Tuesday, May 3, 2011

An Inventory Project in a Small Museum

Taking Stock . . .

Wow, April went quickly — and thus the lack of posts. But I am back now!

I have been busy wrapping up a project, guiding a small all-volunteer community museum through an inventory of their collection. It was a very interesting project for me, one where it was my aim to teach the volunteers collection management basics ('how to fish') as I did not simply step in to complete the inventory (or just 'give them fish'). It was my goal to pass along some of the foundations of museum collection stewardship. 

As I have written about before, I think small museums are the soul of what I do as a museum professional. Next-to-nothing budgets and volunteers being the norm, they represent a need for our communities to record their own story, and to have a museum to share that story. I understand that basic need as much as I know I must breathe.

So, with no trepidation, I divided the project into three phases: a documentation review (which was brief as they are a young organization), the gathering of inventory material and system set-up (creating a tool kit, designing forms, establishing a numbering system) and the actual physical inventory of the collection (
delivered in five workshops). The first two phases went well, and quickly; it was the workshops that had the 'meat' of the project.

Working with about ten volunteers, the first workshop was a very wide and shallow review of all things collection management. I covered why it is important to inventory collections, went over some classic collection management resources, and spoke about museum ethics. We also reviewed a basic form that I designed on how to record the information of each object. Together we recorded the information on one object, going through the form step-by-step. I did my best not to overwhelm with information, which is quite easy given the breadth of material. I stressed that procedures were guidelines, and that each object would require a little bit of creative thought when inventorying. I said (and I hope this isn't blasphemous to some other museum professionals) that there is an art as well as a science to an inventory project, and that it is a process akin to eating an elephant just one bite at a time. We'll get there, but it will take time.

The other workshops built on the inventory guidelines from the first one, and I taught basic inventory photography, object numbering, and how to enter information into an Excel spreadsheet. (The volunteers wanted an electronic record of the inventory beyond pieces of paper. Due partially to limited funds, Excel was chosen as information can be easily migrated from this program, should they get sophisticated collection management software in the future.) There were many questions during the inventory process for, as we know, each object presents a new set of quandaries. But by the fifth workshop, we had a real feeling of teamwork, with each volunteer choosing a task to focus on; this inventory was now a project that the organization could handle. I have to say that I got a lot of satisfaction hearing that sentiment!

And so, at the end of my time working on the inventory project, I provided a report to the museum with the following:

- the documentation review 
- step-by-step inventory guidelines
- forms created for the inventory project which included
      - a donation form
      - a loan form
      - a donor documentation form
      - an inventory worksheet
- inventory project report and recommendations
- a list of resources and suppliers

I think there is still a lot of work to be done at this small museum for the inventory, but I think it is entirely doable. It is a little hard as a shepherd in this project to let go and hope for the best for their organization, but this is my role as museum consultant. And so I gather myself, knowing that they have the training and a plan in place to complete their inventory, to grow their collection, and that I empowered them to do so. Not bad, eh. : )


  1. Carolyn,
    thanks for your many posts.
    We need to document all the museum items in my Fathers Museum. Tractor Museum.
    could you give us ideas on where to start and what are the most important mistakes that are often made?

    1. Oh my goodness, I am sorry I didn't see this question earlier! I hope I am not too late to answer your question...

      You start an inventory by:
      1. deciding what important info you
      2. understanding the resources and time you have to complete the inventory. (My rec is to have at least two people at the task - one can read out info while the other is recording it.)

      Once you have those two things figured out,
      3. create an inventory sheet with all the info you want to record. For tractors, I would bet it would at least be make, year, model and condition. Go old -school and have one print out page per tractor, numbering them on the sheet as you go. Put these sheets in a binder as the inventory is being completed.
      4. take a photo - or maybe a series of photos (from front, sides, rear) of the tractor. Take the photo in the order you are inventorying the tractors
      5. transfer the written information to a database of sorts. It is completely okay to use an Excel spreadsheet
      6. download the photos and number them with the inventory number (more than one photo? label as Tractor 001a, 001b, etc)

      Hopefully this helps! Good luck with your project.

  2. thanks for your great help

  3. Thanks so much for the information. It is very helpful. Can you recommend a good book or two for small museum inventory mgt? Also, can you recommend a inexpensive software...maybe a step above excell?


    1. Hi Yvette -
      Thanks for your questions.

      A good inventory book or two . . . this might not be overly helpful, but truthfully I started with the classic "The New Museum Registration Methods", ed Buck & Gilmour and then I applied the experience of past inventory projects.

      As for inexpensive software, I have used MS Access for a general inventory database, and this allowed me to include a photograph of each item. I liked it because the organization I was working for already had MS Office. It did take some time to customize the look and feel of the db, but I managed to write reports with photographs and that was hugely helpful when I created interpretive material and displays.