planning to change. Indeed, the changes are many, beginning with a rewrite of most of the text and the addition of several new text boxes, and a few photographs have been added to the revised edition. There is updated and expanded coverage of deaccessioning and intellectual property rights, and a new section on digital collections. The laws and legislation appendix has been revised, and the bibliography expanded. The second edition text reflects changes in our thinking about standards for collections care and storage environments. Some information has been added about collection management policies for zoological parks and botanical gardens, and about the curation of culturally sensitive collections. One of the most noticeable changes in the new edition is that the sample policies from real institutions have been replaced with model policies from fictitious institutions. Because the sample policies in the first edition all came from real museums, they were limited in their applicability to other situations and in any case, most had become dated. Although I warned readers of the first edition not to copy policies from other museums but to write their own, most people preparing policies need something to start with, so the new edition offers models to provide users a way to get started.

A good collections management policy is the foundation of a great collection.

This new edition incorporates much that I have learned about how the book is used by its readers. This primarily came from feedback from presenting workshops, teaching classes and webinars, and from people who took the time to let me know what they thought about it. It is somewhat daunting, but always instructive, to assign your own book to a class and then watch how they interpret what you have said.

Although collections management policies are very important to museums, even I have to admit that policy preparation can be, for want of a better word, boring. To help out with that aspect of policy preparation I have developed a board game to go along with the new edition of Things Great and Small. I call the game Monopolicies (you can guess what board game inspired it) and after some beta testing, it is nearly ready for a public launch. The idea is that instead of those dry and interminable discussions with colleagues about collections management policies for your institution the staff can, instead, have their discussions in a more relaxed atmosphere while having fun playing a game. Monopolicies will be made available in early spring as a free download—watch for it! (Update 2018/02/04: It’s available for download here: )

Things Great and Small is available now from the publisher ( and other booksellers.

John E. Simmons
Adjunct Curator of Collections, Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum & Art Gallery, Penn State University


Happy 5th Birthday, Registrar Trek!

pic by OpenClipart-Vectors via pixabay (CC0)“After five years you can consider a project as grown-up.” This was more or less how the moderator at the conference of the documentation group of the Deutscher Museumsbund (German Museum Association) phrased it when I gave a talk about our project. In many regards, I think that’s right. But on the other hand, it makes me want to sing with Tom Waits (or with the Ramones, if you prefer that version): “I don’t wanna grow up!” I hope we will never lose the curiosity to try and learn new things and I hope we will never become so serious that there isn’t a place for a good laugh even in our most professional articles.

This year we covered a wide range of very recent aspects of our profession, from rapid response collecting to cataloging smartphone apps. In general, we expanded our range from the classical collection management topics to more aspects of museum documentation. This is a good thing as documentation is the foundation of everything we do. However, because we want to keep our blogging well-rounded, I’m planning to launch a series about “Registrar’s Tools”, where we talk about our favorite tools and toys. You are very welcome to contribute with texts, pictures and thoughts about the tools you like best.

As a project, this year I hope we can attract some new translators. Many who started with us five years ago have now taken up such demanding roles that they can’t contribute anymore. This doesn’t come as a surprise, because people who are willing to volunteer in a project about their profession show exactly the mindset and dedication that is sought after by museums. So, I do hope that we will find new volunteers that fill the blog with the missing translations.

And of course, I hope that many will find the time to sit down and write the story or that article about an aspect of our profession they always wanted to write about. As always, send them to

Now, let’s start into this New Year 2018 and may it be a good one!



Season’s Greetings!

christmas tree on counter

Our Christmas Tree in the staff’s kitchen: fake tree, LED candles and small enough to fit on the counter so no one bumps into it.

The most difficult season for the registrar comes to an end. All the end of year gifts wrapped up, all the loans returned or loan contracts renewed, all the candles replaced with LEDs (seriously, who ever thought mixing real – and usually dry – twigs of pine and fire is a great idea?), the last database entries updated. Time to raise our glasses.
We know the world “outside” is difficult, perhaps more difficult these days than it ever was during our lifetime. But there is also friendship and collaboration across borders, especially in our profession. That’s something to be grateful for. This year sat colleagues from all across Germany, but also from China and Egypt at our kitchen table in the storage and we could exchange thoughts and insights. Maybe the greatest gift is being able to listen and understand each other, even if there are language hurdles and cultural differences.

On behalf of the whole Registrar Trek Team:

Merry Christmas,
A few calm days off and a
Happy New Year 2018!



Talking Museum Documentation Right Meow

For all of us working on the task to improve documentation in our museums it is often hard to get the point across to the colleagues who are not so deeply involved in the discussions about standards and long-term preservation. Maybe we are too deeply involved to make the concept clear. Maybe we have to take a different approach. Maybe we have to tell the story from a different angle. Let’s try it this way:

Who wouldn’t like to care for such a fluffy old lady?

