Hate to Tell You, But You Need A Numbering System

After a recent dream in which I realized that my collection numbering system was not only off base, but that I had been applying even that system haphazardly; and after conversations with friends pursuant to mentioning that dream on Facebook, I decided that it would be worthwhile to sketch out a brief discussion of numbering systems for collecting.

If you are a collector, and your body of collection has surpassed what you can jot down easily in 2 minutes or less without any visual aid, then you should think about instituting a numbering system, which will then allow you to build a catalog of your collection. For all intents and purposes, you really cannot usefully catalog—or even list—your collection without a standardized numbering system in place.

That may sound fussy or dramatic, but look at it this way: if you are seriously collecting a certain type of thing, you may eventually have many individual objects that, at least on the face of it, could be described with the same words and phrases, thus making any such description essentially useless for actual identification. I look at my collection of fraternal organization group portraits, and I wonder, “How ridiculously precise would I have to be in my description to differentiate between all of these photographs of groups of guys in ‘Oriental’ garb, standing in a line in front of some building?” It wouldn’t be reasonable. Instead, I have my collection numbered. And with a numbering system, each object becomes immediately and clearly identified, completely un-confusable with any number of nearly identical fellow objects.

The identifying number you create goes two primary places: 1) directly, physically onto the back of the object (sometimes, for 3D objects, you will need to use tags—never adhesive, always cotton string and paper, available at the office supply store) and 2) at the very top of any documentation or catalog sheet. Always number an object using the softest pencil available from the art supply store, especially if it is a paper object like a drawing or photograph. If the object is a painting on stretcher bars, a more aggressive/indelible marking tool might be used, but only on those bars. Never mark on the back of the painting itself, as that can easily damage the painting by impressing into the canvas, causing the painted surface to show your marks; or in the case of inks, they may well bleed through the canvas and become visible from the front. Think before you mark!

And like I said, once you have the objects in your collection numbered, you can start cataloging, or listing, or tracking their location.

A good numbering system has three things going for it:
1. Simplicity/Abstraction
2. Uniformity
3. Perpetuity
All three of these are essential, and I will lay out why.

Your system must be Simple and Abstract. The system should be a means of identification, and that is all. It is absolutely not a means of description. I have often seen, in my many years in the art world, the very frustrating mistake of individuals trying to make their numbers tell a story. No. Do not do this. The ID number for an object should be generated abstractly from a linear series, and that is it. Once you try to include object type information, or date information, you are asking for trouble. Again, that sounds dramatic, I know. But object type or class is a subjective matter in many cases, and frankly the perceptions of the matter can change over time. You might class this one object as a Drawing. Further down the road, as your knowledge increases, you come to realize that that same object really was an unfinished piece, a precursor to something else, and you really think of it as a Sketch.

All of that is no problem, because you can simply go into your catalog system, change the object type, and update the information. However, if your numbering system includes object type information, you might have a problem on your hands. First off, it means crossing out the old ID number on the object (always cross out, never erase, erasure inevitably constitutes damage, on almost any surface) and writing on a new one—all of which is messy and further impacts your object. Second, you have to get into any files you have regarding that object and make sure that the ID number is changed on each and every one. (What good is the ID number if it changes and no longer actually connects things it was supposed to connect, because you didn’t update everything associated?) Further, if you have referenced this object using its ID number in any correspondence, if it was published in a journal or exhibited in a show, or if in any way the ID number for this object has been used anywhere outside of your own files, that no longer is valid information. If a grad student writing his or her thesis on this stuff writes to you in 10 years and asks about this particular thing, and you do a search, that ID will no longer exist. It will be confusing and frustrating.

The same problem presents itself if you try to include dating information in your ID number. If you are an artist cataloging your own work, unless you are among the top 10 must fastidious artists in history and have been since your earliest days, you do not have actual dates for every single piece. You can just estimate, right? No. Don’t do that. Why put information on something that you don’t know for a fact is absolutely true? After you “guess” for the date on these 10 little paintings from back-when, in 2 years you will run into an eleventh from the same series, and lo and behold it has a date on the back! Great, except you were off by 2 years, and now all of your numbers on the others contain incorrect information. What good is that? Why did you bother?

Do not include descriptive information in your ID numbers.

Now that I’m done bloviating on what a numbering system shouldn’t be, I can point out what a numbering system actually should be. It should be a mechanism to create an abstract, unique number for each object that is generated in a simple and orderly fashion. And that’s about it.

You can go a variety of ways to accomplish that. You could start at 1 and just keep counting up. Technically, that fulfills my above statement. It’s not my favorite solution, though, and it isn’t museum industry standard. Museums know numbering, let’s go with them.

The basic numbering system for a collection of objects starts with the year that it is accessioned (a word museums use for bringing an object into the collection, the year it was documented), then a decimal point (or many institutions use a dashes), then second number that proceeds in numerical order. So the first three objects accessioned by Museum X in 2012 will be numbered as:
and so on. When 2013 starts, they go back to .1 and .2 and .3 and so on, again. By sectioning the ID Numbers numbers up by year, it makes for far easier navigation of your catalog or files or storage. Yes, it is a date inserted into the number, but it is a number that is irrelevant to the actual object. It remains fundamentally abstract and genuinely simple. There are some further basics to it, but those will be covered in the next section.

Your system must be Uniform. And again, this means keeping it as simple as possible. Adding situational complexities will only confuse matters later and will yield an unsatisfying system. One object gets one unique number. You know your system, so use it. Simple. Uniform. But there will be times that your system will have to be slightly more elaborate than just “Year and Number.”

