Mrinalini’s latest article in Context

Published in Context: Journal of the Development and Research Organisation for Nature, Arts and Heritage, Vol VIII, Issue 2 Autumn/Winter 2011.

Demystifying Documentation


The consensus on what a museum does has come a long way from its initial extremely specific mandate to collect, preserve and research objects[i] but despite a continuously evolving mandate and the occasional re-ordering of priorities, museums continue to derive much of their purpose from collections of some kind, whether material or intangible. This paper will focus on material collections, but it is pertinent to note that the general principles discussed below can be equally applicable to all types of collections.

Servicing society’s needs for ‘education, study and enjoyment’[ii] may be the ultimate aims, but facilitating this becomes possible only if we know something about our collections – otherwise, a rare albumen self-portrait by a significant 19th century photographer simply becomes a picture of a man in unfamiliar clothing. Similarly, it is possible to display an exquisitely carved wooden trunk and share it with the public only if it does not disintegrate upon contact, and assuming that it is retrievable in the first place.

It is perhaps ironic, but we discover that a museum’s core functions of care for and knowledge of their collections have not changed at all. In India, the early years of keen purpose and prolific engagement have given way to a number of disappointments and today we bemoan our museums’ ineptitude, despite possessing unparalleled collections. We try to leapfrog over others’ mistakes or learn from other Asian and African countries that operate in similar socio-political contexts, but while they attempt to reinvent their museums, we find the most low-tech and inexpensive endeavour a challenge because we are yet to put our ajaibgarhs (houses of wonder[iii]) in order.[iv] We also have a conjunction of challenges – insufficient numbers of adequately trained staff entering the workforce on the one hand, older staff who are unwilling or unable to re-train, and the usual harried professional who like an ant, shoulders a workload well above his/ her weight. National financial resources become scarce simply because there are so many to claim them. Smaller museums or collections often have only a one-time budget for a complete documentation exercise, with an all-in-one manager or staff person, or sometimes only the owner available to administer to the day-to-day needs of the collection. A combination of all the above mean that a western model of documentation with dedicated staff (even if just one), budgets, and complicated software simply do not work.


It is often useful to backtrack and consider meanings. As with many words in the English language, ‘documentation’ too has a chequered past. It evolved from and is linked with Latin words such as documentum meaning lesson or written evidence, docere meaning to show or teach, via Old French and assorted use in English from the 17th century onwards to arrive at the generally accepted meaning today. The Oxford English Dictionary lists two major definitions – the first combines the evidentiary and instructional aspects, and so is listed as ‘material that provides official information or evidence or that serves as a record; the written specification and instructions accompanying a product, especially a computer program or hardware’. It is also explained as ‘the process of classifying and annotating texts, photographs, etc.’.

In the museum world, documentation can be broadly explained as record-keeping. We have established that recording what we own helps us in many ways, for instance, to remember exactly what we have (which in turn helps us take pleasure them), and to help keep track of it; as an owner of objects, a museum documents its collections for many of the same reasons that an individual does.

A wide range of specific activities fall within the purview of ‘record-keeping’, but it is at heart an accounting and identification exercise. However, the exalted position that museums occupy in our consciousness and their accountability as guardians and custodians of material culture place additional demands on their record-keeping standards. A museum record cannot be a simple list which reads, “1 chair, 2 tables, 5 paintings, 30 glasses” since one of the key requirements of good documentation is identification. One way of ensuring this is through the accessioning process, which covers the formal addition of an object into an institution’s collections. Narrowly applied, it is the process of assigning a unique number to an object, and associating (usually by marking) the object with it in order to aid identification. The purpose of the exercise extends beyond simple identification however as all further documentation of an object is based on this primary relationship.

Best practice, standards and the end user

Collectors have been around forever – indeed, each of us is a collector in some way – and museums as we generally understand them have been around since at least the 17th century in Europe. However, the museum industry has been a free-for-all for a large part of its existence – ICOM was formed only in 1946, and a Code of Ethics for the profession adopted only in 1986 (ICOM, 2010). The International Committee for Documentation of the International Council of Museums (ICOM-CIDOC) has been around since 1950, but internationally accepted standards for documentation emerged only in the 1990s.

Standards are a vital tool to help all practitioners speak the same language, and all collections attain a minimum, universally-accepted level of care. The major standards available today and used across the globe include ICOM-CIDOC’s general guidelines, the International Council of African Museums’ (AFRICOM) Handbook of Standards (Annabi, Kumetsu, Chieze, & al., 1996),[v]  SPECTRUM (Dawson & Hillhouse, 2011),[vi] ObjectID (Dorrell, Lie, & Thornes, 1999),[vii] and the Dublin Core (DC).[viii] (ICOM, 2004) All five standards are freely available online (some in multiple languages) for adaptation and use and some as detailed above are also available as publications.

