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Failures in Figures – Sloppy Location Tracking Part 4

The reasons and what can be done about it II

wantedIn part 3 of our series we took a look at what part of our human nature causes the errors we’ve discovered in part 1. But they are not the only reason. Procedures and technology play a big part in this.

1. Number of steps towards location change

Whenever I compare notes with colleagues in all honesty, we come up with almost the same observation: however exact and detail-oriented we tend to be, about 10% of the time we just get it wrong. Most of the time we confuse numbers, but there is the whole range of errors we discovered in part 1. That almost none of those mistakes make it into our data bases is due to cross-checkig procedures we impose on ourselves. For example, after we have written down a number, we compare it again with the number on the object or we work together with a colleague.
If there is a high risk of confusing numbers whenever we write them down, it is totally logical that the more often we have to do this in the process, the more likely we get it wrong. It’s just as logical that the number of possible mistakes increases the more people are involved in the process and the more time passes between the original location change and having it secured in the data base.
The worst location change process I ever encountered looked the following:

  1. The collection manager noted the location change on a piece of paper at the offsite storage.
  2. The collection manager or one of his/her assistants composed an email with the location change and sent it to the documentation team when he/she got to a computer with web access.
  3. A team member of the documentation team made the location change in the data base.

Obviously, there are three times the accession number and location is noted which means where you can get it wrong. Along with the “normal” confusion of numbers, there is the possibility to read a handwritten number wrong. In addition to those writing or typing mistakes there is the additional possibility that the location is entered wrong, because the final change in the data base is done by someone who isn’t familiar with the location numbering system in the storage. While the collections manager would probably realize that he/she can’t have put a grammophone needle on a heavy duty rack, this detail escapes the documentalist in his/her office.

What can be done about it:

  • Limit the steps it takes to make the actual location change to a minimum. Ideally you have data base access in all storage areas that allows immediate location change.
  • Anyone who actually changes locations of objects has to have the possibility to do location changes in the data base.
  • If more than one staff member is involved, make sure there is a feedback loop when the location has been changed, so the original changer of object location has a chance to check for accuracy.
  • Technology like barcoding, if proper implemented and working, reduces confusion of numbers to zero (Read the examples of the National Galleries of Scotland and the TECHNOSEUM.

2. Complicated numbering systems

This is not really a surprise, but seldom someone thinks about it: if your location numbering system and your accession number is confusingly complicated, you increase the likeliness of mistakes to happen. Accession numbers that follow the logic “year of accession/number of object that year/parts number” are far more easy to remember and to write correctly than an accession number that tries to convey a multitude of information like “number of department/number for material/year of accessioning/number that indicates if loan, education collection or permanent collection/number of object/parts number” 1. Unlike computers, humans just aren’t good at remembering numbers and even if it’s just a brief moment between looking at the number and writing it down, there is a memory process involved. One Mr. Miller came to the conclusion that the human brain can hold 7 items at the same time in 1956 2. I don’t doubt that there are really brainy colleagues who can remember much more, but I found this rather accurate.
elephantsOne reason why the three-part numbering system is easier to remember than other numbering systems is that one part of it, the year of accession, is telling people something. As a human being you don’t read 1977 as 1-9-7-7, you read it as the year Elvis died or your daughter was born. That’s probably why I seldom discovered that someone got the year of an accession number wrong and when it happens, it’s mostly because there were numerous other accession numbers with that year to take down, so when one item comes from another year, your brain just copied and pasted what it had read several times before (remember what I said abut concentration in part 3!) or that the digits in the year are notorious to be confused when written on paper like 5 and 6 or, in some terrible handwriting 8, 9 and/or 0. So, one could say that the first part of the three parts system is just one bit to remember, not 4. The next part contains 3 or 4 digits, which is possible to remember, as well as parts numbers, as long as they are not too many. A 1988.1243.001 is easier to remember than a 1988.1243.193, simply because the first one meaas that you have to remember 6 bits (1 year + 4 digits + 1 digit) while in the second example it’s 8 bits (1 year + 4 digits + 3 digits).

What can be done about it:

  • Choose a numbering system the human brain can remember.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t expect the accession number to include ALL the information. It is totally sufficient if the accession number makes it possible to distinguish one object from another, similar one. All other infomation can be drawn from the data base or an accompanying inventory card.
  • Avoid whenever possible the necessity of memorizing numbers.
  • Mark your location codes clear and readable on every location unit. Just because the system seems obvious and logical to you it isn’t for the next colleague who has to deal with it. Yes, I’m looking at you, collections managers! If you choose not to label each shelf of a shelving unit, don’t expect anybody to know which is “shelf a” and which is “shelf e”.