First off, what do you do when you have something that is a single object, truly, but it has multiple parts? For instance, a sculpture might be made of of three physically non-connected parts, but it is one piece of art. You don’t want to give each one a distinct ID number, because that would be treating this one thing as three separate things. So instead you add a third portion to your ID number, and in fact you should add a letter. Why a letter? Again, that is museum standard. Those who know numbering systems, and now that includes you, know that a (usually lower case) letter appended to a number indicates that there is more than one part to an object. So that three-part sculpture will be numbered as: (for instance)
Another instance in which you will want to add an additional portion or identifier is when you are dealing with a group of distinct objects that really belong together, but aren’t a single thing. Think of a portfolio of photographs. Art School Z has published a portfolio of works by its graduating class for 2012. There is a beautiful portfolio box, the title of the portfolio is hand-tooled into a leather panel inlaid into the front. Inside there are 17 photographs, each by a different photography student, interleaved with nice acid-free tissue, and with a nicely designed and printed colophon. So you have at least 36 actual physical objects on your hands. However, probably, you would number and catalog the photographs only:
2012.42.3 etc.,
unless you considered the portfolio box, or the colophon, to be a work of art in itself. It’s not a question of whether the portfolio box is nice, but rather, did a definable entity produce this box to be an object on equal creative footing with the photographs within contained? Usually not. Sometimes. Same with the colophon. But in such a situation you should use a third portion in the identifier, and in this case you should use a numeral.

Maintaining uniformity within your numbering system and thus your cataloging structure is a matter of following basic rules, which may be purely standardized industry guidelines from outside, or may include some rules you decide upon for yourself, because they make the most sense for what your collection contains and how it works. Regardless, follow your rules and use your systems uniformly.

Deciding upon the most simple system and applying it uniformly will almost entirely take care of the third principle of Perpetuity. Your system has to be intelligent and well conceived, and it should have an eye to the long term.

I was working in the collections department of a museum when Y2K rolled around, and there was a great deal of debate and discussion surrounding how the new millennium would re-define our numbering systems. Well, I guess there wasn’t so very much debate, as such, because the reasonable option was clear. Up until that point, our accession numbering system had been using only a two-digit year notation in the sequence, rather than a four digit notation. When the museum had come into being several decades before, the forehead slapping issues that loomed on the Y2K horizon were relatively inconceivable. Even if our precursors had thought of the question arising, “How will we note the year in accession numbers when the 20th Century ends?” they probably answered it with, “Who cares, they can do whatever they want to when that comes around.” The issues of electronic data management and the interpretation of a Zero by a computer probably didn’t occur to them. Hey, it was the 60s. Computers were not for general office use, they were primarily for getting rockets to the moon and back.

Our museum did opt for the 4 digit year option for generating accession numbers; and so up until that point all of the ID numbers started with 78. or 92., and thereafter they started with 2000., 2001., 2002. and so on. If the original designers of the accessioning systems at that museum had really thought down the line, sci-fi dreams of computers sitting on desks aside, they might have used 4 digit numbering all along. The old system was fine (and at that time, common), but it didn’t fully meet the standard of perpetuity. (Of course, who can see the future? But when you’re dealing with collections management issues, you try!)

Point being, however, whatever system you chose to apply to your collection, it should be simple and clear enough that, if you left your collection to a grandchild and got into a time machine, and your descendants actually kept the collection (and numbering) going and growing for a century until your return: you would know exactly what all of the notation meant when you stepped back into the flow of time.

These are the very basics of numbering a collection, at least from my perspective. Every museum or professionally managed collection has its own systems and its own intricacies, sometimes to the point of being dizzying from the outsider prospective (but being ultimately simple and defined for those in the know!). Scientific collections, especially, can vastly deviate from many of the above points, but that’s because scientific fields have an array of precise definitions, in a way that the liberal and fine arts, and general private collecting, may not. (Of course, if in 20 years they re-define the concept of a fluid and break it into 3 new types of matter, all of those vials of cataloged fluids, or whatever, will be a serious pebble in some poor sod’s shoe.)

If you want to read the Bible that defines the best practices on a lot of this stuff, you’re looking for The New Museum Registration Methods, published by the American Association of Museums originally in 1998, and now in its 5th edition.

One final note, too. Because I’m apparently vain, I actually customize my collection’s numbering system with an alphabetic prefix, being the acronym of the name of my collection. Yes, I have named my collection. Why shouldn’t I? So I prefix my ID numbers with that monogram. This serves a purpose above and beyond satisfying my collector’s hubris. Oftentimes, objects—and in the case of my collection especially photographs—will have a number of notations and numbers and other identifying marks on their back. By attaching my collection’s acronym to my ID numbers, it immediately sets apart my numbers from all of these others. Were objects from my collection to be traded, sold or donated to other collections, public or private, it clearly creates a point of provenance on that object, proving that it has come through my collection. Establishing provenance is an important aspect of collecting, and there is no reason not to contribute in a concrete way to that historical record of the objects that you collect, as well.

In the “olden days,” when pride of ownership trumped the care and preservation of the original condition of objects, collectors and even museums would use ink stamps on their object, even sometimes within the image of a drawing or photograph or painting. Please don’t do that! Why mar an object with such a mark? But I say that in the midst of doing a great and clear job of numbering your collection, have that tiny bit of selfish fun, as well, and leave your very subtle mark, if you want, neatly and cleanly on the back or underside of your collected pieces, so that future owners can note and appreciate that jot of information.

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