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Inventory 101: what is inventorying and why does it matter in museums?

At the Western Development Museum (WDM), visitors have a chance to step back in time. Whether you are strolling up and down the village at the WDM North Battleford or standing in the sod house at the WDM Saskatoon the experience transports you to a different time and place in Saskatchewan’s history. What makes these visits feel so authentic? In my opinion, it is the artifacts! The WDM holds over 75,000 objects. The WDM collection contains thousands of objects related to living, working and playing in Saskatchewan, including household tools and furnishings, popular culture and entertainment items, communication and business equipment, sports equipment and home crafts. The collection also contains original buildings, including a Saskatchewan Wheat Pool grain elevator, two farmhouses, a barn, a railway station and five churches.

While every object is not on display, each object needs to be accountable, locatable and retrievable. This is where taking inventory becomes imperative. An inventory is a list of objects that museums have brought into their collections, either permanently or temporarily. An accurate inventory of the collections serves as the foundation for everything a museum does such as programing, exhibits (online and in-person), research and publishing and conservation. Kathleen Watkins, “Conducting (and Maintaining!) A Collection Inventory,” argues a proper inventory is central for museums since objects connect us all.  

While different museums have different requirements for their inventory, there is standard information that is required, such as:

  • The object’s number (also known as an accession number),
  • The object’s name,
  • How many pieces the object is made up of (for instance, a desk might look like one piece, but the drawers and chair must be seen as pieces of the overall object),
  • A brief description and/or image of the object,
  • The current location of the object,
  • The provenance of the object,
  • The name of who recorded this information and when.
An example of an object that would be inventoried. Note the accession number on the back.

Types of inventories

There are a few different inventories that museums conduct. The first is random (or spot) inventory, which verifies the location of a small sample of objects. The second type of inventory is a partial (or section-by-section inventory), which focuses on a particular display or storage location. This type of inventory is often done at the beginning or the end of an exhibition. The last type of inventory is a complete inventory, which documents every object in a museum’s collection, top to bottom!


Now that we have established what an inventory is, it is important to discuss the numerous benefits which compensates for the time, energy and resources that an inventory requires. Firstly, an inventory greatly improves the collection stewardship, since an inventory allows museum staff to identify objects that are in need of attention due to deterioration. The stewardship benefits carry on into the actual storage of the objects, since the moving and reorganization of the objects allow for better utilization of the storage space. Secondly, an inventory can identify objects that are hazardous such as nitrile photograph negatives, which are flammable. Thirdly, an inventory saves time in the long run, since museum staff is not tasked with tracking an object that is lost or no longer held within the institution. 

Right now, the WDM has many inventory projects on the go, which all aim to continue providing authentic, new and fun experiences to visitors.


By: Alexandra Forand, Curatorial Assistant

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