The Process of Processing: How Collections Become (and Stay) Organized

By: and Cameron Findlay

December 12, 2022

The Penn Museum has over 1 million objects in its collection. How on earth can we keep track of it all? 

Measuring objects for an upcoming exhibition. Photo by Ava Capitelli.

Step 1: Acquiring the Objects 

Processing objects is the first step in building and displaying a museum collection. Every object that is donated, purchased, or excavated has to be absorbed and recorded into the collection, and nowadays, into a digital database. During my summer as an intern for both the Registrar and Digital Records, Archives, & Publications departments, I had the opportunity to process a collection of building materials found during building construction and renovation projects at the Penn Museum [see photos 2 and 3]. Most of these objects date from the early 1700s to the late 1800s, and encompass everything from plate fragments to ironwork to glass bottles. 

Ironstone plate fragments
Ironstone plate fragments ready to be numbered. Photo by the author.
Ironstone plate fragments
Ironstone plate fragments ready to be numbered. Photo by the author.

Step 2: Bagging, Tagging, and Measuring 

Once a museum accepts an artifact, it is assigned an object number. These numbers keep track of items in a collection. At the Penn Museum, prefixes often accompany numbers to delineate them by curatorial section. For example, the coffin lid that greets visitors from the Museum’s sign has a number that begins with E (E4891A), meaning it is part of the Egyptian section. This way, researchers and registrars can know where an object belongs by the number alone. Numbers with multiple parts can tell you a lot about the object at hand. The collection I worked with had a numbering format of EP-2010-7-###: it was part of the Historic Section’s Supplemental Materials, it was assigned a tracking number in 2010, and its batch number was 7. Numbering objects in this way prevents dissociation, or the removal of an object from context. Dissociation is one of the main agents of collection deterioration, so it is important that new acquisitions are processed in a timely manner.  

Bagging objects, the next part of this stage, prevents or slows harm from insects, human interference, or environmental conditions. Measurements are also taken at this time. Registrars record all information gathered during the bagging and tagging phase, including measurements, condition notes, the material, and the object name, in a spreadsheet. This is then uploaded to EMu– the museum’s collections database– at a later date. 

Step 3: Hand-Numbering 

Hand-numbering prevents dissociation like bagging and tagging does. Once I finished assigning numbers, I grabbed my Collections Kit [see photo 4] and began to physically number each piece. To do this, I used the B72/B67 sandwich method: a base layer of a chemical called B72, the number written in black or white india ink, and a layer of B67 as a top coat. This method works for most hard materials, such as bone, glass, ceramic, and even wood. It is also completely removable– a must for preserving the integrity of the object. All three layers can be removed with acetone, yet are durable enough to last in storage without fading or smudging. If an object cannot be hand-numbered, other methods are used, like sleeves for coins or boxes for jewelry.  

instruments and cleaning apparatus
Items from the kit that registrars use to number objects. Photo by the author.

Step 4: Creating Digital Records 

Using the spreadsheet kept during the bagging and tagging step, an object record in EMu must be made for each item. The object number, lot, material, culture group, provenance, location, and other important information is kept digitally; museum staff can then access and update records to ensure accuracy and to keep the database useful.  

Step 5: Photography 

The next step in processing a collection is photography [see photo 5]. For three-dimensional objects, six photos are standard: the sides, top, and bottom. For two-dimensional objects, like most of the collection I processed, the front and back suffice. Object photography has a strict set of standards to ensure that each photo correctly represents the piece. For example, photos must have a neutral (usually gray) background, the correct white balance, and show the correct time and date for future reference. Each photo also includes a scale and object number to reduce the likelihood of dissociation.  

After photos are taken, they are renamed and attached to the object record in EMu. This adds a thumbnail to the record, making it easier for staff researching a collection or looking for pieces to include in an upcoming show. In addition to photographs, staff can add PDFs of important documents like notes or receipts to an object record. 

photography setup for objects
My photography setup for plate fragments. Photo by the author.

Step 6: Storage 

At this point, the object can now move to its permanent storage location, which must be updated in EMu so that staff can know exactly where it is and who moved it there. Object storage is climate controlled, secured, and meticulously organized to preserve the museum’s collections for years to come.  

selection objects on a table
A selection of the objects after processing, laid out in order. Photo by the author.

The processing process now comes to an end. The object is safe from environmental and pest damage, is properly documented for future use, and is ready to be shown to patrons and classes. This is how a collection stays safe and organized: the constant work behind-the-scenes from registrars, conservators, and curators. 

Written by Cameron Findlay, Penn Museum Intern (Summer 2022)

Cameron Findlay is a senior at Smith College majoring in Anthropology and minoring in Art History, with a concentration in Museum Studies. She was one of seven Penn Museum Interns selected for the 2022 summer cohort. The Penn Museum offers nine-week fully paid summer internship opportunities for undergraduates, recent graduates, and graduate students from any college or university. Internships include two parts: a project-based placement in a Museum department and the Museum Practice Program, which includes orientation, weekly lectures, collections tours, and a field trip to a local museum. The internship concludes with final presentations shared by the interns.