Museum Knowledge: Accession Numbers

Have you ever wondered what those numbers are on objects in a museum?

They usually look something like this:


They are called accession numbers and they are an integral part of keeping track of the artifacts in any collection.

Each number is unique and is only used once for an object.

They can also provide us an unexpected insight into the history (or in museum speak – the “provenance”) of an object since it was accepted into that museum’s collection.

Each accession number references the record of that object: where it came from, who it came from, what its story is, its original condition, dimensions, materials, and all the other information that you can imagine would be important to keeping track of thousands and thousands of objects.

But, more importantly, for the museum visitor who may not have access to that file, that number gives us some important clues.

The first number in the series 2000 tells us the year the object was either donated or purchased by the institution. For example, we know that the object above was acquired by the museum in the year 2000. This number is shared by all of the artifacts that came into the collection that year.

The second number .001 is one of the most important and lets us know know a few different things such as, the order of objects accepted into the collection that year.

For instance, 2000.001 would be the first object acquired in the year 2000, 2000.080 would be the 80th.

In addition, this number can also indicate a grouping of objects that were all part of one donation by a single donor or one acquisition.

For instance, if in 2000, a museum member donated 20 dresses to the collection all of those dresses would have accession numbers beginning with 2000.001.  letting us know that all of the dresses were a part of a single gift.

The last number is also important as it indicates the specific object.

With our example above 2000.001.001a, we know that the object was acquired in the year 2000, was the first accession record/grouping for that year from the same donor as all other objects numbered 2000.001, and indicated by the last number that it was the first object within that grouping – 2000.001.001.

Like the example above, with the 20 dresses, each objects within that group would be individually numbered 2000.001.001 through 2000.001.020 indicating each of the twenty items.

The final designation – the letter – can be a little confusing since it seems like at this point we have probably covered all of our bases for recording the information connected to each object. This final letter is integral, however, if an object has several parts to it.

Take the dress example above, if one of those dresses had a belt it would be important to note that the accession number has more than one physical artifact attached to it. It is also a great indicator that something may be missing if the two are ever separated – which can happen in any institution.

The dress would be 2000.001.001a and the belt 2000.001.001b.

*The number we are using is a standard in the museum field but, of course, there can be variations. Ask a museum guide if you ever have questions, they should be able to explain how these numbers work in their individual museum.

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