What’s in a Number?

Anyone who has ever been to a museum has probably seen a set of numbers (in rare occasions, letters) on or near an object on display. They seem random with no direct explanation of what they are, but they most certainly are important. These are accession, or catalog, numbers. By definition, they are simply the object ID given when something new is donated to the museum and helps museum collections staff find the location of or information on said object.

2000_27_34 (3)
An example of Object ID placement on this Hamilton Pocket Watch.

The question remains though. What do they mean? To the average Joe, the numbers seem random, but in fact, each number has a meaning. For the most part, it’s a set of two or three numbers separated by a period. Though these are not universal, the order that accession numbers traditionally follow is:

  • The first number is the year in which the object was received by the museum. It can be represented in the full four digits or only two.
  • The second number is the number of that donation within that year.
  • The third number (which may or may not be present) is the number of the object within that specific donation.

For example, the accession number 2014.19.8 was received in the year 2014, it was part of the 19th donation of that year, and it was the 8th object within that donation. For us, this is a Kienzle Germany battery-operated transistor.

Kienzle Battery-Operated Transistor Clock Movement

Now that the object has a number, it must be marked in order to keep track of its location so that it can be looked up in our database system. It must be prefaced that one of the most important things when dealing with a collection is that whatever is done to the object MUST be reversible. We are tasked with preserving the integrity of the piece just as much as learning from it. There are some who may think that a Sharpie® and clear nail polish is what is used in labeling, when in fact museums take precautions when doing anything that could damage the object. Everything used on an object is of archival grade and can easily be removed. The “clear nail polish” is actually Acryloid B-72, a completely reversible archival resin and barrier coat meant to keep ink from bleeding onto the object. The marker used is also of archival quality and must be purchased from specialty stores and is also completely reversible. Neither of these methods is used on porous surfaces. If an object is deemed too delicate, other techniques are used, such as using a paper tag or a marked container if possible.


Accession numbers are just as important to the well-being of an object as where it is stored or how it is displayed. These numbers are crucial in keeping track of an object and its well-being.

Kim Jovinelli, Curator of Collections


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