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 (http://www.rcaam.org/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…
- 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!
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…
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.
- 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.
- 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.”