Inventory: How we care for our collections at the WDM
A lot goes on behind the scenes in a museum to maintain the health of our collections. Not only do we display and store artifacts, but we are constantly checking these artifacts to ensure they remain safe and stable in our collections.
Inventory is one way we check in on artifacts. To inventory a collection, we make a complete list of objects in a specific location and then photograph all those artifacts as well. Often, we will also record the condition of the artifacts as we’re examining them so we can track any damage that may have occurred while on display or in storage.
In the process of inventorying, it is important to be systematic and have a plan so that items don’t get overlooked. To give a more detailed explanation of the inventory process, I will provide a description of an inventory I recently performed at the WDM Saskatoon.
I have been working on an inventory of the Bentley Store (which features various articles of clothing) on Boomtown Street at the WDM Saskatoon. Anyone who has stepped into the store has observed the sheer number of items inside. What many visitors don’t realize is that almost every single box on display in the store is also full of artifacts. Any one box may have six pairs of stockings or a dozen starched collars in it, and every single one of these items must be documented and photographed individually.
There are quite a few tools required for this process. We use a whiteboard and dry erase marker so we can more easily photograph the items and track their accession numbers. (Accession numbers are unique numbers assigned to individual artifacts to help us track items within our collection). A neutral backdrop (in this case, a white piece of paper) to use as the background of our photos is also necessary. We use a light as well for the photographs, because the lighting in the store is quite dim.
Before starting the inventory, I printed off a list of items that should be in the store according to our database system. I also brought a notepad with me so I could record the accession numbers of any items that were found in the store but were not recorded in the database.
Due to the size of the WDM’s collection, it is impossible for us to regularly perform exhaustive inventories (there are over 1,000 items in the Bentley store alone, and over 75,000 items in our entire collection). Because of this, there is often a significant period of time between inventories. All it takes is one person moving one artifact and forgetting to record it for us to lose track of where that item is.
Once I have all my tools set up, I pull one box or one artifact at a time from the area I’m working in. I document the number by either making a mark on my list or writing it down if its number is not on my list. Then I write the number on my whiteboard and take a photo of the item with the whiteboard in frame and a scale (in this case, a series of black and white squares each one centimeter wide) so that we can tell just by looking at the photo approximately how large or small an item is.
Gloves are also important to the inventory process. Human hands naturally produce oils, which are good for your skin but not so good for artifacts. Every time you touch an item, oil from your hands transfers to the artifact, which can cause damage over time, and this is why many museum workers wear gloves. At the WDM we predominantly use nitrile gloves, which provide a layer of protection between our hands and the artifacts but allow us to have a firm grip on an object, and unlike latex they are unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. There are situations when cotton gloves are preferred and sometimes even situations when no gloves are the best option for the safety of both an artifact and the person handling it.
Once the item has been photographed, I place it back where it came from and move on to the next item, repeating the process. After the fact, I have to type out my notes of artifact accession numbers that were not on my list along and rename all the photographs I’ve taken to reflect the accession numbers of the photographed objects so that the photos are easily searchable.
Inventory is a slow, labour-intensive process, but it is important for us to check in on our artifacts and make sure we know where they are and how they’re doing. Museums are constantly checking our collections and working on ways to keep them safe and healthy.
By: Kaiti Hannah