3. Responsibilities

With every person responsible for location changes the likeliness of mistakes to happen increases. And the more involved, the harder to track where something went wrong. Also, with each person on the team that is involved with object handling, the variety of mistakes increases. That might be a little hard to comprehend, so let’s make an example: Our valiant collections manager X is very detail-oriented but has a serious quirk: she tends to confuse left and right. As locations on the shelf boards are separated by “left”, “center” and “right” she sometimes confuses those, too. The curator Y is often taken away by the sheer beauty of his objects and tends to forget from which shelf he has taken an artifact. As he is at the same time convinced that he exactly knows what he is doing, he often puts the object back on some other shelf. Conservator Z is marvelous with treating artifacts but terrible with numbers. When writing three accession numbers on a box she sure gets at least one number wrong. Each of those quirks looked upon seperately are easy to mend: depending on who has handled the object last, you just know that you have either to search on the opposite side of the shelf (handled by X), the shelfs in the vicinity of the original location (handled by Y) or play around with certain possibilities of number confusions (handled by Z). As soon as you don’t know who handled the object last, you have to take all possible mistakes into consideration, leading to more invested working time in discovering the object.

What can be done about it:

  • Limit the number of people responsible (and allowed) to handle objects and make location changes.
  • Track every location change not only with date and reason, but also with who actually did it.
  • In larger institutions: Make sure you assign and communicate responsibilities clearly. For example: who is making the location change, the giving or the receiving party? If the collections manager sends an object to the conservation lab, the curator or to the photographer, the collections manager is responsible for the location change. If a conservator sends an object to the photographer, the conservator is responsible for the location change. If the photographer sends an object back to storage, the photographer is resposible for the location change.

This was the last part on location tracking in our series “Failures in Figures”. I’m sure that there are other points to consider which I forgot to mention. I’m looking forward to your comments, additions and ideas! I’m also looking for new suggestions on what we should examine in “Failures in Figures”.

Best wishes

  1. Don’t laugh at that, I actually worked for one institution that had a very similar accession numbering system, including a “.1.” right in the middle that none of the people currently on staff could explain, it just had always been there and they never encountered any other digit there.
  2. Miller, George A., The Magical Number 7, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Psychological Review, 1956, p. 81-97

Failures in Figures – Sloppy Location Tracking Part 3

The reasons and what can be done about it

wantedIn part 2 I left you with the question why so many mistakes happen, why we discovered an error rate of 21,91 % in our example. Well, you may have guessed it, while sometimes sloppyness CAN be the reason, it seldom is. Let’s take a look at common reasons and what can be done:

1. Working in a haste

We all know the last minute requests, when an object is needed NOW. This happens often before great openings or other time-critical events when the collections manager is swamped with a number of tasks anyway and this increases the likeliness of something going wrong with location changes. If the collections manager retrieves the object him- or herself the most likely thing to happen are confused numbers in the accession number that lead to a wrong location change. The reason is that despite his or her usual accuracy the number is scribbled on a piece of paper in a haste and without noting other things like title or name. When he or she does the location change in the data base he or she might not check the data base entry as accurately as he or she would normally do, because of the time pressure.
If some other staff member retrieves the object he or she might forget to note the location change at all, because, other than the collections manager, location changes are not among his or her daily duties and he or she doesn’t carry the weight of searching for lost objects, so it is rather easy to forget to do it. It is also very likely that the location change of other objects are not noted, i.e. when objects need to be removed to retrieve the wanted object and are not put back to their original location.

What can be done about it:

  • Establish clear deadlines for object retrieval for in-house projects. While it takes some effort to enforce it and will take constant reminders, it saves a lot of search time and reduces stress. Insider tip: working with positive reinforcement like giving kudos to curators who deliver their object lists early and stick to them can help a lot.
  • Establish clear deadlines for external requests like loans.
  • Limit the number of staff that is allowed to retrieve objects.

2. Multitasking

While it is quite normal that collections managers wear many hats in their museums multitasking doesn’t mix well with tasks that need a high amount of focus like making location changes. It’s nearly inevitable that mistakes happen if you do location changes, make data base changes, check emails, answer the phone and give instructions to staff members all at the same time.

What can be done about it:

  • Make it a custom that you are not available if you do location changes. Turn email off and give your phone to a colleague. If it’s necessary that you are available for emergencies, have a special phone for emergencies that people can call only if it is a REAL emergency. Insider tip: If you think you are too important to be not available make this simple experiment: take random two hours or a working day and note who tried to reach you and why. Then take a look at the requests and try to spot those which really were so urgent that you had to react within this time frame and which would have been unproblematic if you just noticed them two hours later and reacted then. I bet that most if not all requests fall into the second category and there are even some requests that were solved another way within these two hours.

3. Concentration

A human being is not able to be fully focused 8 hours a day. While this is somehow logical, it is often forgotten. Especially collections people often think that they are the exception from the rule and they remember everything and are concentrated all the time. Well, this isn’t true. Location changes need extrem attention to detail and if you get tired you will inevitably make mistakes. And because you are not fully concentrated, chances are you don’t even realize them.

What can be done about it:

  • Don’t schedule a whole working day for location changes. Cut it down to a reasonable time frame like an hour or two. Even within this short time frame, take some breaks and stop if you realize that you are not fully focused and your mind goes astray.
  • Whenever possible, do location changes with a second person, especially if you have to do a lot of them. This generally reduces the amount of mistakes and you can watch each other. Often, you won’t realize that you are not concentrated. That’s the very nature of distraction. But normally, a second person working with you will realize it and can say “I guess we need a break.”

And there’s more to it…
These are just the reasons for the mistakes that have to do with our very own human nature. There are more reasons that have to do with procedures and technology. We’ll take a look at them in our next part.


