How NOT to number objects

It all started on an early Friday morning when I opened a box and found a cast iron plate with its accession number as well as object title and year or production written down on a post-it and the post it secured all around with adhesive tape. I found this both horrific and hilarious, so I shared my experience with my colleagues at the RCAAM listserv ( Apparently, I was not alone. Here are the experiences our colleagues shared:

  • I remember working on an object where the accession number was painted over the original manufacturer’s label.
  • That sounds like the types of things I witnessed when I first started at my job! My predecessors didn’t know how to accession anything or where to write the numbers. Some of the beautiful frames have the accession numbers written on all 4 sides in giant sharpie letters. It is horrific!
  • And then there was the fine 19th century linen handkerchief with the number written in 1/2” high characters in red nail polish directly on the fabric. Still makes me teary-eyed to think about that one.
  • 1880’s playing cards with white paint and ink numbers
  • I actually saw a director of collections where I used to work write an accession number with a large black sharpie on a cardboard hat box!!!
  • Sharpie marker on unglazed ceramics…
  • Another example of stapling the tag to the textile

    Another example of stapling the tag to the textile

    Stapling the tag to fur collar instead of sewing in the tag.
  • Sharpie on Duct tape wrapped around 19th century leather-bound books (to prevent them from opening).
  • Wow – you had the fancy Sharpies. In my museum previous staff had to make do with the inferior Marks-A-Lot brand for marking cardboard and silk.
  • I’ve got red oil paint on unglazed ceramics. Does size count? The numbers are about 3/4″ tall…
  • How about paper tags written in pencil that’s completely faded after less than five years?
  • Many of our older paintings are victims of the old “red nail polish” method….
  • One place I worked had numbers written in sharpie marker on nearly every object in the collection. In addition, the number written object often did not match what was listed in the Accession Book, e.g. different year.
  • Many of the documents in our archive are labeled with a layer of clear or white acryloid, then the number written with an archival pen, then sealed with another layer acryloid… it still puzzles me every time.
  • The university administration used to keep track of “items” by assigning property numbers, sometimes with metal plates on the objects. Fortunately, we no longer do this. Yes, we are learning…and we are a learning institution.
  • At a museum I worked at years ago I had a parchment land document from the 1770s numbered on the front, in large letters, in blue ballpoint pen. And the person made sure they pressed really hard, and went over the numbers many times to make sure it was really on there.
  • I found a box stuffed with artifacts. Some in (too large) plastic bags, and one pair of boot moccs (not old, very, very modern). Someone wrote on the plastic bag with sharpie, didn’t let it dry and put all bags and unprotected moccs in the box…well the sharpie ink rubbed off on the moccs. Backwards object number at the top.
  • I have seen a lot of ink in books, well paper in general. And just not numbering at all….
  • We see things constantly that were done 50 or more years ago and it just makes us shake our heads a bit. Here are two of my favorites.

    1. With metal tools, I’ve seen pieces where someone ground away a noticeable amount of metal (enough that it changes the shape of the artifact) to make it smooth, then used a rotary tool to incise the numbers into the surface.

    2. You know the plastic tape that you emboss numbers into with a little hand punch? I’ve seen that directly stuck onto artifacts and on top of that, stapled into the surface on each end. The adhesive is so strong that it can’t seem to be removed without risk of damage, so I usually just leave it when I see it.

    You find some interesting things with a 100+ year old collection!

  • How about carved inside a wood mask? I can say this was not done by anyone claiming to be a museum professional. It was done by the donor in an effort to keep an inventory of the collection. As you can see from the photo, hanging hardware was included for no extra charge. Lucky me!

    How about carved inside a wood mask? I can say this was not done by anyone claiming to be a museum professional. It was done by the donor in an effort to keep an inventory of the collection. As you can see from the photo, hanging hardware was included for no extra charge. Lucky me!

    Our office of inventory control for the university still assigns property numbers, but a long time ago someone explained to them that actually putting them on the art would damage it. Now they just send us the tags which I place in the object file.

    When I first got here I found it amusing that when inventory control did a random inventory of the museum they didn’t want to see the object, just the tag. In the past few years this has changed and they now want to see both. I am so appreciative that they really seem to care about our collection and want to make sure we’re taking care of it.

    As funny as all of these things are, we should remember that at some point people thought they were doing the right thing with their marking. I wonder what future registrars will be saying about us in 50 years…

