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Home > Museum > Museum Collections > Collections Management

COLLECTIONS MANAGEMENT

INTRODUCTION

The Oriental Institute's comprehensive collections, including artifacts, photographs, excavation records, administrative documents, and publications, serve the public in exhibits and online, as well as being an extremely rich resource for scholars. Management of the materials that comprise the Oriental Institute's collections is organized into five units: Museum Registration, Tablet Collection, Archives, Conservation, and the Research Library. Additionally, individual faculty and research projects also maintain materials such as study collections; project materials in process, such as current excavation drawings, records, and notes; and other unpublished materials which have not yet been turned over to the Institute. The Oriental Institute Publications Office also maintains primary source materials that will be incorporated into the Institute's integrated database.

Control and administrative concerns are handled separately by each of these units. The brief descriptions that follow will highlight the materials which are managed by each unit of the Institute and the varying methods and capabilities of their recording systems to access these primary sources.

MUSEUM REGISTRATION, the operational center of the Oriental Institute Museum, maintains an informational system consisting of paper files and published materials pertaining to the Museum’s artifacts, as well as curatorial management of the objects themselves. The principal components of this system, which date to the founding of the Institute, are:

  • Registration cards.
  • Accession files.
  • Subsidiary information files, including object files, site files, subject, and collection files.
  • Loan files, including loan-in and loan-out files.
  • Books, monographs, and articles containing published research on the Oriental Institute collections.
  • The physical objects in the Museum collection, numbering 70,000+ accessioned artifacts.
  • An additional 100,000+ artifacts, comprising archaeological excavator’s collections and other artifacts in the Institute’s possession but not yet accessioned into the Museum’s collections.

During the past five years a computer database management system has been developed by the Museum Registration staff using the dBASE III+/IV database program for an IBM compatible computer running the MSDOS operating system. The registry’s current database consists of approximately 100,000 records, with another 35,000 in preparation. The purposes of the computerized registration database are: (1) to facilitate inventory control and management of the collections, and (2) to record those basic characteristics by which objects need to be categorized and retrieved for research. In its present manifestation, the database system is not designed to serve as a general repository for all information on objects in the Oriental Institute Museum.

TABLET COLLECTIONS, an adjunct to the Museum Registration unit, manages the Institute’s collection of cuneiform tablets, casts, and molds of tablets. At present, the Tablet Collection contains 12,000+ tablets, 13,000+ casts, and 12,000+ molds. Although the majority of these artifacts were acquired from the Institute’s various archaeological expeditions, the Tablet Collection staff also curate those tablets which are loaned to Oriental Institute faculty and projects for research purposes. Tablets that have been accessioned by the Museum will have registration records as described above, while the non-accessioned tablets are identified by whatever number or label was given by the excavator or museum in possession of the tablet.

The Tablet Collection maintains its own inventory records, on paper, of all tablets, casts, and molds in its possession, regardless of Museum status. Additionally, cuneiform scholars over the past seventy years have compiled separate records on note cards while working with tablets from the collection. Certain of these card files pertain to tablets which are not a part of the Tablet Collection, but were on loan from other institutions or museums around the world. These card files usually contain such information as the type of text, its date, subject matter, a description of the tablet, and its condition. Most card records contain a transliteration of the text, and some also have a drawing of the cuneiform signs.

Other collections of ancient textual material are managed by several research projects in the Institute, each with a recording system devised around the specific research goals of the faculty member in charge.

ARCHIVES, performs curatorial and information services pertaining to the paper documents and photographic records of the Institute. Paper documents include: (1) the Director’s Office correspondence files, going back to James Henry Breasted; (2) the collected papers of Oriental Institute faculty and staff; (3) the field records of Institute archaeological expeditions; and (4) the curatorial records and correspondence of the Museum. Photographic records, whether negatives, prints, or slides, consist of: (1) documentation of the Institute through time, including photographs of objects in the Museum, exhibits, and special events; (2) photographs of archaeological artifacts excavated by Institute projects, whether resident in the collection or not; and (3) photographs of monuments and other in situ features at sites where Institute projects have worked. Although exact quantities are not known, the Archives manages circa 100,000 images (combined negatives, prints, and slides) and the storage area required to house the Institute’s paper documents approaches 1,000 cubic feet of space.

Two manual record systems are used in the Archives, both of which date to the founding of the Institute:

  1. Accession cards, which identify each item in the Museum and the terms of its accession;
  2. Photograph Identification cards, which track the bibliography of published photographs from the collection.

CONSERVATION, the fourth and last unit in the Institute that is directly related to the Museum, maintains paper and photographic records pertaining to the condition and treatment history of artifacts in the Museum’s collections as a critical component of its duties. The Museumís conservation records date to 1974 with the establishment of the first conservation laboratory at the Museum. Any records of work performed on the collection prior to 1974 are fragmentary at best.

Starting in 1974, detailed descriptions of treatments, sampling, and analytical information were catalogued on cards and filed according to Museum registration number. Additional conservation information, in the form of photographic prints, negatives, color slides, or photocopied material were also included with the basic treatment card records.

Beginning in 1986 with the first acquisition of a computer for the conservation lab, the above recording procedures were expanded to include the first stages of a computerized conservation database. Initially, the lab used the Microsoft File program to record information on its daily activities and various collection surveys. Working with computer specialists, the lab is in the process of developing an integrated database for its conservation log, treatment records, photographic documentation, samples, and analytical results using Microsoft’s Visual FoxPro program.

Because of the nature of the work performed by the Conservation Laboratory, it routinely interacts with the other Museum units. Basic Museum registration information regarding such items as provenience/acquisition history, dating, physical description (as a means of verifying the registration number with an actual object) is obtained for every artifact that is treated by the Conservation Laboratory. The Museum Archive’s files are used to determine an artifact’s photo history and Oriental Institute publication information as well as obtain information on the object which may occur in the archival records (correspondence and old account information).

STUDY COLLECTIONS and PROJECT MATERIALS IN PROCESS. These two categories represent thousands of artifacts and paper documents which constitute primary source material available to Institute researchers:

  • In the case of Study Collections, these are artifacts that are on loan to faculty or research projects in the Institute, but which will eventually be returned to the lending institution. This category usually consists of ancient textual material, pottery from archaeological excavations, and other objects of critical importance for Institute research projects. Current examples include the 35,000+ cuneiform tablets recovered from Institute excavations at Persepolis, and 2,000+ cuneiform tablets from the ancient Mesopotamian site of Tell Asmar. Whatever descriptive and analytical information is recorded from such artifacts while they are on loan to the Institute should be incorporated into the proposed integrated database for use by scholars in the future.
  • In the case of Project Materials in Process, these are usually recently recovered artifacts and/or excavation records that are still being used by faculty or project staff on a regular basis for analysis or publication purposes. In most cases this material will eventually be turned over to the Archives for permanent storage or accessioned by the Museum. An example in this category is the more than one quarter million flints recovered by the Prehistoric Project during its years of excavations in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Regardless of the eventual disposition of these artifacts and documents, their description and other pertinent information concerning their provenience, dating, etc., should be entered into the integrated database for use by scholars in the future.

Revised: June 18, 2010

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