Failures in Figures – Sloppy Location Tracking Part 2

The damage sloppy location tracking does

wantedI promised to take a look at the damage done by the errors recognized in the first part.
Note: All the working time given in minutes are estimations based on real-world experiments and consider closely related working steps like, for example, that to check a rack in compact storage you need time to pull the rack out and move it back in after checking or that you have to take a sign out of a box and place it on a table when checking signs stored in a box – and that you have to put back all of them safely after checking. It does not take into account the time invested into collections improvement like cleaning, packing badly packed objects better or correcting false data base entries when you discover them while searching for that sign.

Those who believe wrong location entries don’t do a considerable damage normally have misconceptions about the museum work behind the scenes. Their reasoning goes as follows: if an object is missing, you mark it missing in the data base and carry on with your work. Their calculation is:

Going to the location stated in the data base to look for object, search for it, don’t find it there:
3 Minutes (assuming that “Every object is retrievable within three minutes”, one of the core principles of RE-ORG methodology for museum storages, see for more)

Marking the object as “missing” in the data base:
1 minute

4 minutes working time wasted.

But that’s not the reality. Objects that are searched for are needed for something, may it be an exhibit or research. This means that when you can’t find it there is a whole procedure of searching taking place. How much time is wasted depends on your setting and object handling procedures. Let’s say the normal setting is that the curator searches for most of the objects he or she needs for an exhibition him- or herself. Only when he or she has trouble finding something he or she contacts the collections manager. What will happen in this setup?

The curator searches for the object at the location stated in the data base:
3 minutes

The curator searches in the direct vicinity of the location to make sure it really isn’t there and he or she hasn’t just overlooked it.
10 minutes

The curator checks the data base again to see if he or she really looked at the right location
1 minute

The curator contacts the collections manager to inform him or her about the trouble in finding the object
5 minutes

The collections manager searches the location given in the data base and its direct vicinity again to make sure the curator hasn’t overlooked something
13 minutes

The collections manager takes a look at the object entry in the data base to see if he or she can figure out what went wrong. This means trying different combinations of confused numbers to see if it produces results that show the location of the sign. For example: if 1988.1243 and 1989.1243 are both enamel signs and 1988.1243 can’t be found at the location entered in the data base it might be found on the location that is given for 1989.1243. This might also encompass searching for previous uses of the sign to figure out if it was taken out for a loan or a conservation treatment which wasn’t noted in the data base by mistake.
30 minutes

The collections manager searches all objects of the same type to make sure the object really isn’t there. How long this takes is mainly due to the object type, storage situation and the quality of the overall museum documentation. If enamel signs are all stored in one place without exemption this is easier and quicker to check than if they can be found at various storage locations. If all enamel signs hang open and visible in compact storage they are easier to search than if they are all wrapped in bubble wrap. If they hang wrapped they are easier to search than if they are crammed into open shelving or boxes. If the bubble wrap has a printed out picture of the sign on it it is easier to search than if the wrap only carries the number.
Well, we have about 750 enamel signs. Let’s say we can narrow this sample down to 200 if we take the size as quick criteria what signs we have to check and which we don’t have to check. Here is the time it takes to check in all already discussed scenarios:

Compact storage (assuming that one rack holds 20 signs that are hung open or are wrapped but have a big printed picture in front and that you have a picture of the sign you search for):
4 minutes per rack = 40 minutes

Compact storage (assuming that one rack holds 20 signs that are wrapped and clearly signed with the accession number):
7 minutes per rack = 70 minutes

Open shelving or boxes (assuming that one shelf or box holds 10 signs):
15 minutes per shelf = 300 minutes

It’s astounding to see the increase of working time that comes with not ideal storage conditions. The time given for storage in boxes or open shelving in this scenario is still kind of ideal: the working time invested increases even more if boxes have to be moved with a pallet truck or a forklift, if the signs are not all stored in one place and if location entries are vague. Of course, sometimes you won’t have to search through all the 200 signs to find the right one. On the other hand, Murphy’s Law is still in place, so it might well be that the sign you search for is the last sign that you check. And: signs are rather easy to search for, compared to a missing coffee maker in a collection of 200 coffee makers in 18 shelving units, presumably all wrapped in nice bubble wrap and just labeled with accession numbers. Still a doable task, assuming that all coffee makers are stored together. It becomes “mission impossible” if every single nicely wrapped package in 400 storage units could hold the missing item.
Well, back to our figures…

The collections manager is changing the location entry if he or she has found the object or marks it as “missing” in the data base:
1 minute

The collections manager informs the curator if the object was found or if it is missing
5 minutes

In the worst case the object can’t be retrieved despite all efforts and this leads to even more invested working time by the curator who has to search for a replacement. Along with the increased research time this might even result in additional costs like shipping fees if he or she needs to borrow the replacement from another institution or traveling costs if he or she has to travel to another institution for research. But let’s just take stock here:

Invested working time curator (the information exchange between curator and collections manager is counted for both):
24 minutes
Invested working time collections manger in a perfectly organized collections setup:
94 minutes
Invested working time in a standard collections setup:
124 minutes
Invested working time in a sub-standard collections setup:
354 minutes

