What to do with Artefacts with Limited Information

Posted in Collections by Emma Morris on March 28th, 2017

“Found in Collections:” What to do with Artefacts with Limited Information

                                             Kathleen Watkin

                                               MAS Advisor

 

Often when conducting inventories and/or looking for artefacts in storage rooms, we come across “Found in Collections" artefacts, or FIC's. These are artefacts that have missing or no information associated with them. There two options for dealing with these objects: either accession the artefact into the collection, or remove the artefact from the collection. Before deciding which path to take, the artefact itself must be considered.  

 

What to Consider

Currently, Saskatchewan has no Abandon Property Law in relation to Museums and their collections. Therefore, unless someone can provide legal and concrete evidence that the object belongs to them, FIC's belong to the museum they were discovered in. FIC artefacts are best addressed on an individual, case-by-case basis.

First, gather as much information about the FIC artefacts as possible. Some ways you can find information about FIC objects include:

Determining if there is any documentation about the artefact at all, even if it is incomplete
Are there staff members, volunteers, or docents who have been at the museum for a long time and might remember seeing the object?
Physical location of the artefact: Near similar artefacts? Located within a group of artefacts with similar accession numbers?
Search accession files
Review exhibit catalogues and/or inventories
Review old newspaper articles, annual reports, or museum newsletters that reported donations and loans to the museum
Review old institutional meeting minutes that discussed collections donations and loans
Sort through old gift and loan agreements
Compare object description against prior collection inventories

It is best practice to catalogue the artefact and the information you gather about it as you research. Using your museum’s cataloguing system, ensure you record all information about the artefact including, but not limited to:

Object Name
Category
Description
Marks/Labels/Inscriptions
Materials
Measurements
Location
Condition
Photograph of the artefact

Now that you have gathered as much information as possible about the artefact, you must determine the object’s future status. Are you going to accession the artefact into your collection (permanent or educational) or deaccession the artefact (for donation, sale or disposal)?

Things to consider with your board of directors:

Is the object relevant to your museum's mission statement or statement of purpose?
What is the object's physical condition?
What is the object's value, either scientific, scholarly, historic, or aesthetic for any institution?
Is object of First Nations origin?
Does the object contain materials derived from a threatened or endangered species?

Once considering these fundamental factors, the reconciliation process can begin.

 

The Reconciliation Process

Option One: Accessioning

If you decided to accession the FIC artefact into the collection, it should go through the same process as any other artefact being accessioned into the collection. If you follow best practices, this will simply mean adding an accession number.

When applying an accession number, it needs to be unique and easily identifiable. If your museum uses the three-part numbering system (Year- Sequence Year-Lot Number), then place the numbers 999 in the sequence year slot as an indicator that the object is an FIC. In you are using an Alphabetical Prefix System, use the letter FIC as the prefix.

Examples:

Three Part Number System:   2017-999-01

Alphabetical Prefix System: FIC-2017-01

Once an accession number is given and all documentation is completed, the artefact is officially part of the museum’s collection.

Option Two: Deaccessioning

Maintaining FIC's that do not meet the museum's mission, are inferior duplicates, are irreparably damaged, or pose a threat to the staff or permanent collection in some way, is unnecessary and expensive.

If it is determined that disposition or deaccessioning for sale or gift to another Museum is the best course of action for the FIC artefact, take care to document the objects thoroughly before beginning the process (see best practice). Remember to keep a copy of all information for internal use.

The decision may be made to sell or destroy the artefact.  Remember that the most appropriate procedure for one object may not be the best for another.

Example:

Objects of First Nations origin, or objects containing natural materials may require unique disposal methods.
Objects that could potentially endanger staff or the permanent collection may require more expeditious decisions.

If you are uncertain as to how to proceed, set aside all your FIC objects, making a "don't know” pile from which you can reconcile artefacts as you have time and as you determine the best course of action for each item.

 

Conclusion

While finding an undocumented artefact in your collection can seem problematic, there are solutions available for dealing with them. It is in your best interested to investigate the artefact and catalogue it as you find information. You and your board will then have all the information needed to make the decision to either accession or deaccession the FIC artefact.

 

More Information

Buck, Rebecca. “Found in Collections.” MRM5: Museum Registration Methods 5th Edition. The AAM Press, 2010.  pg. 109-118

Caltin-Legutko, Cinnamon and Stacy Klinger. “Stewardship: Collections and Historical Preservation.” Rowan Altamira, 2012. Pg. 78-81

“Collections Documentation Manual for Saskatchewan Museums.” Museums Association of Saskatchewan.” 2014.

“Found in Collections” Wikipedia. 27 May, 2016. Website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Found_in_collection

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