This summer I was taking care of an elderly lady. She’s 17 years old. Well, that’s quite an age for a cat, it’s well over 80 in human years! Her owner went on vacation for two weeks, so our local catsitter association was taking over, making sure the cat could stay in her own home. Mau was a very distinguished, lovely, elderly lady, but as it inevitably comes with age, she had some medical issues. She had to take some drugs every day. Which can be a challenge already if you care for a human being. If your nursing case is a cat it can be a daunting task. And, due to some liver and kidney issues, it was very important to monitor if she was eating properly. When she refused to eat for 24 hours, it was a warning signal. Something had to be done to convince her, like opening a box of tuna. If she refused to eat for more than 48 hours, it was an emergency which needed special medication and maybe the vet.
As the owner loved his cat, he wrote down a few pages of “instruction manual” including all of the cat’s needs. It stated what drugs, how many, when and how needed to find their way inside the cat. It also stated some tricks that went well in the past, like hiding pills inside a special kind of sausage. He also held a training session before he left so we could practice the application under his supervision.

The “instruction manual” for the cat

When another catsitter and I took over, we realized from the start that we would need some way to monitor cat issues, like: has the cat taken her drugs and has she eaten properly? As one would look for the cat in the morning and one in the evening we wouldn’t see each other. As we both were working and had busy schedules, phoning was not an option. Mailing or texting seemed cumbersome and not completely reliable. So, we placed a sheet of paper in the kitchen where we could monitor the “state of cat” every day. We wrote down things like “application of kidney medication went well, but she refused to take red pill” or: “food bowl was still full”. We also used this “diary” to share some observations like “loves being brushed” and tricks like “If you hide the pill in a treat she won’t take the treat. But if you throw to her a few treats without pills and she starts eating them you can smuggle a pill into the next treat.”

The diary

As you can imagine, all went well, and we could hand over a happy, well medicated cat when the owner returned.

What does this story have to do with documentation?

Well, the underlying concept here is care. All people involved did what they did because they cared. Now, the objects in our collections are not living, purring creatures. But as we care for them, we do something very similar with documentation:

  • We make sure that everything that is important to know about our collection is stored in a central document or documents, quite like the “instruction manual” for the cat. They state what, why, when and how things have to be done. These are mainly our handling instructions and some of it might be found in our collections policy.
  • We also make sure that these documents are accessible to everybody who is involved in caring for our collections.
    In our story the “instruction manual” was stored on the kitchen table so everybody could turn to it as a reference in case of doubt. It would not have been a good solution if the owner just had handed it to both catsitters: in case one catsitter fell ill, a replacement would not have had access to the document.
  • We create possibilities to document what happened to our objects. We make sure that everybody can learn what happened when to an object, no matter if she or he works with the object in one hour or in 20 years. That’s why we take down object related information like damages, location changes, loans or conservation treatment in our object’s records, just like we did with the “diary” for the cat.
  • We use clear language and avoid slang so no matter who is reading our documentation in the future is able to understand what we mean.
  • Finally, we don’t rely on documents alone. We also hold training sessions about how to update an object record correctly and how to handle our objects.

So, next time a colleague fails to report a location change or damage, maybe don’t bore her or him with a lecture on the importance of documentation. Instead you might like to tell a story of a lovely, elderly, purring little cat.



Mergers & Missions: Moving Forward Together

Collections Stewardship is a newly reorganized professional network of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The network serves a broad museum community of professionals who advocate for better collections stewardship in museums. Whether your title is Registrar, Collections Manager, Preparator, Collections Technician, or something else, if your interest is collections care, then we’re here for you. Collections Stewardship was formed as the merger of the Registrars Committee (RC-AAM) and the Art Handling, Collections Care, and Preparation Network. The merger and name change was approved by the AAM Board of Directors in March 2017 and announced at the Registrars Committee luncheon during the 2017 AAM Annual Meeting in St. Louis.

First we merge, then we party

First, let’s clear up all of the acronyms.
AAM: American Alliance of Museums
RC or RCAAM: Registrars Committee, AAM
Art Handling: Art Handling, Collections Care, and Preparation Network, AAM
CS: Collections Stewardship, AAM
PACCIN: Preparation, Art Handling, Collections Care Information Network

It may help you to know that these two groups have a history. The Registrars Committee began in 1977 as a professional network of the American Association of Museums. In the 1990s, RCAAM created a task force that in 1997 separated to become the AAM Professional Interest Committee called PACCIN. In 2015, PACCIN became it’s own 501(c)3 and a new AAM Professional Network, the Art Handling, Collections Care, and Preparation Network, was created. It is this PN that merged with the Registrars Committee to become Collections Stewardship.

So why the merger? Changes in AAM’s management of professional networks from 2012 led to a need to reassess the relationship between RC and AAM. A series of discussions about these changes culminated in a roundtable discussion at the Marketplace of Ideas during the 2016 AAM Meeting in Washington, D.C. From this, a task force was formed that resulted in the merger.

