What Should be Documented?

So far, this course has given you a better understanding of why collections need to be documented and outlines how we can meet our objectives. We must also be in a position to know exactly what to document when dealing with the objects of a collection.

Let us start with a simple situation scenario exercise.

Exercise 2 : Situation Scenario Workshop: Documenting an Object

This exercise has probably helped you realize that it is not that easy to describe the objects of a collection consistently or to organize the information logically.

The chances are that the descriptive information collected on each object can be grouped together in the following broad information categories:

name, identification number.
Physical description:
material, technique, medium or support, colours, shape, decorative motifs, inscriptions.
the place of origin, the place where it was made, the name of the previous owner(s), the acquisition mode and acquisition date.

The collections can deliver a certain amount of information concerning their nature and function, their provenance, and the context of use. Furthermore, the activities for which the collections are used in the institution can generate even more information to collect and record.

Note also that the documentation process does not have an end. There will always be new information to gather on the collections. It may be based on a specialist's new understanding of a work or a style, involve specifying the new conservation condition of a damaged object, or reflect a change in the Latin taxonomy of a natural sciences specimen following new scientific research.

The documentation process is therefore dynamic and continuous.

The systematic identification, location and organization of the information, which can vary from one object to the next or from one type of collection to the next, requires a meticulous, thorough approach — hence the importance of establishing a well-defined descriptive system for the group of objects making up the collections.

Upon closer examination of the information gathered during the exercise done earlier, you will notice that it can be grouped into two categories:

  • Information on the object's physical characteristics (identification, size or dimensions, materials or description).
    • This is the information that the object directly conveys. It is important to learn how to ask all the right questions about the object.
      • What is the object's name? Does it have a title?
      • What is it made of?
      • What size is it or what are its dimensions?
      • What inscriptions can be found?
  • Information relating to the life and scientific understanding of the object (artist, manufacturer, origin, use, culture, etc.).
    • This is the contextual information that is known about the object. It is essential to establish a practice of collecting information from potential sources, such as the donor or the user.
      • How old is it?
      • Who made it or manufactured it?
      • To whom does it belong, or to whom did it used to belong?
      • What is its history?

These two types of information complement each other.

When we think about a collection development project, we legitimately hope to be able to have a detailed and comprehensive description of each object in the collection. However, because of the finite resources at our disposal, there are limitations on the nature and quantity of information that we are actually able to collect on the objects.

It is therefore important to be able to answer fundamental questions when planning a collection development project:

  • What information needs to be recorded?
  • Where is the required information located?
  • How do we organize the information?

The information concerning an object or a collection is only complete when it is recorded properly, organized into a functional system, and becomes available and accessible, both within and outside the institution. An efficient descriptive system involves a logical, structured organization of the information for each collection object.

Setting up a descriptive system such as this involves choosing the most suitable tools, based on the institution's needs, on the needs of those who use the information, as well as on project's specific objectives.

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This resource was published by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). For comments or questions regarding this content, please contact CHIN directly. To find other online resources for museum professionals, visit the CHIN homepage or the Museology and conservation topic page on Canada.ca.

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