Collections Management Goofs, or, How To Make a Registrar Quit in 10 Easy Steps

You probably didn’t become a museum professional because you really enjoy filling out forms, or filing, or writing reports, but that is the large part of what most of us spend our time doing. It’s especially true if your job description includes words like “registrar” or “collections management”. You can expect to spend time pouring over inventories, accession reports, receiving reports, property transfers, deeds of gift, loan agreements, and that’s all before we even start talking about copyright (shudder).

CopyrightNo, sorry, you have to go there.

Over the years, the staff at NMSC have seen it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. While we generally try to highlight the positive, sometimes you just have to teach by negative example. No curators, museum techs, parks, museums, or other institutions will be named in order to protect the well-intentioned, but rest assured that these are all situations that have really happened.

  1. Never, Ever, Ever Accession An Object You Don’t Have

This will result in many, many wild goose chases as your successor tries desperately to find the object, which old Mrs. So-and-So just never quite got around to dropping off like she promised to. If you don’t have physical custody and a signed Deed of Gift, hands off that Accession Book!

Have you ever seen an introvert panic?


2. Never, Ever, Ever Accept An Object Without Paperwork

An incredibly common scenario: Donor Dave drops off great-grandma’s quilt at the Visitor Center without so much as a by-your-leave, and suddenly you’re stuck with a big ol’ piece of inherent vice infested with who-knows-what. And worse, you can’t dispose of it because you don’t own it! But that doesn’t mean you should pop it into an acid-free box and let it take up space in your storage area. Keep that bug trap separated from your collection until you can either track down Donor Dave or run out the clock on your state’s abandoned property laws.

BlanketHelp! This blanket is going to kill me!


3. Never, Ever, Ever Accession Food

Just trust me. Don’t do it. No one wants to open up what seems to be a lovely stoneware crock and discover it is full of hardboiled eggs from the 1970s. Or what you presume used to be hardboiled eggs…



4. Make Sure Weaponry Is Disabled Before Accepting It

Again, just trust me. Before you accept any kind of firearm or ammunition, make sure a professional has a look at it. The liability issues with firearms and ammunition are complex and avoidable. Don’t be the tech who shuts down a major historical park because what you thought was a bag of rusty nails turns out to be an intact WWII pineapple grenade. Or something like that.

WeaponryWho knew we would have to include cell phones on that list?


5. Never, Ever, Ever Re-Use an Accession or Catalog Number

This is actually less of a problem in the non-federal museum world, because their accession and catalog numbers are date-based, as opposed to the NPS’ sequential numbering system. HOWEVER. Double-assigning a number is basically an unforgiveable sin, because now both of those objects will FOREVER have to carry that number, even if you fess up and give one of them a new number. Your mistake will live on in infamy, and you don’t want to be “that Curator who gave the bronze statue and the hand-made quilt the same accession number”.

TakenWell, maybe just scold you. But it’ll hurt!


6. Hire A Professional

Museum folk have colorful resumes for sure (erratic bouts of employment will do that), but we don’t know everything. Sometimes, cash-strapped though we may be, it’s best to call in a professional. Conservators go to a lot of extra chemistry classes so that your stuff doesn’t fall apart after a clumsy attempt at humidifying rolled maps that had more dirt on them than you thought turns into a busted, muddy mess. Not sure if that bone is human or cow? Don’t err on the side of laziness: you’re going to want to get the repatriation process started ASAP. And if anyone uses the phrase “do-it-yourself taxidermy”, run. Just run.

runBut faster than these guys. Like, a lot faster.


7. Always Assume You Are About To Be Hit By A Bus

Not in a morbid way. But your filing system/storage system/Rosetta Stone to Understanding Color Coded Box Labels cannot live only in your head. Because odds are good that at least ONE of us is going to meet an unexpected end (or maybe just be out of commission for a good long while), and your colleagues may not be as torn up about it as you’d like to think they would be if you leave them with a labyrinth of museum mysteries.

KickThat’ll show you not to file all of your accession paperwork!


8. Let Me Google That For You

The internet has made many aspects of museum work infinitely simpler: obscure property laws, antique oddities, extensive reference guides, and OMG PICTURES are just a search engine away. So there is no more excuse for lazy cataloging: “old couch” is not an acceptable description. A few minutes of e-stalking later, you can probably figure out where the couch was made, what kind of fabric it’s made of, a pretty narrow date range, and who knows what else. Or at least that it should be called a davenport.


Pro-tip: Don’t ask the interns for help. They’ll be super-impressed that you know how to use the internet at your advanced age.


9. Repeat After Me: There Is No Such Thing As A Permanent Loan

We’re all on board with this oxymoron, right? Good. Send that bad-boy back to its rightful owner, or re-do the loan paperwork every five years until they give in and donate it. Those are your only options. Do. Not. Lose. Touch. With. That. Donor.

TugIt’s mine now, right? No? How about now? Still no?


10. Museums Preserve Everything In Perpetuity, Including Your (My) Snark

We all love to get in a good dig now and then, especially about work. But try to remember that anything you put in writing is likely to end up in the permanent records. Sometimes jokes withstand the test of time: when a frustrated landscape architect drops off a pile of irrigation plan drawings, it’s hilarious to find Revision 37 labeled as an “irritation plan”. More often, the things that crack us up now will just seem petty, unprofessional, or even just mean ten years down the line. So resist the urge to doodle your true feelings about a donor on an accession report, write poetic labels on artifacts or catalog records, or leave pornographic surprises in your files.

ShockIt’s never a pleasant surprise.


We hope that you’ve found these collection management horror stories to be helpful and instructive, and hopefully not too familiar. When in doubt, you can always ask NMSC!


About Jenn M.

Jenn is the Archeology Lab Manager at NMSC. She holds a BA in Archeology and American Studies from Boston University and a MA in Museum Studies from San Francisco State University. She has worked in a diverse bunch of collections, ranging from Native American basketry to agricultural history to modern physics archives (and an awful lot in between), but her favorite has always been 19th century material culture.
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1 Response to Collections Management Goofs, or, How To Make a Registrar Quit in 10 Easy Steps

  1. Alex Roach says:

    Probably my favourite article of all time. Funny and very interesting

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