This means that even in a well-managed setup a wrong location entry leads to about 2 hours of invested staff time.
invested time
Which brings us to the question how often this happens. Upper management will normally assume that this is the exception, not the rule. They reason that their collections managers are detail-oriented and dedicated staffers who will have their collection well organized so these failures are certainly not very common. On the other hand, many collections managers will probably tell you “it happens EVERY time!” So, which assumption is right? Well, they are both right and both wrong. If we take a look at the figures from our first part we got an error rate of 21,91 %. As we only look for objects that were not found on their location we can neglect the “wrong picture” case (although this could make the retrieval process more complicated) so our error rate becomes 20,54 %. If we assume for a moment that this percentage is common in other collections, too, this means that there is something wrong with the location entry of every fifth object. In other words: if you get a list of 15 objects to retrieve you will have difficulties with finding 3 of them. Of course, this isn’t inevitably so, but it explains why many collections managers think of it as something that happens EVERY time as it possibly happens with at least one object in every task they get on their desk.

So, are most collections managers not as detail-oriented and dedicated as upper management thinks? Is our self-perception that we are of course detail-oriented, sometimes in an obsessive-compulsive way, so completely wrong? Are we really that sloppy? Or are there reasons other than carelessness responsible for the figures we just saw? We’ll take a look at that in the next part of our series.


Failures in Figures – A Series with Real-World Examples and Real Data

Nowadays everybody seems to be obsessed with numbers. Big Data, KPIs, ROI, people like to count and somehow they believe that only if they have counted enough numbers they can make sense of what’s going on. Recently someone asked how many artifacts are needed to justify a curator’s position. People ask ”How many artifacts does your collection hold?” as if this information says anything about how significant or valuable the collection is or how good it is cared for. Data base entries done to achieve unrealistic “objects per day/month/year” goals instead of focusing on the quality of the entries let me bang my head against the wall pretty often.

I could argue for hours about what is wrong with those approaches but I guess you, our readers, could do it just as well. Instead, I tried to look at it from a different angle: We, the collections people, deal a lot with data every day. One could say that data is nearly our native tongue. But so far we let other people, less fluent in this language, dictate which figures are important and what they tell us. So today, I start a series based on common collection issues that I can make visible using real data. I will present the figures and then analyze what they tell us.

Part 1: How bad is being a little sloppy with location tracking, really?

Recently we were improving the storage situation for some of our tin plate and enamel signs. This is just one of these situations where you stumble upon a set of very different common storage mistakes: confused numbers, wrong data base entries, missing locations… In fact, those relocation projects, following a stringent procedure of taking everything out and checking it against its data base entry are sometimes the only occasions where you have a real chance to discover objects that were marked “missing”.

Those are also projects where you sometimes encounter “time saving” ideas like “but they are all in the data base, can’t we just take them to their new location and change the location entry in the data base without cross-checking?” It’s sometimes not easy to argue against such ideas – until you have figures that tell you why it isn’t exactly a good idea. So, let’s take a look at the figures:

We moved 73 signs in one day. During the check we encountered the following issues:
9 signs had a wrong location in the data base. Sometimes it was an “old” location, where the sign had been before, because someone had forgotten to mark the location change in the data base or because he or she confused the accession number and made the location change for a totally different object. Sometimes the location was plain wrong because someone choose the wrong entry from the location thesaurus or, again, confused the accession number with another object.
2 signs where marked “missing” in the data base, which means that somebody already tried to find them. They were discovered when unwrapping a sign and discovering that there was a second sign packed within. One of the two had no accession number attached but could be identified later.
4 signs had a wrong accession number attached, although most of our object labels (and, in fact, all 4 labels in question here) bear pictures.
1 data base entry showed the wrong picture.

This translates into an error rate of 21,91 % which means that there was something wrong with every 5th data base entry.
Wrong location entries top the pile with 12%, followed by confused accession numbers with 5,48%, “missing” objects with 2,74% and wrong picture with 1,37%.


In the next parts of this series we will take a look at what led to these errors, how they could have been avoided and how this translates into invested working time.

Part 2: The damage done by sloppy location tracking


Where’d It Go?

TECHNOSEUM utilizes barcodes to track collections

Simple and effective inventory control: Most of the radio collection has already been barcoded. TECHNOSEUM, photo Hans Bleh

Simple and effective inventory control: Most of the radio collection has already been barcoded. TECHNOSEUM, photo: Hans Bleh

When things disappear in museums, everyone’s first thought is of break-ins or theft. Museum objects do disappear on a daily basis, but the reason they do is usually more mundane: the object was removed for exhibition, loan, or conservation. Changes in location are usually tracked in a database, but the system has one weakness: a human being enters the object number into the database and notes its new location. One transposed numeral and suddenly it’s the coffeepot instead of the typewriter that’s gone to the conservation lab, though the pot never really left its location in storage. The mistake usually goes unnoticed until an object is urgently needed but can’t be found where the database says it should be. When thousands of objects are moved each year, as they are at the TECHNOSEUM, errors in location management are a serious problem. The obvious solution is to make the object numbers and locations machine-readable, eliminating the potential for input errors.

Barcode or RFID?

