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Tracking a Museum Collection

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Tags: inventory, Chicago Academy of Sciences, collections, data, cataloguing, specimens

Created: 3/16/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

One, two, three, four...

Chipmunk specimens



Keeping track of items in a museum collection requires organization. A LOT of organization. Collections staff track where specimens and artifacts are stored and record any time they move, such as when they go on loan or on exhibit. We track the condition of a specimen and any procedures that we undertake to resolve preservation issues. We make notations about how much deterioration a specimen is subjected to when it is on display in an exhibit. We document information about the specimen, such as who collected it, when, and where. But to be able to do all of this, we first need to know what we have!

Malacology specimens in vials



How do you go about inventorying a museum collection?  In a word: methodically.  A small army of staff, interns, and volunteers went through the Academy's collection for our inventory.  It took us five years, but cabinet by cabinet, each and every item was handled, counted, and described -- bird and mammal study skins, pinned insects, fossils, pressed plants, snail shells -- over 280,000 items!  We created a new digital record in a database for each item we documented so that the inforamtion is in one place.

Bat specimen



What, exactly, does this mean?  It means that our Collections staff can now look up information about our collection in a database, rather than sifting through old musty ledger books and multiple, out-of-date card catalogue systems.  These searches are faster and more comprehensive.  We can provide this library of specimens and corresponding data to researchers and help answer questions about the environment.  More of the collection can be incorporated into our exhibitions and educational programs to help illustrate issues relevant to the Midwest and allow our visitors to see these treasures first hand.

  • Ascession book
  • Card system

It means we have a much clearer picture of not only what is in our collection, but the history of it all as well.  And knowing what we have makes tracking it, and building a reservoir of information about it, much easier.  Many thanks go to the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for their generous support of our collections inventory project.

Dawn Roberts
Collections Manager

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