Cataloguing Collections

This help sheet contains:

  • information about documenting collection items
  • information about physically applying registration numbers to collection items
  • explanations of cataloguing fields that should be included on a General Record Sheet
  • a sample General Record Sheet for cataloguing object collection items.

Documenting Museum Object Collections

Defining ‘collection items’

Collection items are those that meet the requirements of the museum’s Acquisition Policy.

Collection items are not:

  • research resources / reference books
  • spare parts
  • items that are on loan to the museum.

Documenting collections

  • records and keeps collection information for the future
  • provides useful information for displays and research
  • provides useful information to inform the museum’s disaster preparedness and response plan
  • is a key part of good collection management

Collection documentation is a two-step process including:

1) registration,
2) cataloguing.

1) Registration:

  • is the process of recording brief details about individual items or groups of objects
  • includes assigning each object a unique identifying number according to an agreed, standard system.

All collection items should be registered. Registration numbers are ‘unique identifiers’ that link objects to the information about them.

2) Cataloguing

  • is a more advanced step.
  • cataloguing is a systematic process for recording all known information about collection items
  • catalogue records are much more detailed than for registration – catalogue records should be as detailed as possible
  • there should be one catalogue record for each item or, if relevant, group of items.

Museum collections consist of a mix of core and non-core items.

  • core items are those that fully fit the requirements of the museum’s acquisition policy and have clear, relevant provenance (known history) or are examples of ‘type’ objects that fit the acquisition policy
  • non-core items are duplicates and items without provenance that are retained as display props.

Only core items need to be fully catalogued.

Applying registration numbers to museum items

The purpose of physically applying registration numbers to objects is to identify accurately each object in your collection.  Numbering needs to be semi-permanent and able to withstand wear and handling.  Application of numbers should be:

  • durable
  • removable
  • non-intrusive to visitors but easy for museum workers to find
  • applied in a consistent location for the same type of object
  • done using methods that will not cause damage to items
  • as small as practicable.

Where to apply numbers

Aim to apply numbers to the same type of items in a consistent location.  This makes it easier to locate the number and reduces handling of items.  Suitable locations for various item types are:

  • smaller objects - generally underneath and at the back
  • larger objects – at the back
  • costume – on the inside at back of the neck or on a strong shoulder seam
  • other textiles – on the back
  • books – on the last page / inside back cover in the bottom right-hand corner
  • documents – on the back or in one corner
  • photographs - on the back in the non-image area

Numbering techniques

There are several suitable techniques for physically applying numbers to museum items:

  • pencil
  • varnish and ink
  • tags
  • sewn labels.


Numbering with pencil directly onto items is suitable for paper items including books, loose documents and photographs.  Apply number lightly with a 2H or HB pencil on the back in a consistent place or, for documents that are printed both sides, in a designated corner.

Varnish and ink

This is the best method for most small to large items made from wood, metal, plastic, ceramic and glass and painted surfaces.  Paraloid varnish or clear nail polish can be used.

  • Clean the surface where the number will be applied with a cotton bud dipped in methylated spirits (use water for plastic or painted surfaces)
  • Apply an undercoat layer of varnish in a thin line, just big enough for the number to be applied.  Allow to dry for several minutes.
  • Write the number onto the undercoat layer using a black, fine, felt-tip pen that is waterproof and fade resistant (white ink pens can be used for dark coloured items).  Make sure the number does not extend past the varnished layer.  Allow to dry.
  • Cover the number and the undercoat layer with a topcoat of varnish.  Allow to dry thoroughly before storing or displaying the item.

Sewn-in cotton tape label

This is the preferred method for labelling textile items.

  • write the number in a permanent pen onto a thin strip of cotton tape
  • sew the label using a fine needle and white thread to a strong part of the textile. Use as few stitches as possible.  You can put a few small stitches at either end of the tape or fold the tape over so it is attached at only one point.  For costume items the inside back of the neck or a shoulder seam is a good place to attach a sewn label.


Tie-on tags are the best option for very small or highly decorated objects where it is not possible or desirable to use varnish and ink.  Tie-on cardboard labels are available in a variety of sizes, from baggage label size down to very small jewellery tags.  Tags can also be made using thin acid-free card and cotton string.

A key tag attached to an object using a cable tie is useful for numbering large machinery items.

For textiles, a tie-on tag placed through a button hole can be an alternative to a sewn label.

General Record Sheet Information Fields

Registration Number:  Record the item’s unique number.

Object Name:  Use simple, general terms (book, boots, plough, vase).  Avoid giving any descriptive information (book with leather cover).  Make decisions about terms that will be used for like items so object names are consistent.

Object Donation Number:  Record the number as given on the donation form.

Source:  This field is for the contact details of the person/s or organisation that donated the item to the museum.  Record full name and address details.  If you acquired the item by purchase transfer or exchange, use this field to record the place of purchase, transfer or exchange.

Date of Manufacture:  Enter a date, whether year specific, decade or century.  Try to be as accurate as possible and verify date information given by the donor/source.  Decide on a standard way of entering dates and if you are using a collection database use a date format that is compatible with the database.

Dimensions:  Accurate measurements are important for monitoring the condition of items, aiding in repairs and treatments, planning storage areas and constructing display cases or supports.  Use a prefix to record measurements: h = height, l = length, b = breadth, w = width, d = depth, diam = diameter, circ = circumference.  Take measurements in millimeters (except for very large objects) and record dimensions in order of length x breadth x height.  You can also record the weight of an item if it could be important for handling and display.

Materials:  Use simple terms (cotton, metal, ivory, cast iron, wood, silver) and list them in order of dominance.  Note any uncertainty about the materials used.

Condition:  Record any post-manufacture defects, stains, breakages, cracks, mould growth, areas of rust, tears, water damage, missing parts and note where the affected areas are on the object.  Qualify any statements such as good, poor, excellent.

Description:  Record the item’s physical attributes such as shape, colour, texture, finish and decoration.  State whether it is handmade, machine made or naturally made.  Record trademarks, brands, serial numbers and inscriptions.  Photograph items or sketch shapes or decorations if they are difficult to describe.  Note the number of parts to the item and any modifications.

History / provenance:  Record in as much detail as possible the origin and use of the object, where it was made, by whom and when, its purpose, changes of use or ownership, places of use etc.  The provenance recorded in the History field is useful for all museum activities involving the item and also informs the reason for collecting.

Reason for Collecting (significance):  Record a short statement as to why the museum has collected the item, what the meaning of it is and why it is important to keep it.  This statement is a reference point for decisions about future display and care of the item.  If there is no obvious significance then further research may be required and / or the item may not be relevant to the museum’s collection.

Subject Areas (key words):  Subject areas / key words are a list established by the museum to sort the collection into object types or categories, themes, places, events, significant people or organisations to aid in research and display.  Key words are great for database searches, but if using a manual system, copies of record sheets can be filed alphabetically according to subject area.  Index cards can also be used to sort the collection by donor, place, object name or any other useful categories.

Notes:  Use this field for recording information about research references, conditions on use of donor’s name, reference to other associated material or any previous cataloguing number/s.

Current Location:  Record the particular display or storage area where the item is located.  Update this field if the location changes such as when the item goes from storage to display or on loan.  Maintain a record of all changes of location.

Catalogued By:  Useful if you need to ask about information recorded on the form.

Date Catalogued:  Useful for tracking work completed, and for reporting such as in annual reports.




Tell us what you think or know by adding a comment