Location = “Let us Know”: Inventorying a Collection on the Move

When my phone rang on July 8, 2010, one of Senator Carper’s staffers was on the other end of the line to congratulate me on Winterthur’s Museums for America grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). My heart leapt as only a registrar’s can. Thanks to the grant-seeking skills of Assistant Director of Major Gifts Scott Mangieri, this kind of news is not that uncommon for Winterthur. But news of this particular grant, crafted by the Registration Department to fund a full museum collections inventory, set off a round of celebratory e-mails and phone calls. For some, the prospect of undertaking a methodical inventory might induce glazed eyes. But we registration-types are a little geeky. Tracking and accounting for the museum collections is our “thing”… and one of our core responsibilities.

Left to right: Daniela Bono, Chris Cascio, Mary Walton, and Jonathan Donovan

Reality set in once I received a phone call from Congressman Castle’s office and then the official IMLS notification. We—Julia Hofer (Database Specialist), Paula DeStefano (Associate Registrar for Permanent Collections), and I—swallowed hard, shook off the “Oh my gosh, we really have to do this now!” feelings of panic, and forged ahead to implement a two-year, wall-to-wall inventory of the museum collections—estimated at 90,000 objects in 279 spaces. We hired IMLS-funded staff Daniela Bono, Chris Cascio, and Mary Walton. Jonathan Donovan joined the IMLS staff in year two of the grant. We also recruited seasoned volunteers and other staff to work with us.

Volunteer Anne Nickle

In October 2010, we launched the inventory with the following objectives:

  • complete a comprehensive inventory of the museum collections within a two-year period, capturing current locations for all objects
  • create standard and unique location terminology in our collections management database (KE EMu)
  • create unique object records where lacking, and
  • establish a basis from which to revitalize a regular, rolling inventory program once the IMLS project ends.

    Volunteer Pat Hazleton

Before we applied for the grant, we estimated that we could conduct a systematic review of each space that houses or displays collection objects in two years. We carried out a trial inventory of eight spaces (2,507 objects) in June and July of 2010. This established the inventory process implemented in October of 2010 and refined over the next several months.


Mary Walton and Jim Schneck

The inventory of one room or space involves the following steps:

  • review of existing database location terms for the space, creation of any new terms, retirement of old terms
  • creation of an Excel document for the space using an exported list of objects and expected locations from the database and a validation list of clean location terms
  • physical check of each object and location by the inventory team
  • import of location updates from the spreadsheet into the database.

    Object with temporary inventory number

We developed processes for flagging and tracking objects expected but not found in a space, objects found in a space that were not supposed to be there, and objects found without an accession or other identification number.

We made note of a variety of issues, including duplicate or non-existent object records and numbering and basic condition issues. The creation of standard and unique location terminology in our database is an essential part of this inventory project. Such terms are necessary for accurate queries and reports on object locations.

Rolled textile storage with new location labels

They are also vital for bar code technology to efficiently and accurately track and capture location changes. (We currently use bar codes on our move reports for projects like Yuletide that involve hundreds to thousands of moves.) Location term clean-up is necessary because we inherited multiple variations of many terms from former databases that permitted free text data entry and some unhelpful phrases for scheduled moves, such as “Let Us Know” or “Ask Mary Jane”—two of our favorites.

Winterthur Institute workshop

The project has presented some challenges. We anticipated issues in conducting the inventory while the museum was open and programs, classes, and other collection activities continued. Winterthur’s strength is access to the collections through object-based research and education. The more than 90,000 objects serve as a core resource for museum visitors, researchers, students, and staff through our public tours and exhibitions, conferences and workshops, publications and licensing programs, and two graduate programs. The inventory team has learned that flexibility on our part and on that of our colleagues helps us continue working while meeting the needs of visitors, staff, and students. Our public programs colleagues have supported our inventory efforts in display spaces while we are open for tours. When inventory might disrupt a program or teaching activity, we adjust our schedule.

Art Handling Specialist Matthew Stiles

Another challenge relates to conducting an inventory while objects continue to move for programming, exhibitions, photography, conservation, and other purposes. Winterthur’s founder, Henry Francis du Pont, regularly upgraded and improved the appearance of the museum rooms, so the concept of a collection “on the move” is not new to this institution. Last year, Registration tracked more than 15,700 documented object moves. Communication between the inventory team and other registration staff regarding scheduled moves has been key to making sure we capture every object.

Chris Cascio

The success of this project is due primarily to the dedicated members of the inventory team, including volunteers and IMLS and regular staff. Complementing the human participants is our collections management database—KE EMu—and the efficiencies it makes possible. Through direct importation of location updates from the spreadsheets into our collections management system, we have eliminated the time-consuming method of manually updating each record, and we have much more immediate access to current location information.

Daniela Bono

While we record statistics about the numbers of spaces and objects inventoried, location terms cleaned, and problems resolved, it is much harder to quantify the surges of satisfaction, delight, and relief we experience when we can resolve one more mystery and account for one more object. With more than 66,000 object locations confirmed and six months to go, we’re in the home stretch!

We are immensely grateful to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the funding of this project and to the staff and volunteers for their hours and hours of hard work.

Textile storage is one area of the collections where access has vastly improved thanks to the inventory project.

Beth J. Parker Miller is registrar and head of Winterthur’s Registration Department. She has an MA in history/historical and archival administration and has worked in museum collections management for more than 25 years. She is a contributing author to the 2011 American Association of Museums publication, To Give and To Receive: A Handbook on Gifts and Donations for Museums and Donors, edited by Sharon Smith Theobald and Laurette E. McCarthy. Born in Puerto Rico and having lived five years in northern India as a child, Beth enjoys international cuisine, visiting historical sites, and travel abroad when her life as a working mother of two allows.
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