As with every practical issue, there is an abundance of technical know-how on the one hand, versus concrete local limitations on the other. Something that makes sense in one museum might not in another. At the TECHNOSEUM, we first considered several possibilities in an open and unbiased manner, starting with barcodes. Most of us know these as the striped codes on packaging in stores, or as blotchy squares of code in ads or magazines commonly known as QR codes. Next we considered RFID chips, which are usually associated with anti-theft devices or animal tracking. We also got in touch with colleagues around the world, who are already using these systems in their museums and were able to give us a great deal of insight into their problems and potential. We weighed this information against our own local conditions and decided to go with the striped barcode.

By the People, For the People

Inventory card on a “Einstein Beer Tankard,” one of about 100 examples in the collections. A special exhibit on the topic “Beer” will appear at the TECHNOSEUM in 2016. TECHNOSEUM; photo Hans Bleh

Inventory card on a “Einstein Beer Tankard,” one of about 100 examples in the collections. A special exhibit on the topic “Beer” will appear at the TECHNOSEUM in 2016. TECHNOSEUM, photo Hans Bleh

We knew from the start that we would not be affixing the barcodes directly on the objects. Only the object number goes directly on an object. The barcode is part of the a laser-printed polyethylene film inventory card associated with each object at the TECHNOSEUM. The barcode on each card is merely a conversion of the object number into a machine-readable form. The same is true of the barcodes that designate storage locations: they are not arbitrary numbers, but rather a simplified version of our alphanumeric location designations.

This kind of conversion has many advantages:
• Collections staff can continue working even when the scanner system is not working. People can still read all numbers and find the locations.
• Barcodes can be implemented gradually, parallel to older inventory methods, with no workflow delays when objects or locations have not been barcoded yet.
• With the low number of characters, the capacity of the classic barcode is sufficient and cheaper readers can be used.
Work on Site and in the Database
The barcode scanner works just like a keypad or mouse. When a barcode is scanned, our database (Faust 7) displays the associated record, which can then be edited. If the object’s location is to change, we scan the location barcode directly from the storage unit itself or from a list at the workstation. The barcode readers we use at the TECHNOSEUM work over a wireless network. They also have a memory function, so barcodes outside the range of the receiver can be scanned and then uploaded back at our work stations.

Implementation: From Zero to 170,000?

At first, implementing a system like this might seem like a mammoth undertaking. After all, eventually all of the TECHNOSEUM’s approximately 170,000 objects are to sport “their” barcodes. The simple directive “Everything you touch gets a barcode” makes the reality of implementing the system much less daunting. Since February 2015, every new acquisition has received its barcode as soon as it enters the collection. And every object loaned, photographed, audited, or restored gets a barcoded tag—that’s between 4,000 and 6,000 objects annually. Every object in the database already has a barcode, which automatically appears on every newly printed inventory card, packing list, and box label. Any hours our part-time student assistants have to spare are spent providing entire storage units with new inventory cards. The barcodes have withstood their first baptism by fire: the deinstallation of the “Herzblut” (Lifeblood) exhibition. About 600 of the 700 objects on display came from our own collections and were packed up and sent back to storage in June. For the first time ever, thanks to the barcodes, there were no “blind spots” in the logistics chain: every object could be found at any point in time, whether in the exhibit vitrine, the numbered packing case, or back in storage. And another first: Never in the museum’s 25-year history had an exhibition been deinstalled without a single transposed numeral—until now!

Angela Kipp

This article was originally published in KulturBetrieb, (Cultural Enterprise) a magazine for innovative and economic solutions in museums, libraries, and archives; issue 3 (August 2015).

Abbreviations and technical terms employed:

RFID (English abbreviation for “radio-frequency identification): identification using radio waves.

Translated from German into English by Cindy Opitz


New Digital Publication Now Available!
Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions

by Anne M. Young
Manager of Rights and Reproductions
Indianapolis Museum of Art

Last week Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions was published by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and American Alliance of Museums. Read the official press release here: After two years of in-depth work on the Handbook, it is my great pleasure to see the efforts of so many people come to fruition and be released to the public. As I have taken to calling the Handbook, my third “child” has now been born—a bouncing baby ePub.

Cover design for the publication. Artwork depicted: Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), Hotel Lobby (detail), 1943, oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 40-3/4 in. Indianapolis Museum of Art, William Ray Adams Memorial Collection, 47.4 © Edward Hopper.

Cover design for the publication. Artwork depicted: Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), Hotel Lobby (detail), 1943, oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 40-3/4 in. Indianapolis Museum of Art, William Ray Adams Memorial Collection, 47.4 © Edward Hopper.

The Handbook is the first publication available to rights and reproductions specialists that focuses solely on the guidelines, established standards and emerging best practices in this field. As defined in the Handbook, a rights and reproductions specialist refers to anyone working at a cultural institution who handles this type of work, including but not limited to registrars, rights and reproductions managers, archivists, librarians and lawyers.

Writing, editing and designing Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions has been, relatively speaking, the easy part. The true “work” has been the coordination of all the moving parts associated with its production. Getting the IMA and AAM in line as the publishers, bringing together over 20 contributing authors and legal review panelists, the IMA’s receipt of the National Leadership Grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the Getty Foundation’s support of its production as a digital publication utilizing the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) Toolkit are the only reasons it is now available for purchase. As one of the contributing authors recently quipped, “Anne, you are now awarded the title ‘Champion Cat Herder,’” which I humbly accept.

