Entering a New Phase of Life: 2012 New Acquisitions

This is the third entry in a series of posts on Collecting and Acquisitions.


For over fifty years, the Penn Museum was home to renowned anthropologist Igor Kopytoff (1930-2013), Consulting Curator in the Museum’s African Section.  I was never personally acquainted with Igor, however, I, like many other young anthropologists, came to know him by his innovative approach to consider the life of an object: Where does it come from and who made it? What has happened in this object’s life so far? What is a normal life for an object like this? (Kopytoff 1986: 67).

Briefcase (2012-29-2): When was this briefcase made? Was it ever used?

Briefcase (2012-29-2): When was this briefcase made? Was it ever used?

A quarter-century later, Igor’s words resonate as I catalog this year’s new acquisitions.  As a Registrar, I help record the ‘biographical’ information of objects and prepare them to enter into a new phase of their lives: the life of a Museum accession.

This is the story of an object that joins our permanent collection:

  • It gains a new identity: a unique Museum accession number is given to each object, so that we can identify it.
  • Its biographical information is entered into our Collections Database: birthplace, cultural affiliation, material, measurements, life events, important people (maker, collector), etc.
  • The object gets physically numbered: think of it like a semi-permanent tattoo.  We want the number to last a long time, but also be removable if necessary.
  • Has its picture taken: many objects in our collection are not photographed, but new accessions get the red-carpet treatment.
  • Moves into a new home: objects are stored in the Museum by geographical section and each Section Keeper is responsible for finding a place for incoming accessions to live.  Some objects are selected for our New Acquisitions display case.
  • Begins social networking: the object record is pushed to our Online Collection. Now, anyone with access to the internet has the potential to form a relationship with the object: to study it, become inspired, create knowledge, and add to the object’s biography.
Upper left: the museum accession number on the base of an object.  Upper right: object photography. Bottom: the New Acquisitions display case.

Upper left: the museum accession number on the base of an object. Upper right: object photography. Bottom: the New Acquisitions display case.

In 2012, we had more than 400 new accessions.  A number of objects provide glimpses into the world-views of Inuit artists, others are tied to the career of a well-known ethnomusicologist, and others yet, illuminate the history of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition hosted by St. Louis in 1904.  Last year’s acquisitions are highlighted online, where you can browse through photographs and flip through the biographical details we have recorded.

However there are some new acquisitions you won’t find online.  Those include photographs that were accessioned into the Archival collection, which are not yet on a public database; primate specimens accessioned into the Physical Anthropology department (for reasons of sensitivity the entire PA collection is off-line); and items accepted into the Education Collection, which are used by the Museum’s Community Engagement department.

Clockwise from top left: Swatow bowl (2012-17-1), Model of Barge (2012-28-1), Teapot (2012-30-2), and Mask (2012-29-1)

Clockwise from top left: Swatow bowl (2012-17-1), Model of Barge (2012-28-1), Teapot (2012-30-2), and Mask (2012-29-1)

We are currently working on a webpage specifically about new Museum acquisitions, which we plan to update yearly.  But for now, check out some of the highlights from 2012, and while you do, consider the life these objects lived before coming to the museum, the life they live now, and the social lives they have on the internet.

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