The Documentation of Museum Collections: Why? How? A Practical Guide


The Documentation of Museum Collections: Why? How? A Practical Guide


The ICOM code of ethics ( and similar texts relating to professional ethics require that museum collections be documented.
"Documentation of collections. Museum collections should be documented according to accepted professional standards. Such documentation should include a full identification and description of each object, its associations, provenance, condition, treatment and present location. Such data should be kept in a secure environment and be supported by retrieval systems providing access to the information by the museum personnel and other legitimate users." ICOM Code of Ethics, 2006, 2.20
Thus, in order to be considered professional and in compliance with the required standards, "…every museum should be capable of meeting the minimum standard whether it is a small community collection with one or two volunteers or a national institution with scores of staff and many thousands of visitors", Jerry Weber, senior adviser, quality standards, MLA (Collections Link,

It was in order to help small museums and reach the minimum required standard of documentation for their collections that UNESCO and ICCROM commissioned two studies from the Ecole du Patrimoine Africain – EPA. One of these involved making an inventory of the various initiatives that have taken place over the last 20 years in small museums in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of collections documentation (manual and/or computerized), the other of reviewing existing documentation resources on the Internet, which could be used by small museums in order to guide them in the creation or reorganization of their documentation system. All of which in order to provide a useful tool to these museums in the form of a guide.

The Guide that we here provide is primarily directed at small museums (having less than 5000 objects) with limited resources, but it can also be of use to large establishments, since the principles are the same. It will allow institutions to have the minimum requirements for a basic documentation system – we shall concentrate here on the “administrative” management of collections –, by guiding them toward Internet resources that will enable either to start up a documentation system from scratch, or to improve the existing system. Most of these Internet resources have been published by EPA-ICCROM, CIDOC, the Museum Documentation Association through its Collections Link portal, the National Park Services, the French Ministry of Culture, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) and the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). EPA-ICCROM aide-mémoires have been available in paper form for many years and have been put online specially for this project.

The procedures shown here are the minimal requirements and are therefore simplified. Each institution will be able, if it so wishes, to adapt them to its own standards, or according to national standards.

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