Highlights or stats, if you will, of the Handbook include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Over 400 “pages” of text and almost 800 footnotes (just four shy, which is simply annoying).
  • An overview of Intellectual Property (IP) law, ethics and risk (in the United States) and other personal, moral, and third party rights compared with the broad differences found in international IP rights.
  • Discussion of the importance of maintaining an IP policy, considering open access policies and conducting regular IP audits.
  • 50 references each to Creative Commons and open access and over 170 references to fair use and/or fair dealing.
  • Rights issues in permanent collections: determining the rights status of collection objects, identifying rights holders and preparing non-exclusive licenses.
  • Use of materials with IP considerations, including, but not limited to, publications and exhibitions, educational materials, websites and social media, marketing and promotion, and retail and commercial products.
  • Varying processes employed for clearing permissions and sourcing materials, as well as when a utilization of fair use is appropriate and the types of attribution required.
  • Over 20 case studies that outline real-world examples from the contributing authors’ experiences and practices at their respective institutions.
  • The process of expanding audiences and potential revenue generation by leveraging collection content with external distribution partners.
  • Analysis of communicating IP to the public, including licensing materials to external users and the evolution of photography policies.
  • Direct hyperlinks to external sources and related articles within the footnotes, appendices and bibliography as well as embedded video files.
  • Four appendices: international treaties, federal legal materials and court decisions; document and contract templates (over 100 pages!); terms and definitions; and references and resources.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to skip the morning stop at the coffee shop and purchase your copy of Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions. Available now for purchase through AAM’s website at for $4.99 USD (non-members and Tier 1 members) and $1.99 USD (Tier 2 and 3 members).


Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. The project utilizes the OSCI Toolkit, which is supported by the Getty Foundation as a part of its Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative.


But what is it called? Nomenclature 4.0 is here to help you!

Using the right terms is crucial for good museum documentation, the foundation for professional museum work. We have discussed this a couple of times in the past. Now I’m really happy that Nomenclature, the standard work for naming objects correctly in historical museums in the U.S. sees its fourth edition. Those of you who ever had to discuss with colleagues if it’s an adjustable spanner or a monkey wrench (which gets even worse in German where the same tool is called “Englishman” or “Frenchman” depending on the region in addition to about four “normal” terms) will know why having a controlled vocabulary is a blessing. I asked Jennifer Toelle to tell us a little more about the new edition:

nimnclatureNomenclature 4.0 is the most up-to-date print edition of one of North America’s most popular controlled vocabularies for classifying and naming objects in historical museums. Building on professional standards and a hierarchical structure introduced in the last edition, Nomenclature 4.0 features expanded coverage and revision by reflecting new research and contributions by museum professionals throughout the United States and Canada.

For over 35 years, Nomenclature has offered a practical, flexible framework to ensure museum documentation, retrieval and data sharing is more consistent. This system remains a standard cataloging tool for thousands of museums and historical organizations. Nomenclature serves museums by providing a system designed to consistently name objects and facilitate sharing information with staff and researchers, other institutions, and the public.

Nomenclature allows catalogers to assign names to the artifacts / objects within their collection consistently and accurately. Much like plants are grouped and categorized by family, genus and species, Nomenclature groups items in hierarchical levels based on object function. Thus, objects originally created to be used as toys or to carry on the activities of games, sports, gambling, or public entertainment are grouped in one category (Category 9: Recreational Objects) while those items originally created as expressions of human thought (for example, art, documents, religious objects,) are grouped in Category 8: Communication Objects.

The lexicon has ten categories covering all aspects of human-made objects ranging from Built Environment Objects, Furnishings, Personal Objects, Tools and Equipment for Materials, Tools and Equipment for Science and Technology, Tools and Equipment for Communication, Distribution and Transportation Objects, Communication Objects, Recreational Objects and Unclassifiable Objects. Each category is then divided into classifications and sub-classifications with Primary, Secondary and Tertiary object terms available to choose.

Catalogers in other countries beyond North America’s borders may find Nomenclature 4.0’s object terms useful in daily cataloging operations. It may be a useful reference tool supplementing already existing object terminology that may be incorporated into routine museum documentation practices.
Nomenclature 4.0 For Museum Cataloging includes:

  • An introductory essay featuring a Nomenclature users’ guide and a discussion of best cataloging practices
  • A list of more than 14,600 preferred object terms, organized according to a six-level classification hierarchy first introduced in Nomenclature 3.0
  • An alphabetical index of more than 16,900 preferred and non-preferred terms
  • A revised and updated users’ guide with new tips and advice
  • An expanded controlled vocabulary featuring nearly 950 new preferred terms
  • 475 more non-preferred terms in the index
  • An expanded and reorganized section on water transportation
  • Expanded coverage of exchange media, digital collections, electronic devices, archaeological and ethnographic objects, and more!
  • The content has been updated to accommodate cultural changes and evolving collections, making it easier to describe contemporary material culture as well as more traditional items.
  • Access to this up-to-date terminology ensures consistency of catalogued records and vastly improves the facilitation of sharing and retrieval of data.
  • This edition incorporates many new terms in direct response to recommendations made and needs expressed by colleagues “in the trenches” of collections and collection records management.

