Guide to Acquisition and Accessioning Procedures

Butterflies from the WAM Entomology collection. Photo by Jessica Scholle.

Butterflies from the WAM Entomology collection. Photo by Jessica Scholle.
Image copyright WA Museum 

Image from 'A behind-the-scenes look at our butterfly collection'.

There is a procedure to follow when items are offered or considered for the museum’s collection. Accessioning is the formal process of accepting items into the collection.

It is important to gather as much information as possible from the potential donor.  The acquisition committee must assess the item according to the collection policy and make the decision. Accessioning is the formal process of accepting items into the collection.

Acquisition and Accessioning Flowchart

Entry Documentation

When an item is offered to the museum this first point of contact with a potential donor is a very important time.  Follow the procedure below:

  • Issue the donor with a numbered receipt, on which the following details should be recorded:
    • Object description
    • Donor’s name, address, phone number
    • Date
    • Record as much information about the item as possible.  This is when the item’s provenance is recorded
    • A clear statement to the effect that the item will be accorded the same degree of care as the museum’s collection, but that the item has to be assessed by the museum committee to decide whether or not it is an appropriate acquisition into the collection.
    • Signature of person on duty
  • Tag the object with the receipt number.
  • Refer the offered item to the acquisitions committee, who will assess according to the museum’s collection policy
  • If the item is not accepted, return it to the owner and record the decision on the museum’s receipt copy
  • For an item that is accepted a Deed of Gift form must be completed and signed by the donor.  This is the formal process whereby ownership of the item is transferred from the donor to the museum.
  • Send the donor a thank you letter.
Initial Conservation Procedures

Once the item is accepted it will require these initial conservation procedures to be undertaken before being added to the collection:

  • Store temporarily in environmentally sound receival area away from main storage area to await cleaning and fumigation
  • Clean and fumigate as soon as possible
  • Carry out ‘first aid’ conservation if necessary
Accessioning Procedure

The item is then recorded in the museum’s accession register, which is the original source of information about the collection.  It should always be kept in a safe place; and if on computer make sure you have a backup disc and do a print-out on a regular basis.  A register entry includes the following minimum information:

  • a unique registration number.  This number is the key to linking that item to the information associated with it and the numbers are entered sequentially into the register
  • object name and very brief description (eg. Spear.  Barbed tip with painted shaft)
  • acquisition method (ie: donation, purchase or exchange)
  • name and contact details of donor/vendor
  • date of acquisition (i.e. date entered in register)
Object Data Sheet

Not all information about an object will or should fit in the register, so it will need to be recorded on an object data sheet (refer to information sheet, Object Data Sheet).  For computerised documentation systems this information will be entered into ‘fields’ on the collection database from which an object data sheet will be produced.

Recording of information should be simple, straightforward and legible.  The following basic information needs to be entered onto each catalogue sheet:

  • Accession/registration number
  • Object name
  • Object description (fairly brief – no need to write an essay, but enough information to uniquely identify the object)
  • Manufacturer/maker information (if known)
  • Makers marks
  • Measurements
  • Donor details
  • Provenance/history of the object
  • Condition
  • Current object location – very important!
  • Images (eg photographs)

Object data sheets should be of archival quality and filed for future reference.  This is also the hard copy backup for computerised collection databases.

Numbering the item
  • The next step is to physically number the item with its unique registration or accession number.  Items must be marked in a way that is durable but removable if necessary.  Marking should not cause damage to the items in any way. (Refer to information sheet, Numbering collection items)
  • An archival quality label should be attached to objects, if possible.  This records basic details such as number, object name and donor
Further Conservation Procedures
  • Further conservation or restoration of item as required.  Send out for professional treatment if needed and if resources allow
  • Pack in conservationally sound materials if appropriate
  • Place in conservationally sound storage or display
References and further reading:

Museums Australia Inc (NSW). Museum Methods: a practical manual for managing small museums, Section 3.4 Cataloguing museum collections

Collections Trust UK toolkits and publications

Museums and Galleries NSW, Online Resources, in particular Acquisition fact sheetThe Australian Best Practice Guide to Collecting Cultural Materialand Cataloguing 

National Standards for Australian Museums and Galleries