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Beyond the Four-Legged Chicken

Category: Collections Stewardship
Dorothy H. Dudley (fourth from left), who would later lead registration standardization efforts,
gradutes from the Newark Museum's apprentice program in 1925.
Dorothy H. Dudley (fourth from left), who would later lead registration standardization efforts, gradutes from the Newark Museum's apprentice program in 1925.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2010 edition of Museum magazine.

A History of Museum Registration

In 1881, an important moment occurred in the history of registration. The new U.S. National Museum building (now the Arts and Industries Building) opened in Washington, D.C., and Stephen C. Brown was named to head the Office of the Registrar. Brown had been the assistant keeper of reptiles and had proven his talents in dealing with systems for collections during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

He was appointed because Assistant Director G. Brown Goode felt strongly that good records formed the foundation for collection access. By 1895 Goode had written the comprehensive “Principles of Museum Administration,” outlining a philosophy about objects that would become the rationale for museum registration: that “[t]he value of a collection depends in the highest degree upon the accuracy and fullness of the records of the history of the objects which it contains,” and that “[a] museum specimen without a history is practically without value, and had much better be destroyed than preserved.”

Private collections from the 1700s, particularly those of royal origin, often had personnel who maintained descriptive lists. After museums formed and began to gather collections for the use of the public, museum personnel began to systematically describe and order their collections to make them accessible. The prefiguration of the catalog in private collections became the museum catalog, and the staffing and expertise necessary to access and preserve collections began to emerge.

Many of the first museums of the United States started with collections of scientific and natural history specimens, a direct outgrowth of museums of curios and natural history specimens in Europe. Some of these early museums—such as the Charleston Museum in South Carolina—flourished from the late 1700S. Scientists, with their penchant for systems and orderly thinking, established many of the early museum systems.

Museums evolved slowly through the late 1800s. Librarians were working on systematic approaches to book access during this period, with Melvil Dewey creating the Dewey Decimal System and Henry Watson Kent of the Metropolitan Museum and John Cotton Dana of the Newark Museum leading a librarian-turned-museologist school of thought. The turn of the century brought a strong concentration of interest in collections and systematic business methods that coincided with the founding of the American Association of Museums in the first decade of the 20th century. The registration of art, artifacts, and specimens had become a focal point of museums’ basic work by the early 1900s. In concert with the growth of systematic communication in the industrial world, which began in the 1850s with railroads and culminated in the 1920s, museums began to recognize that new business methods were necessary.

Frederick A. Lucas, curator-in-chief of the Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, presented the paper “Evolution of Museums” in 1907 at the first AAM Annual Meeting. He stated that collections should not be made haphazardly, that they should have definite purposes and that they should be a consistent whole. He discussed the changes that took place from the earliest museums through the end of the 19th century as they evolved from “indiscriminate gatherings of ‘curios,’ objects of art, and specimens of natural history” to “collections of scientific societies developed as storehouses of material, mainly for the use of the specialist.” He noted that “the public museums derived from these were largely dryly scientific in their character” and lamented the number of curiosities—”including the familiar and ever-present petrified potato and four-legged chicken”—that remained in U.S. museums at the turn of the century.

The Charleston Museum, formed in 1793, collected natural history and ethnology, and in the 1900s began collecting material culture. The age and nature of the collections make it impossible truly to count the objects, which are said to be in the millions. A justified inventory was even more difficult since the first accession ledger was put in place around 1902. That first systematic ledger, and the extended system it represented was also discussed at the 1907 AAM meeting. Paul M. Rea, then director. of the Charleston Museum, said it was devised to meet the conditions of “extensive collections … the accumulations of more than a century … [of] data, scattered on loose labels and in old memorandum books, [which] had to be associated with their specimens.” The museum established a four-part record system to control its collections: an accession ledger, with sequential numbers from one to infinity, representing lots; records with unique numbers that were then placed on each specimen; a finding list with numbers, specimen name and location; and a list of sources.

During the ensuing years, many museums were founded-some with careful choices and well-crafted systems for collecting, collections care and collections documentation. Often, though, wheels were reinvented and curios or uncontrolled collections were the order of the day.

Early collection control systems evolved from library prototypes, and no major breakthroughs in museum documentation and object tracking methods occurred in the early 1900s until computers became commonplace in the late 1990s. There was, however, some progression toward the systems that are currently most popular. Museums first used the simple sequential system employed by libraries in their accession ledgers—1, 2, 3, 4, 5—to number lots of objects. By 1909, two-part systems came into use. Some museums bypassed the idea of the accession as a group and applied sequential object numbers in each year, e.g., 9.1, 9.2, 9·3 for the first three objects in 1909, whether or not they were from the same source. By 1927, there is evidence of the three-part system in some museums: 27.1.1 marks the first object of the first accession of 1927. The progression of such registration procedures has created many of the collection control problems museums now face. It resulted in inconsistent systems within institutions. Museums might have two or three—or in some cases even 15—different systems in place. They might have used the three-part system and gone back and forth between that and other systems. Confusion still abounds.