Connect with the Nomenclature Online Community!

Ordering Nomenclature 4.0

To order Nomenclature 4.0 For Museum Cataloging:

Jennifer Toelle works as the Registrar at the Smoky Hill Museum in Salina, Kansas, United States. Jennifer is a member of the American Association for State and Local History’s Nomenclature Task Force. For questions, please contact Jennifer at


What are those objects and where do they come from?

Making The Collection of the Anna Maria Island Historical Society (AMIHS) accessible

By Ashley Burke

Throughout the country, there are local communities concerned with preserving their historic heritage. As a result, small historical societies and museums are created to help preserve this history. Many of these organizations are volunteer run and often they do not have proper museum training, especially in regards to the management of museum collections. These museums often hold collections with minimal information and as a consequence can create difficulties in future research and development.

Saving the Heritage of Anna Maria Island

AMIHS on eHiveThe AMIHS was one of those museums. It was created in 1992 by community members concerned with their changing community. Many of the long time residents were moving away or passing on and rapid redevelopment of the island had begun to take place. AMIHS set out to capture this history before it disappeared and in 1997 also started collecting historical artifacts to help tell these stories. Over the next 18 years they amassed over 1300 objects, a historic 1920s cottage and many more archives and scrapbooks still being processed.

Many years later in 2014 on one hot Florida summer day, an unknown museum person visited the collection and commented to the volunteer on duty that the museum was not being a good steward to their collections. From this moment, the museum began thinking about its collections differently and initiated a relationship with a local museum consultant (this author). The consultant was initially brought in to perform a site evaluation to outline the preservation concerns and recommendations for implementation. One of the major recommendations was to complete a full inventory and cataloging of the collections. Based on the recommendations and the evaluation, the museum chose to move forward with the cataloging project.

Cataloging – Assembly Line Style

The museum decided to close for a month and a half (during the slowest part of the year for tourism) to allow the consultant full access to the museum unheeded by volunteers and patrons. The consultant set up an assembly line type process and went room by room numbering, photographing and taking notes in a spreadsheet, as well as adding buffers and other preservation tools to better protect the objects on display. Over time, the process became streamlined and focused on the photography. A large set of objects would be laid out, then all of them numbered followed by photography and then put back on display. During the photography, the consultant would first photograph the number of the object and then photograph the object. Once the images were uploaded to the computer, the images were all renumbered to reflect the object number. This method allowed the consultant to do most of the cataloging work off site. Armed with high-resolution images of the collection, the consultant could easily add nomenclature 3.0 vocabularies and perform some web-based research.

After the collection was fully numbered and cataloged (in the end, estimated time per object came to 7 minutes), the archives and local newspaper records were consulted for any possible donor information. Since the consultant knew the collection very well at the end of the cataloging, it was easier to match up donor information to objects.

Making The Collection Accessible Online

At the end of the cataloging project, the museum was fully cataloged, numbered, and photographed, but now what should be done with all the information? A hard copy was provided to the museum for easy access, but the museum needed a computer solution that was more than just an excel spreadsheet. The museum, however, had a number of hurdles, the main one was that there was only one computer on site and it spent most of its life in the closet. There was no server and no real tech support available. The museum needed an inexpensive, cloud, web-based solution. With this information, the consultant set about researching all the available open-source and web-based collections management software solutions.

Attached is the initial report on the various systems that were analyzed (includes the cost, and a list of pros and cons). With this report and lengthy conversations with the museum, the choice was narrowed down to two choices—eHive and OMEKA. Collections items were added to both solutions and then showcased to the board of the museum. Armed with all the information, the museum choose eHive.

Once the collections management software was chosen, the museum and the consultant worked with the database company to map the data into the collections database. The AMIHS now has a useable, searchable museum collections database—one they can easily point researchers to, as well as to actively add new accessions, and add the archival data into the database.

Ashley Burke is the collections manager at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, Florida and a museum consultant for Burke Museum Services. She has over a decade of experience in museums with a variety of types of collections from fine arts to decorative arts to natural history to archeology to medical collections (including wet tissue). She has a passion for all things museum related, Florida history and is a part-time metalsmith. She makes museum inspired jewelry in her free time.


Rembrandt on the Forklift

Originally published on March 25, 2015, in German on the TECHNOblog of the TECHNOSEUM

The forklift is indispensible in our storage facility. TECHNOSEUM, picture Bernd Kießling

The forklift is indispensible in our storage facility. TECHNOSEUM, picture Bernd Kießling

Admittedly, when colleagues from art museums take in collections, you could go green with envy. Rembrandt, Goya, Cranach… While our AEG K2 Magnetophon is rarer than a Blue Mauritius, there aren’t many people who get really excited about it. And whether the Mona Lisa or our “Eschenau” steam locomotive brings a gleam to more children’s eyes is debatable. Technology fans must confess, though, that the names of technical devices are often short on glamour.

