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A Plea For Accession Numbers

I spent last Friday afternoon sifting through over 100 digital images of Chinese ceramic vases looking for the one a client wanted to link to their educational newsletter online. The newsletter has always been published online on another site, but the educators who authored the newsletter didn’t include accession numbers of the objects in the digital pictures in the newsletter. They believed, like so many art museum educators, that the teachers who read the newsletter don’t care about accession numbers.

This is not the first time I’ve had this problem. Many museum educators believe that the public doesn’t know what accession numbers are and so don’t include them in the content they author about their museums’ collections. And I agree, the public doesn’t know or care about accession numbers. But when educators want to reuse, repurpose or refine the educational content, how do they know which object is which? Putting a slide set online becomes an even more challenging task when you don’t know which Chinese vase is in the slide, because no one put an accession number in the slide set when they wrote about the Chinese vase. Is the Chinese vase you need already digitized? Already online? On display somewhere in the galleries? If not, how will you communicate to the digitizers which vase you want photographed? You see the problem.

An accession number is the only unique identifier an object has. If the museum has 100 Chinese vases in its collection, and you don’t have a unique identifier to go with the one you are looking for, a ten-minute job turns into an entire afternoon of hunting.

So consider this a plea for the return of accession numbers to educational content. Don’t include accession numbers for your public, include them for yourselves, the future educators who will inherit your work, and the consultants you hire to help you retool your educational content. I, for one, will thank you for it.

Archived Comments:

  1. Joe HC Says:
    April 27th, 2009 at 10:02 am Talk to the editors, they are the ones who always want to leave them out; at least that is the way it is here. I agree completely with what you are saying.

    –Joe HC

  2. Jennifer H Says:
    May 13th, 2009 at 4:52 pm I think it is common to forget that what we create will have a life beyond the immediate moment, when of course we know which vase it is–and perhaps we don’t want to think about the fact that our materials will still be at the museum when we aren’t anymore. (Especially right now, as staff positions are being cut so deeply).

    As for the accession numbers, yes, we need to use them. Personally, it bugs me to see collection images in any context that don’t have an accession number somewhere nearby–it’s like a newspaper photo without a caption!

  3. Missy H Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 11:10 am Great topic. While the acc. number is helpful for creating presentations and publications, it is also a great conversation starter with our youngest visitors. I use deaccessioned artifacts for museum lessons in house and in schools and invariably, a student will ask about the number on the artifact. It makes for a great mini-lesson on how museums collect and care for artifacts.
  4. Sarah Says:
    June 15th, 2009 at 9:00 am Great point! As someone who is both an educator and a curator (and the publisher of our newsletter) I can’t believe this never really occurred to me. While our collection is not huge- it certainly would be worthwhile for me to start doing this. Thanks!