Inventory Marking

Why do we need to mark museum objects?

Each object which is accessioned into a museum collection needs to carry its unique number with it at all times. This is a requirement for Museum accreditation “Marking and Labelling: Each accessioned item, or group of items, must be marked and/or labelled with its/their unique identity number in a way that is as permanent as possible without damaging the item“. This number will then be the link to all the information relating to the object held within the museum. If this link is lost then all the information and significance of the object could also be lost.

Where possible it is preferable to physically mark the object as this is more secure than an attached label which can easily become detached. It is also important to mark the object in a way that is suitable for the object, using the correct materials, discreet but visible, reversible and convenient for staff and volunteers to undertake.

All the materials and marking methods can be found in more detail on the Collections Trust website Labelling and Marking Museum Objects: 

SPECTRUM 4.0 and should be read before undertaking any inventory marking.

If you are starting an inventory marking project and would like a little help getting started, kits are available from the Conservation Resource Bank.

Suitable marking materials

Materials to avoid:

  • Ink pens or markers directly onto an object – this will permanently mark the object
  • Tipp-Ex – dries as an inflexible layer and may just peel off. It is not designed for durability and will discolour and degrade and may permanently affect the surface of the object
  • Clear nail varnish – not designed for long term stability and the range of different formulas means it will be unclear how it will react with the surface of the object

Materials to use:

  • Paraloid B72 (20% solution in acetone) – used for the base coat and a surface to write the number on
  • Paraloid B67 (20% solution in white spirit) – used for the top coat to protect the number from being rubbed off
  • Starch pastes – for attaching paper labels
  • Black and white thin markers – for writing the inventory numbers on the base coat. White markers are generally used for darker coloured objects so the number can be seen easily
  • 2B pencils – for writing numbers on paper/photographic items
  • Tyvek labels – for textile or submerged items
  • Unbleached cotton tape (various widths) – for sewing into textile items
  • Fine cotton or polyester thread – for sewing labels onto textile items

Object marking methods

The position of the inventory mark is also important. See the useful links section below for guidelines on how and where to mark different material types, produced by the National Museums Liverpool.

Writing on the object –

  • use a barrier or base coat of Paraloid B72 on the surface of the object and let this dry
  • write the inventory number on this barrier layer with a permanent marker (black or white depending on the colour of the object) and let that dry
  • put a top coat of Paraloid B67 over the top of the ink to prevent it from being rubbed off
  • for paper / photographic items just write the number on the back on the item in a corner with a 2B pencil

Sticking a label on the object –

  • write or print the inventory number on a small strip of acid free paper
  • use Paraloid B72 or starch paste as an adhesive on the back on the paper
  • stick this to the surface of the object firmly so that that paper contours itself to the shape of the object

Sewn on labels –

  • choose the location carefully so that the process of sewing does not damage the fabric of the item
  • choose the appropriate width of cotton tape or tyvek and write the number on with permanent marker before attaching to the object
  • for a standard flat cotton tape label, cut the tape approximately 5mm longer at each end than the intended length of the label. Turn under the raw ends and stitch in place with several long stitches at each end in a fine thread, preferable one that matches the textile not the label
  • cotton tape and Tyvek can also be used to make looped labels sewn to the textile at one end only. This is particularly suitable for flat textiles with a hemmed edge

Useful links

SPECTRUM advice fact sheets – SPECTRUM Advice factsheets give further advice and guidance on the implementation of SPECTRUM 4.0 (Collections Link)

Museum Accreditation Section 2: Collections – Collections are central to the function of a museum and form one of three sections of the Standards that museums must meet to gain Accreditation. This link takes you to resources that will support you through the Collections section (Collections Link)

Marking and Labelling Methods and Positions – information from the National Museums Liverpool

Health and Safety information – information provided by SHARE east museums.

Marking and Labelling videos – videos produced by SHARE east museums on how to label general museum objects, paper objects and textiles.

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