From Berlin to Mannheim

The delivery of the objects from the Deutsche Rundfunk (German Broadcasting) archives has made up for some of that. In recent weeks, we unloaded about 1,500 devices from the former German Broadcasting Museum from various trucks and moved them to our collections storage facility. Of course we had to confirm that everything that came from Berlin had safely made it to Mannheim. During the verification process, we suddenly felt a little like our colleagues at the art museums—or maybe more like tour operators and recording officials.

A Rembrandt of Our Own

Our colleagues in the storage facility know exactly where each television is located. TECHNOSEUM, picture Bernd Kießling

Our colleagues in the storage facility know exactly where each television is located 1 TECHNOSEUM, picture Bernd Kießling.

Sachsenwerk and Rafena in Radeberg gave their television sets artistic names such as Rembrandt, Dürer, and Cranach. Philips, on the other hand, stuck with cryptic designations like “23TD321A,” but their nicknames read like a “Who’s Who?” of art history: Raffael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Tizian, Bellini, Goya, and another Rembrandt, though this one from 1962. Blaupunkt imagined itself in southern vacation paradises, with names like “Toskana” (Tuscany) and “Sevilla” (Seville). Graetz went all noble with “Landgraf” (Landgrave) and “Markgraf” (Margrave). Nordmende sent a “Diplomat” into the field, Philips a “Mediator,” and the marketing team at Loewe even decided on an “Optimat.” VEB Fernsehgerätewerke Staßfurt (Stassfurt Television Works) struck out on a different path, where Ines, Marion, and Sibylle provide good sound and picture quality. And if they don’t, who could seriously hold it against an appliance with such a pretty name?

Those of us in the Collections Department cannot allow ourselves to be taken in by the fancy names, however. In the upcoming months, our task will be to examine, sort, and register the collection. Then we’ll have to pack the objects in such a way manner that they come to no harm for the next few decades yet are still available at any time: the “Zauberspiegel” (Magic Mirror) as well as the “Bildmeister” (Image Master), “Lady,” and her “Kornett” (Cornet)—and a “Rembrandt” or two, of course.

Angela Kipp

Translated from German into English by Cindy Opitz.

  1. Disclaimer: Neither I nor the other colleagues are responsible for the stacking of up to three TV sets, the paletts arrived that way. We put it in order immediately.

Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections –
Will you join me in this journey?

Dear Readers of this Registrar Trek Blog,

For the last three years we’ve seen a growing number of faithful readers who not only read, but also contribute by sharing the articles, writing comments and sparking conversation with their peers. Some even wrote stories and articles for this blog. That’s great!

Today, I want to share with you a new project I’m working on and I ask you to join.

In my working life I’ve stumbled upon one conundrum of our profession time and again: there are really great books and online resources about best practice in collections management – the wonderful 5th Edition of Museum Registration Methods readily comes to mind, but of course there are much more. You read what is best for the artifacts, how to treat them, document them, store them… These books are written from the perspective of ”best practices“ and as we all strive to reach the best for our collections, that’s a good thing. Only that the starting position is often all but ”best practice“. Take Antony Aristovoulou ‘s story ”Match-ball for the Registrar“ as a prime example: being contracted for relocating and registering a collection of tennis artifacts and discover that all is stored in one giant shipping container and you have to start from scratch, including sourcing locations and material.

hhAll too often, especially for small and middle sized museums with historical, agricultural and/or science and technology collections there is a gap between what is written in books and the real world. Reading about best practices is great and necessary, but standing in an old shed with a leaking roof and heaps of rusty things that were euphemistically called an agricultural collection in your contract you are miles away from taking your acid-free cardboard and start building a custom box for a single artifact.

To make a long story short: I’m about to write a practical guide to manage previously unmanaged collections. This book will be written with the worst case scenario in mind, starting with nothing than a collection in peril and working step-by-step towards improving the situation 1. It will be written for the practitioner in the field who has to deal with all possible and impossible circumstances while trying to get her/his collection managed. Especially it will be written for people who are thrown into this situation without having it done before – may it be job starters or colleagues who have only worked in larger and/or well organized institutions so far.

DSCF0373This is where you, the readers, come in. This book will be much better and encouraging with real world examples. Sure, everyone loves to be the best practice example but what I’ll need here are examples of how difficulties were tackled and how issues were resolved. How collections that were in peril were brought to a better stage. Maybe still far away from being ”best practice“ but still much better than before. I’m collecting all kinds of worst case examples, brought in from veteran museum professionals young and old who have encountered unbelievable situations in collections management (I’ve seen a main sewage pipe right above the shelves of an archive, so, the possibilities are endless…).

Every now and then I will present you some aspects I’m writing about here on this blog and will ask for your experiences and thoughts. It would be great if you would be willing to share them. I promise that I won’t abuse your willingness to share and will always check if the way I want to use some of those examples in the book is acceptable for the original author and her/his institution.

Thanks for reading and best wishes


This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.

  1. Janice Klein and I have written a short article about ”Tackling Uncatalogued Collections“ in the March/April 2015 edition of the ”museum“ magazine of the American Alliance of Museums (p. 59-63), here you will find some additional ideas and the general direction of this project, although being uncatalogued is just one of the issues of an unmanaged collection.