The Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture houses, preserves, and protects thousands of objects. Keeping track of all of the information for such a vast collection requires a specialized database. The database that the museum uses describes and tracks each object in the museum’s collection. Keeping up with cataloging and updating locations for this large collection is a constant task for the museum’s collection department staff.
Each object has a record in the database with many different types of information about it, describing both its physical as well as its intellectual attributes. It’s crucial to capture all of the information around what we have collected, such as who it was used by, and where, when and why it was made. As we are a regional museum, we collect and organize this information hoping that we will be able to tell great stories about the Inland Northwest using our collection.
To track the improvement of the collection database, staff have defined stages of record quality as “inventory levels” 1-6, with Level 6 being the most complete. A Level 6 record has a high quality photograph of the object and represents a thoroughly cataloged object. While our goal is to get the entire collection to a Level 6 status, with thousands of items and a continually growing collection this is a slow and ongoing process.
Some types of information are required. A near term goal is to accomplish a Level 3 record for all objects, which includes the item’s location and a detailed description. If each collection object has a Level 3 record, we can be confident that it is well situated in storage and that we can easily find it. Over the past year and a half the Collection Department has been tasked with bringing as many object records as possible up to a Level 3 status. This work included integrating a new Object Name Thesaurus (using the American Association for State and Local History’s Nomenclature) into the database to standardize the terms by which we name an object. Using standardized terms creates consistency that makes digital searching and organizing easier and more efficient.
A standardized nomenclature requires the cataloger to choose specific terms from a predetermined list. For example something previously described only as a needle must now be described as a sewing needle, medical needle, or a phonograph needle. Consistent terms increase our rate of success at finding all of the phonograph needles in the collection with one search term rather than having to guess at all of the possible cataloging terms that may have been used.
This project involved going through thousands of records and renaming collection objects; for efficiency we updated the “inventory status” field of each record we handled. At the start of the project in June 2015, 7% of object records were listed as Level 3 or greater; by the completion of the nomenclature project in June 2016 that percentage increased to 52%.
In addition, in 2016 collection staff committed time to an item level inventory of the history collection, including textiles and clothing. This work requires handling each item to find its unique museum number and recording the location of that item in the database, as well completing the object’s record to Level 3 status – or creating a record if necessary. So far this year 4,366 object locations were updated and 695 object records were added to the database.
Shown below are some of the interesting or unusual things we encountered:
725.26, Spanish American War hard tack (survival cracker), 1898
2921.2, Contact lenses c 1945
2962.160, Woven coverlet, (detail), 1841