Cataloguing in a museum setting [was Re: nonsense...]

Rich Alderson RichA at
Thu Oct 21 18:04:06 CDT 2010

From: Tony Duell
Sent: Thursday, October 21, 2010 12:18 PM

>> When an item comes into the collection, it is assigned an accession
>> number; the standard is yyyy.nnn.mmm, where nnn represents order in
>> which the item came in in year yyyy, and mmm is the individual number
>> of each piece that makes up the item.  If a piece is made up of
>> parts (say a tea set, for example) a letter can be suffixed to the
>> piece number for each part to make it possible to keep them associated
>> even if physically apart.  Leading zeroes should be used in the item
>> and piece numbers.

> What do you mean by 'item','piece' and 'part' here? I can understand an 
> item being made of several pieces, but why do you need a third level here?

I was trying not to re-use the same word for different levels.

You donate items to a museum, let's say for simplicity's sake a horse shoe
and a tea service with 4 individually decorated cups and matching saucers,
pot, sugar and creamer.

You do this in 2010.  That's the first field of the accession numbers.

The two items are the 75th and 76th donated to the museum this year.
These numbers will be the second fields of the respective accession

The horse shoe will receive accession number 2010.075.001, and be marked
as 2010.75.1 

The tea pot will be 2010.076.001; the sugar, 2010.076.002; the creamer,
2010.076.003; the first cup-and-saucer pair, 2010.076.004A and 2010.076.004B;
and so on.  The reason for pairing the cup and saucer will be the matching
decoration on each pair.

You could also simply number each piece individually, but then you lose

> In the case of a classic computer, what would you label? The casing? The 
> individual PCBs/modules? How would you handle the case of taking 2 
> effectively identical machines acquired at differnet times and using 
> parts from bvth to make one working example, or would a museum never do 
> that? (If the latter, then I consider the policy to be broken!).

I'll start with the last comment.  The policy will depend on the purpose
of the museum; no two museums have identical missions, though they may be
very close.  A computer museum with a mission of making systems run will
have a very different answer to your question than a museum dealing with
the history of engineering laboratories, where the identical computers
may have been used for very different purposes and be important to the
understanding of how each lab achieved its goals.  (Not every museum tries
to please everyone in the know about a topic--there are art museums which
I find deadly dull, and art museums I love to visit over and over, for
example.)  Neither policy is "broken", they simply differ.

Computers are more difficult to catalog than tea services.  My personal
preference would be to replicate the manufacturer's bill of materials,
assigning accession numbers at each level down to the circuit boards (or
equivalent, in the case of large valve-based modules, but those don't
crop up in the time frame in which we have specialized).  Since the
catalog here was set up by someone else several years before I joined
the team, I have to accommodate myself to what is in place--we're not in
a position to re-catalog several thousand pieces my way.

We catalog the top-level items (CPU, disk drives, tape drives, printers,
etc.) when they come in.  The low-level items (disk packs and cartridges,
tapes, boards, etc.) are fuzzier:  Loose items, like spare boards, are
catalogued when they come in, but boards installed in larger items only
get catalogued when they are pulled for repair or replacement.

It takes discipline to catalog pieces when you would really rather be
restoring a system to working condition, but without a catalog, you will
very quickly lose all semblance of provenance, and your reason for being
a museum.

Rich Alderson
Vintage Computing Sr. Server Engineer
Vulcan, Inc.
505 5th Avenue S, Suite 900
Seattle, WA 98104

mailto:RichA at
mailto:RichA at

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