Museum 101: “A” is for Accession

Last week, we received the final eleven Camp­bell gob­lets that a local fam­i­ly donat­ed to us after pur­chas­ing them in the 1941 Selkirk auc­tion. [Here’s the scoop in case you missed the orig­i­nal post.]

Today, it’s time to check these gob­lets in. In muse­um ver­nac­u­lar, the for­mal process of bring­ing an item (or in this case, items) into the col­lec­tion is called acces­sion­ing.

We taught intern Sam how to acces­sion today, and we thought you would get a kick out of a behind-the-scenes peek at what we do.

  • Sam get­ting his sil­ver-pol­ish­ing les­son from Andy.

    Step 1: Clean the item. In this case, the ster­ling gob­lets were pret­ty tar­nished after years of being in stor­age, so Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Andy gave Sam a les­son on how to pol­ish sil­ver like a champ.

  • Step 2: Assign an acces­sion num­ber. “Acces­sion num­ber” is just a museum‑y way of say­ing “inven­to­ry num­ber.” Every item in our col­lec­tion has a unique acces­sion num­ber, and they have a three-num­ber for­mat, e.g.:  2012.1.1. The first part is the year in which the dona­tion was received, the sec­ond part is the dona­tion num­ber (in the exam­ple above, this is the first dona­tion we logged in 2012), and the third is the item num­ber with­in that dona­tion. The first gob­let will be 2012.1.1, while the last (12th) gob­let will bear the num­ber 2012.1.12.  Say next week your great aunt Edna donates a desk that used to belong to the Camp­bells. That acces­sion num­ber would be 2012.2.1. If Edna threw in the match­ing chair? 2012.2.2. And inkwell? 2012.2.3. You get the picture.
  • Tools of the trade: B72, a spe­cial­ly-cropped cot­ton swab, and spe­cial acid-free archival pen.

    Step 3: Label the item with the acces­sion num­ber. Some­how. You’ve prob­a­bly nev­er thought about how you would label a piece of ster­ling. On the off chance you did, you prob­a­bly weren’t con­cerned with doing it in such a way that you could remove the label if nec­es­sary. If we used a Sharpie on the bot­tom of the gob­let, that ink would be on there for good. We don’t want to do that because a Sharpie would alter the con­di­tion of the object. We want it to be good as new. (Or at least as good as it was when we received it.) First rule in the muse­um world: Do no harm. So how do you write on a sil­ver gob­let with­out real­ly writ­ing on it? In this case, some­thing called B72. It’s a clear gel-like sub­stance that, after paint­ing it on a sol­id object like glass, porce­lain or sil­ver, you can write on it. [Edi­to­r­i­al com­ment: In addi­tion to being an indis­pens­able muse­um tool, it stinks to high heav­en.] If you don’t want the num­ber on the object any more, sim­ply hit the sec­tion with a lit­tle bit of ace­tone and it will remove the writ­ing and the patch of B72.

    Andy super­vis­ing as Sam tries his hand at apply­ing B72 on the bot­tom of a goblet.

  • Step 4: Enter the new object into the inven­to­ry soft­ware. We have a lot of stuff to keep track of in this house, but it’s a small inven­to­ry in the greater muse­um world. In terms of num­ber of items, our col­lec­tion is down­right mod­est when you com­pare it to the St. Louis Art Muse­um or the Mis­souri His­to­ry Muse­um. There­fore, we use a small soft­ware sys­tem called Past­Per­fect. It com­bines muse­um inven­to­ry soft­ware and our donor/membership data­base, and it works just swell for us. (Inci­den­tal­ly, Past­Per­fect hosts our online col­lec­tion data­base so you can look up let­ters and objects in our col­lec­tion.) In here, Sam’s going to enter all the par­tic­u­lars: descrip­tion, prove­nance, donor, con­di­tion, images and the loca­tion in the house so we know where to find it.

Next comes the real­ly fun part: decid­ing where to fea­ture the gob­lets in the house.

And that is how we acces­sion new items into Camp­bell House­’s collection.