  • This is not related to numbering objects specifically but…we received a donation of books, photographs, and other ephemera from a donor many years ago that are now a part of our archive. I suppose it was done to identify who owned the work and/or for posterity but the donor stamped everything with an Ex Libris ink stamp that also includes her name. Most of the works have been stamped multiple times in different places (front, back, inside cover). And in many cases (a pet peeve of mine) the stamp is upside down…
  • We ran into a similar situation at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, but with signatures. Thomas Wolfe owned several books that are in the collection and signed them on the flyleaf. After his death, one of his sisters went through the books and wrote “Tom wrote this” and drew an arrow to his signature.
  • I’ve got 45 year-old ball-point pen on masking tape fossilized onto hundreds of pieces accessioned in the early 1970s…
  • At The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, some industrious soul in the 1940s used a pot of red paint and a small brush to place accession numbers on many three-dimensional objects. Because of the ancient staff person’s lack of skill in that endeavor, he or she has traditionally been identified as the Red Blobber. Finding the number on the object is never a problem, but differentiating a 5 from a 6 or an 8 or a 9 (ad nauseum) can be impossible.
  • I also recall a tale from the late Caroline Keck, regarding numbers painted on hundreds of archaeological metal items that were being catalogued and placed in climate-controlled storage. The rapid drying of the corrosion layers caused almost all the objects to shed their outer layers… along with the numbers.
  • I worked somewhere once where most of the objects had been numbered multiple times, with a variety of numbering systems in a variety of sizes and materials. We used to play “can you see it now” and hold up the items to see how far away one could read the numbers…
  • Great topic and could be a chapter of a book. This is my personal favorite. If the black 1.5″ lettering isn’t legible the White 1.5 lettering should be. Whatever they used as a clear coat has so far resisted any attempt at removal. I have thought of sand blasting but I think the metal might disappear before the clear coat did (only a little bit of gallows humor here).
  • The plague of Mad Number-ers also scourged the woodlands. We have evidence like the above parti-colored markings. On some objects the number is also etched, sometimes with an etching tool, sometimes with a sharpened nail.
  • Cupboard
    Someone, long, long ago, must have found a sale on house paint. Several of our objects look like the pics I am attaching.  The second shows the bottom of a totem, you can see my little number in the center, as well as the yellow painted number I found on it. I just had to re-number it myself to indicate my disgust at the first method. At least they could have gotten the number right the first time (you'll see it is marked out and rewritten, as if one go-round with paint wasn't enough - sheesh!!).

    Someone, long, long ago, must have found a sale on house paint. Several of our objects look like the pics I am attaching.
    The second shows the bottom of a totem, you can see my little number in the center, as well as the yellow painted number I found on it. I just had to re-number it myself to indicate my disgust at the first method. At least they could have gotten the number right the first time (you’ll see it is marked out and rewritten, as if one go-round with paint wasn’t enough – sheesh!!).

    Good to know we’re amongst friends! Here are some of our past sins…sharpie, red nail polish method, yellow nail polish method, metal etching, metal stamping, ball point on paper artifacts, white out (literally numbers painted on with white out), multiple numbering systems labeled on an artifact, stapling tags into textiles, masking tape labels, metal tagging…numbers of various shapes and sizes…I think we may even have some neon painted
  • I am so, so pleased that my institution is not the only one that has a history of using those old plastic label makers! Our intrepid predecessors were apparently afraid that we would be unable to identify the purpose of the artifacts in the future, and so they gave us plastic adhesive labels with things on them like “Wooden Bowl” and “Butter Mold.” Right on the front of the artifacts. Those poor bowls didn’t stand a chance.
  • Actually, I forgot one of the most diabolical numbering applications. Years ago, a previous NC State Historic Sites curator instructed staff at historic sites to write accession numbers on adhesive labels and put them on the objects. Through the years, the labels have dried up, fallen off of many of the artifacts, and then dutiful staff swept them up and disposed of them. Not only do we now have a sticky shadow of where the label was, we’ve been hard-pressed matching records and artifacts–thanks to poor measurements and descriptions. But that’s another story. [sigh]
  • Before I started to work here we had a former director who had the staff use silver fingernail polish as a base with the accession number written on with a red Sharpie pen. This was followed with a topcoat of clear fingernail polish. Over the years these numbers have faded so much they are almost impossible to read. Or, if it wasn’t silver fingernail polish it was White Out.

    This same director also liked to take the eraser on the end of an ink pen (remember those?) and “clean” a spot on coins before marking them with a number.

    One more – when the collection was still at the college a retired professor became the director. He decided everything needed to be clearly marked. He would paint a large white blob on the artifact and use India ink to put on a number followed by shellac that often ran down the artifact. This was usually in the most conspicuous and prominent place on the front of the artifact and the size never varied. It was always HUGE! Sometimes he added two or three more examples of the same exact number to the piece. We have a beautiful polychrome Zuni Pueblo pot that has a number painted on over some of the designs. The shellac then ran all the way down the sides of the pot.
    Oh the humanity!

And the winner is…

Three days after my original cry came an answer we all declared as the ultimate winner:
“At a previous institution, a human skull with the accession number dutifully written in black pen across the middle of the forehead sometime during the previous century. And this was an individual that we repatriated.”


This post is also available in: German


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  3. Molly Hope says:

    Generally, reponses are hysterical laughter or seizures. With textiles, my particular field, we saw thousands of ancient textiles marked directly with what were then known as Magic Markers, black, and reliably indelible. This was during the late ’80’s, when I began, in the U.S., and one can see this to this very day all over Latin America.
    Just take a deep breath and call it “part of the history of the piece.” What’s done is done.

