MuseumMinute

Crack the Code!

Have you ever noticed the catalog numbers that are sometimes visible on an artifact or an exhibit label?

* Sometimes a number is written directly onto an artifact:

(Oh no! I can’t seem to find an example. Must. Take. Camera. Everywhere.)

* Sometimes it’s written on a tag:

(Textiles rolled for storage at the Amherst Museum, Amherst NY 2002)

* And sometimes it’s printed right on the label!

(On exhibit in Out of the Vault at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago 2005-present)

Souvenir Toy of Intra-Mural Bus
c.1933
Greyhound Bus Lines
1992.21.6

Greyhound Bus Lines, the official transportation carrier of the Fair, provided transportation to thousands of tired visitors in fifty-foot long versions of this toy bus.

(Written by yours truly. Ooh, aah.)

No matter how (or if) a number is exhibited, each artifact has (or should have) a catalog number. This catalog–or accession–number, is how the collections staff keeps track of the artifact. There are a handful of numbering systems in use, but one system is much more popular than the others.

Are you ready to crack the code?

Here we go!

Let’s choose a number …let’s use 1992.21.6, the number of the toy bus pictured above.

1992 – This represents the year the toy was donated to the Museum

21 – This number means that this was part of the 21st donation in 1992. In other words, 20 other donors (or perhaps the same donor, earlier in the year) had brought an item or items to the Museum and the curators decided the donation should be added to the collection.

6 – This number tells us a couple things. First of all, this toy was the sixth item in this collection. Second, we know that there are at least five other items from this donation in the collection. There may be more than six items in the donation–we would have to look at the donation paperwork to see.

So, the donation came to the museum in 1992. There were 20 donations completed before this one, and there are at least six items in the donation, with this piece being number 6. (There are actually hundreds of items in this particular collection.

Now it’s your turn. The next time you’re in a museum, look for an accession number and crack that code!

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