By 1925, programs to train general museum personnel were in force, and registration was a definite part of these. The Newark Museum offered that year a 12-month apprentice program, which produced one of the most important registrars in the history of the profession, Dorothy H. Dudley. She subsequently worked at the Museum of Modern Art as a registrar and worked on standardization of many aspects of registration. Dudley and Irma Bezold Wilkinson of the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to write it all down to lessen the constant inquiries they received from other museums. Together they produced the first edition of Museum Registration Methods, published in 1958—thus documenting a vital period in the establishment of standards for collections care and opening a dialogue for the future.

In the 1950s and 1960s, registrars and their standards became more focused, and their community continued to increase. An AAM task force on loans presented a report that is still vital in its directives regarding safe lending policies. Museum Registration Methods was revised and published again in 1968.

The scene was set for the major jump in training and professionalization that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Accreditation—the hallmark of a professional institution and of a profession—was in the making. That jump was precipitated by the popularity of museums (by 1967, there were 5,000 museums in the United States) and the need for finances to make them run well. Museums sought support from newly created federal endowments for the arts and humanities. In order to be trusted with public monies, the profession needed an accreditation system to assure federal grant-givers of the standard of stewardship in individual museums. In 1971, 16 museums received accreditation.

The process of accreditation accelerated everything professional in museums, including creation of more positions for collection managers, collection technicians, exhibition managers, registrars, and curators. Growing demand created museum training programs at a variety of universities.

In the 1970s, AAM was growing, and it offered a new opportunity for professional recognition and involvement. Specific groups within the museum profession—educators, registrars, curators, exhibition personnel—formed professional groups within the parent organization. The benefits were large: recognition of the professions, official
program planning for continuing education and a potential AAM board member (or at least an inside view of the current affairs of the organization). Educators were the first to take advantage and became the first Standing Professional Committee of the American Association of Museums.

There had been sessions in AAM meetings for conservators and registrars at least from the 1950s, but there was an urgent sense that registrars needed more recognition and that the profession needed to move forward. Registrars were not part of the program planning group, and only those who came from large and rich organizations could usually attend.

Pat Nauert, who had worked with Dorothy Dudley before moving to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was instrumental during the mid-1970s in the formation of the Registrars Committee. She worked on mailing lists and started the journal Registrars’ Report, a staple of basic information during the early days of the committee. By 1976, registrars were organized enough to send out a list of sessions for the Washington, D.C., AAM meeting, noting those that were of interest to registrars, and asking the question “to organize, or not, and how to make it work?”

In the article “How This Book Came To Be” in Registrars on Record, Ellen Myette tells of 43 registrars who chose to remain indoors during beautiful June weather after a full day of sessions at the 1976 meeting, in an effort to create an AAM standing professional committee. “[T]he underlying and most critical objective of the assembled registrars was to advance their profession,” she says. Steering Committee Chair Kay Paris outlined 12 long-range goals in a speech, including Item 8: “petition AAM Council for recognition as a Standing Professional Committee.” A first mailing for this effort reached nearly 100 and was sent off to AAM. On April 28, 1977. AAM President Joseph Veach Noble wrote to Paris in acceptance. Registrars were the second professional group to become organized; they took only one year, from Washington, D.C., until the next annual meeting in Seattle.

The committee has produced myriad workshops and publications to further best practices and standards for collections stewardship. These include (but are certainly not limited to) work on condition reports, insurance, loan practices and agreements, ethics, couriering, deaccessioning, emergency planning and the standardization of facility reports. In 1998, more than 70 members wrote the fourth edition of the book on museum registration, The New Museum Registration Methods, edited by Rebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore. The 2010 volume updates and expands NMRM.

Mechanisms are in place to create and perfect the standard procedures needed to care for museum collections. Standard actions to resolve problems left from the past are now being examined, and strong support for wise and careful collecting, as well as judicious deaccessioning in museums, is needed. In 2004, AAM published Collecting Guidelines for Museums, which may serve as a template for building collections and provide the basis for limiting collection problems in the future. The combination of best practices in collections stewardship with an institutional ability to make responsible collection choices can be the foundation for solutions to current problems and prevention of future collection conundrums.

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