Condition and Locations

When considering storage, the image that first comes to mind for many is one of dark hallways, windowless spaces, and endless rows of basement shelving units. That image is supplanted in the bright attic where the RISD Museum stores its metal objects.

Over the past few months, I have been working on an inventory of this storage space, a project which has been in motion for the better part of a year and which still requires months of work. Museums create inventories to keep track of the condition and locations of objects in their collections, to update information, and to reevaluate the quality and efficacy of a storage location in keeping an object safe and secure. The process involves removing the objects from a drawer or shelf; updating each object’s location in the museum’s central database; photographing the object, noting inconsistencies or problems; and ensuring that information such as dimensions or descriptions is accurate. Each object then receives a tag with its unique number and is rehoused in its particular spot.

Of course inventories have been occurring almost since the beginning of museum practice, but they have changed entirely from their original form. Our inventory of metals storage involves snapping a quick photo with our handy digital camera and access the museum database and object records on a laptop, so we can easily edit or add to them. The database itself, with all its digitized information, is an extremely recent invention, allowing us to perform sophisticated searches or apply changes to multiple object records at once. My predecessors in the inventory game were not so fortunate. Technology has provided many new opportunities, and often it is hard for me to imagine doing things the old way. Each object record used to live on a small typewritten notecard, much like those in library card catalogues, which could then be cross-referenced with other sets of notecards containing supplemental information. Photos could not be taken easily, so object descriptions had to suffice when perusing records. The museum still possesses old inventory lists, handwritten, and curators’ logs, meeting minutes, and other official documents in beautiful notebooks with many different scripts contributing to their pages.

While most of our day-to-day dealings with object records involve the digital database, I have found that these antiquated, handwritten documents are much more useful than I initially thought. Over the past few months I have become familiar with some of the records. The transfer of information to digital forms has never been fully completed, gargantuan task that it is, and over 100+ years of operation a museum accumulates many cataloguing quirks. Each object at the RISD Museum was originally numbered by a different system, with a letter (such as M or J) preceding its unique number, based on its type (such as Metalwork or Jewelry). Often the only place these old numbers exist in object records are on the old notecards, making trips to the large safe where these cards are kept a not-infrequent occurrence when attempting to identify an old object. I have even become familiar with the handwriting of certain individuals who contributed to these records, or who hand-painted the numbers on the objects many years ago (sometimes for the wrong reasons – “This person’s 2’s look exactly like 3’s!” my supervisor, Jac, and I complained to each other recently).

With the advent of digital management systems, some of these quirks, this ability to appreciate a predecessor’s unique personal qualities such as handwriting, may be fading away. Technology brings opportunities, but it also takes away some of the magic and tactility that came with paper-and-pencil working methods. However, when I think of the sum of the information generated through endless inventories over the decades the museum has operated, I feel very lucky to have been a witness to and a participant in such an undertaking. Fifty years from now, perhaps museum workers won’t be appreciating (or complaining about) my handwriting, but there are other ways to leave a mark.

Just the other day I happened across a metal incense burner delightfully titled “Recumbent Ram” in the database; the object was indeed in the shape of a ram lying down. I only hope that these records seem hopelessly outdated to workers 50 years from now, and that they can chuckle at the clumsiness of the system, the stiff old-fashioned-ness of it, using the work I have put in and adding to it in ever more innovative ways.

Arianna Riva
Registration intern, 2015