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Demystifying the Museum: What is Cataloging?

By: Hannah Rodums, Museum Attendant at the Wayne Museum and Staff Member of the Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs

Forgive us for bragging, but we think cataloging 1,000 artifacts in one year is a pretty big deal!

What is an artifact? Well, anything made or used by human beings, really- in fact, 'artifact' is just a fancy way of describing many of the objects you might have in your house. An artifact can be a pasta bowl; your favorite old T-shirt; a tube of toothpaste; a sofa; a piece of wallpaper; and so many other possibilities. Every artifact has a story to tell, be they fancy china plates in a museum or the pack of pens that live at the bottom of your desk drawer. As museum attendants, it's our job to figure out what those stories are, and how to tell them.

How we find these stories is what we call 'cataloging'. First, we start off with the easy questions: What is this artifact? What's it made of? What color is it? How big is it? Are there are any familiar shapes? Then comes the heavier research. Are there any other artifacts like the one we have that still exist? What do other museums say about similar artifacts in their collections? Can we find any primary sources, such as newspaper articles or advertisements, that mention the artifact by name? It's questions like these that allow us to peel back the layers of history an artifact has- stories of the people who made the artifact, stories of the people who used the artifact, stories of how the artifact was changed between its creation and our present moment. Research is the difference between 'that dusty old lampstand in the corner' and 'a rare brass lampstand made by Christian Cornelius & Co. of Philadelphia, between the years 1845 and 1850.' Every piece of the puzzle you find is priceless.

After we've done our research, it's time to put a special number on the artifact- called an object ID. We do this for a few reasons. Numbering our artifacts helps us keep track of how many objects we have in our collection. Numbering also gets rid of the hassle of discerning between duplicate artifacts- it's hard to tell the difference between tea cups with the same purple pattern on them! We do our best to place the number on the artifact so it won't be visible to viewers while on display- although some artifacts, like glassware, don't do us many favors here.

Finally, the hardest part of cataloging: choosing which artifacts go on display, and which ones go into storage. While every artifact has a story, not all of them are relevant to the space we work in. Our historic house has a story to tell too–a razor blade from the 1920s, for instance, would be out of place in the room dated to the 1780s. Space is also an issue: we have plenty of artifacts to recreate a Victorian bedroom, we just don’t have an available room to do so! Sometimes, though, an artifact is just too fragile and must be put away for the sake of preserving it. This means that only a small portion of our entire collection can be on display at a given time. For the artifacts we can’t display, we carefully pack them into foam-lined boxes. Each box gets its own number and an inventory sheet; they are then put away on a shelving unit.

This week, we challenge you to do a little cataloging of your own. Pick an artifact in your house you want to know more about–really, it can be anything! You never know what stories the artifacts you have can tell!