  4. Louise says:

    Nobody is perfect, and these examples show the importance of correct training of both staff and volunteers if they’re going to be handling and marking objects. It’s always disheartening to find something. Our objects were collected originally by a surgeon Mr. George Marshall, who would not have been aware of best practice when it came to museum objects. Lots of adhesive tape was used, and “PROPERTY OF…” ink stamps on the back of photographs, which wouldn’t have been too bad had they let the ink dry before stacking the photographs together.

    However, more recently there are very terrible examples of museum professionals (within the last 10 years – and the first few years of the museum opening), with ink marked on leather and rubber, ink without paraloid on the front and centre of beautiful boxes of surgical kits etc. etc. The best yet is a lovely box of histology slides, where the person responsible (and I know who it is…) thought it would be more useful if people knew what the slides were by writing IN BIRO opposite each one on a sticky label on the inside of the lid. The mind boggles.

    This could be a good blog share though….to provide examples to our staff and volunteers!

  5. Kathie Gow says:

    I’d like to add my plea to other requests asking for the best methods accepted today for ID-ing hard goods, where attaching a stringed tag won’t work or you don’t want a tag visible. The literature still seems to suggest painting on white or clear paraloid B-72, letting it FULLY dry, then paint on number, let it fully dry (so it doesn’t smear), then paint on clear sealer, and let it fully dry. I feel like I’d be dead by the time we did that for all our hard goods! Is there no simpler safe and dependable method?

  6. Ron Kley says:

    I guess I’ve seen just about all of the cited examples of how not to number in my 50+ years in the museum field, but one that really stands out in my mind was a preserved sculptor’s studio in which numbers were painted in red (at least 2″ high) numerals on white marble statuary — and on the sides visible to the public, to boot.

  7. I think the following section of the text is very fair “As funny as all of these things are, we should remember that at some point people thought they were doing the right thing with their marking. I wonder what future registrars will be saying about us in 50 years…” We are very horrified to read those examples (the restorers of the 19th century where very proud and confident of what they’ve done…). Before the marking shouldn’t be reversible, today it’s the contrary. Let’s laugh about those examples but let’s be humble regarding to our job as well :))

  8. I have found so many paper accession numbers around my museum over the years. We had no access to the Modes system so we could find out which of the objects they belonged to.
    At least I have not found any more numbers in the last year or so. And we now have access to Modes if we do.
    Luckily I have never seen nail varnish used, but I may have seen typpex !

  9. Now, I would like to hear the optimum method for numbering objects.

  10. Luis G Vasquez says:

    Excellent article, Angela! I am currently undergoing the removal of tons of nail polish applied in years prior on most 3-D objects in the collections at Living History Farms, plus the scary discovery of some other items marked up with ink without the slight use of a buffering shield. I guess it could be called ‘job security’ when seen from the positive side.

  11. Caroline Goldthorpe says:

    I would love to post this as a link for my Collections Management Class in the online Museum Studies MA program at the University of Oklahoma, but I know the next question will be, is there also an article on how to do it right??

  12. Cathy says:

    While choosing from 300 or so Nazi weekly flyers for a propaganda exhibit, I was sad to discover each had been rubber stamped on the *front* with “John A. Doe Collection” and then the name of our foundation. Every. Single. One. We also have sloppy (and obvious) red paint on artifacts too. And don’t get me started on the lack of paperwork for some of these…

  13. Peter Klein says:

    I think that over the years since 1967 that we have made all of these mistakes and more. Often these “mistakes” were from professional literature at the time or from representatives of the State Historical Society. I hope that the museum is doing better. The computer information is often vague or missing, examples; a table, a black blouse, a chair. Now I have a crew with our Inventory by Location database going over these identifications and replacing them with information about the owner, how it was used, and then descriptions of the item often relying on the Internet for basic information. I am the only person whose experience with the museum extends back to 1975 in one role or another. A long process and probably still riddled with errors. The database should be any museum’s main source of information.

  14. Lee says:

    Unfortunately as a community museum often with untrained staff bad advice is given in the most innocent and harmlessly meant ways. We were advised about 10 years ago by a “professional” that using whiteout to number items was a great way to do it and so many of our items are numbered that way before we came up with better methods. Its sad and can be humorous but it also shows how important it is to share proper methods especially with smaller museums that have no choice due to finances but to hire untrained staff (ie:students) or volunteers.

  15. Kathy Karkut says:

    Not exactly on topic but similar in the weird non-collection managers approved way of doing things: a large dental donation included a rare hand written document on vellum for a dental apprentice from the 1860’s and came fully protected because is was covered on both sides in clear Mac-Tac. To keep the appearance of the ragged paper edges, the plastic covering was meticulously cut around the non-linear edges. This was explained by the donor that the document could be handled and still protect it.

  16. Myrna Moreno says:

    Excellent comments about numbering of museum objects. Adhesive tape is a NO,NO. We have several objects in the Jewish museum that are destroyed by the ad. tape. It is very important to do research and learn before touching anything especially in a museum.


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