Collection Inventory

Date: 10/21/2020
Contact: James Vannurden |

Museums need to keep a proper inventory of its collections. So one major job of a museum curator is inventory control. This means keeping proper counts in each space, keeping items clean, and maintaining proper environmental conditions. This blog will focus on proper inventory counts.

A general rule of thumb for collection inventory is to perform an inventory count everything three to four years. With a small museum, inventories can be performed on an annual basis with little effort. But for larger museums, inventories can be very time consuming and a large undertaking.

Performing an inventory is important for a number of reasons. An artifact needs an exact location in case the need arises to find it. Inventories also verify the condition of an artifact.

During inventory, the curatorial staff needs to differentiate between various categories of artifacts. These can be grouped together in certain locations or all together, depending on organizational style. Each item classification is different. Below is a quick explanation of each:

  • Accessioned: the most protected collection, usually with provenance. No handling without gloves, only by staff.
  • Hands-on: items near our respected time period but used for educational purposes by the public, allowed to be touched.
  • Prop: less protected than hands-on. An item that meets the basic need of our collection mission.
  • Study collection: used for studying purposes only, can be handled/seen by public on private basis.
  • Consumable: something that can be used until worn out.
  • Architectural element: part of an old building
  • Modern: something outside the portrayed time frame.
  • Program: something for program use only.
  • Event: something used at an event.
  • Deaccession: a previously accessioned piece deemed too damaged to maintain in the collection.

When performing an inventory, it is important to have a photograph of each item for your records. This makes for an easy search later on the database, instead of hunting down each item with similar descriptions.

Below is an example of a standard way to photograph a museum artifact for internal records. Notice the photograph of the Parker Flintlock Pocket Pistol contains its accession number in clear numbers. This picture also contains a ruler so size can quickly be verified.


At Cowtown, the time it takes to inventory a space varies greatly between buildings. Some areas take a matter of minutes, while others can last for days. For example, the General Store has so many items on the shelves on both the east and west walls, in addition to the north area wall and floor.

Many softwares exist for collection inventory management. Some of the most common are CatalogIt, PastPerfect, ArtEngine, and CollectionsIndex. At Cowtown, we use PastPerfect. Having this software on a mobile laptop also benefits Cowtown so inventory can be done at the site, without printing hardcopies or running from one building to another.

In conclusion, I hope this gives you a better understanding of the inventory process here at Old Cowtown Museum.