So what can you expect from this new (old) group? Collections Stewardship will continue to offer the listserv, service projects, networking opportunities and other popular resources, such as the mentorship program and sample documents (through its website). The Collections Stewardship board will explore cooperative projects with nonprofit organizations of like focus, including Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) and PACCIN.

However, our work is not complete. The current mission of Collections Stewardship is still the original RC 1977 mission, which was designed to define the profession. The newly merged network will revisit the 1977 mission and consider it from many perspectives. We must be inclusive, we must honestly assess where our profession currently finds itself, and we must set sights for the future of the field. This project will need consultation. Before formal adoption, it will be shared with the CS membership for approval. We hope to have the new mission ready and available for distribution long before the 2018 annual conference in Phoenix.

If you have thoughts on the project, and care to make suggestions, please reach out Chair-elect Sebastian Encina at

We are excited to move forward with this, and are eager to continue making Collections Stewardship work for all of us.



How do I catalogue a smartphone app?

By Paul Rowe

Some app symbolsTraditionally museum collections were made of physical items covering everything from beetles to books, and archives to artworks. Photography collections consisted of the analogue works – negatives or prints of the photographs. The items being added to museum collections are increasingly born-digital works such as photographs taken on a digital camera or films recorded on a smartphone.

We recently had a question on our users’ forum asking for advice on how to catalogue a smartphone app. How do born-digital works fit within the traditional museum cataloguing process? Where do you start with more complex acquisitions such as software package or app?

Here are some general tips about cataloguing born-digital objects, as well as some notes on multimedia material that you might only have in analogue form (such as reels of film).

Link the source digital files

When cataloguing any born-digital works you should link the digital files directly into the catalogue. These could include a high resolution original image and smaller images derivatives if they’re used by your system. For a smartphone app, you may be able to link to still images from the user interface or a trailer/help video about the app.

You may also be able to link to web addresses for the digital material, such as GitHub source code page or Wikipedia page describing a more complex digital item such as a smartphone app.

Many systems will be able to automatically import metadata from linked files so that you have detail including creation dates and capture equipment, dimensions and duration.

Use the standard object cataloguing fields

Many of the fields used to describe traditional collections will still apply to multimedia material, including born-digital files. Typical fields that you might use are:
Object Type: a simple description of the type of material. e.g. Sound Recording, Smartphone app.

Measurements: if you don’t have duration as metadata directly in the digital file then running time and digital file sizes could be noted in the catalogue record.
Size Category: analogue film stock is usually stored in standard can sizes. These could be created as standard size categories in your system.
Display Requirements: describe the equipment required to play the recording or to use the app.
Format: e.g. Digital Video Disc, 35mm colour film, iOS app
Sound: e.g. Dolby 5.1
Colour: Technicolor
Scale: e.g. 4:3 or 1200px x 900px.
Timecodes: You can note the start and end time within an audio or video file of key clips or episodes. Each start and end time should have title or description noting the subject of the clip.
Special Features: Note features available on a commercial film release or special attributes of a software package or app.
Technical Details: Note any important technical details such as DVD Zone or Video codec.

Carriers versus Titles

Large audio or video collections often include multiple copies of the same recording. Each copy is often referred to as a Carrier. An example would be film, which the organisation may hold as a 16mm master copy, and as an analogue VHS and digital DVD copy for lending.
For larger catalogues it can be worth splitting the catalogue detail into a title record and linking this to multiple related carrier records. The title record captures the intellectual description (the title, who made it, when and where was it made). The carrier records describe details of the copies (what format are they in, where are they stored, what loans and conservation work have they been involved in). This is a more complex structure and is only necessary when large numbers of duplicate copies are managed.

Vernon CMS

This article was as a result of a question specifically about using Vernon CMS to catalogue a smartphone app. Our tips should be applicable to many similar cataloguing systems. You can read more about the Vernon Collection Management System on

Paul Rowe is CEO of Vernon Systems, an New Zealand-based collections management software company. Vernon Systems develops software to help organisations record, interpret and share their collections. Paul is particularly interested in the use of web-based systems within museums and increasing public access to museum collection information. He is occasionally seen caving.


Registrar Trek Stays Mannheim!

picture by domeckopol via pixabay

Mannheim water tower (picture by domeckopol via pixabay)

Whenever a member of the Registrar Trek Team Member is attending a conference or a similar event to spread the word about our blog project we usually post a “Registrar Trek goes… (Costa Rica, Helsinki, Milan)” message. Well, this time I am attending a conference that takes place at “my” museum, so I can stay where I am: The annual fall meeting of the documentation group of the Deutscher Museumsbund (German Museum Association) will take place October 16-18 at the TECHNOSEUM. I’m all exited to do a presentation on the blog and exchange thoughts with all the colleagues.

See the full conference time table here:

Best wishes