A cursory glance at a comparative table published by ICOM  in its Museum Handbook (ICOM, 2004) shows that of the five options, ObjectID has the least number of fields or types of information. However, because the premise of ObjectID was to ensure interoperability between documentation systems both between institutions, and between institutions and law enforcers, it focuses on a minimum set of standardised fields with a specific scope of entry – in other words, the absolute essentials of what an institution MUST know about its collections (it is unlikely that a law-enforcer will have the time or inclination to read detailed stylistic analyses when trying to track down a missing object). Thus, it is also perhaps is an accurate pointer to a baseline. For, although recording data against every single field recommended by every professional standard (or perhaps even the most comprehensive one) is ideal and desirable, the overarching need for the end-user (for smaller collections, even a single user such as the owner) is often for something simple, that enables them to understand, operate and use the documentation.


A truly effective record would enable the reader to pick out a single chair from amongst a roomful of furniture, or indeed, a roomful of only chairs. In order to achieve this, the record must include ways of identifying a particular item: what does it look like (using both words and images), how big it is, what it is made of, how it might have been made, how old it is, how many pieces constitute it, who made it (this could be an individual, firm, or community), and where it came from (both where it was made, and acquired from). Distinguishing features such as inscriptions and makers’ marks such as logos, and the condition of the object also prove useful in identification.

The last is also relevant for the next important function of documentation – informing us of the physical condition of an object. Preservation, conventionally the second important function of a museum, is fulfilled only when it is able to take informed decisions on how to care for its objects. In addition to determining what kind of shelf or cupboard and under what environmental conditions an object is stored in, and how frequently and under what (sometimes strict) conditions its own staff handle it, this information filters down in many other ways, including influencing decisions on whether objects can be made available for research and shared with the public through both in-house exhibitions and loans to other institutions.

Every time an object is handled, the list of potential horrors is long – an album incorrectly supported could crack, one could accidentally drop it, or skid over a runaway pencil on the floor while carrying it from storage shelf to examination table. The simple act of using seemingly clean, if slightly sweaty, hands could set off a chain reaction based on the chemicals and bacteria in our sweat, not to mention oil, cream, or any other lingering substance. Damage is also cumulative, so although a photograph may look pristine every time it is removed for examination, in reality, it fades ever so slightly every time. Good documentation can come to the rescue in such an increasingly alarming situation by reducing the number of times an object has to be handled. Accurate descriptions and complete records of every dent and inscription can ensure that an object is pulled out only when needed, and not in response to every casual enquiry. Information on location and storage within the museum are also helpful in this respect as they enable one to navigate to the exact spot where an object can be found, instead of unwrapping every single bathrobe in a collection to trace one with a particular monogram.[ix]

By reducing traffic in storage areas, but simultaneously enabling targeted spot checks to ensure that things are where they are supposed to be, location information also helps us enhance security for objects. The entire descriptive section of the record is an indispensable tool to help a museum establish ownership of its collections and retrieve them, especially in connection with stolen objects.

Tools of the trade

Sophisticated collections management software (CMS) developed in partnership with cultural institutions and standards developers such as those mentioned earlier are ingenious works of art, with their infinite capacity for detail and customisability. In their efforts towards standardisation, they contain hierarchical lexicons to help a documentation officer catalogue, cross-reference, and describe an object to pinpoint precision. They are however subject to the same pitfalls in an Indian context as discussed in the introduction, and can be recommended only to mammoth institutions, assuming the requisite infrastructure and staff resources are available. Pencil and paper remain the backbone of recording and will, at the very minimum, get the job done. Paper especially retains its position as the ultimate record even after thousands of years of technological improvement; while not wishing to advocate its flagrant overuse and waste, it is imperative for one master copy of records to be backed up in the form of printouts, preferably on acid-free paper to ensure its longevity.

Nevertheless, there are significant advantages to digitising, or using computers and digital cameras to capture and store information, especially in terms of speed and ease of access, reproduction, and uniform presentation. This is also a viable option since any simple spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel can be formatted to create individual records for each object. The advantage with using simple software is that they are unlikely to go out of fashion (Excel has been in use since 1985) and are relatively easy to migrate into other standard formats, which is a very real concern in the fickle world of technological development.

Attention to detail, clarity, brevity, accuracy, and above all consistency are also valued tools, perhaps more so in an Indian context where we rely more on people rather than drop-down lexicons to pick the right descriptive term. If the role of a record is to facilitate instant access, small details such as maintaining the order in which a collection of chairs is described (for instance top-down) gain relevance, as does noting the difference in position of a sitter’s foot in a series of seemingly-identical photographs.

Case studies

Ideally, documentation is an ongoing process. This is because our knowledge of most collections is incomplete, and there is always scope for additional research and refinement; collectors also continue to add to their collections, necessitating accessioning in tandem. In practice however, most Indian collections (with the possible exclusion of the national museums) undertake a thorough documentation exercise only once, with all subsequent inputs being modifications or additions that build upon a base or foundation of information.

In the course of work with numerous private collections across India, the foundation in all cases has been maintained, as discussed in the previous section. Additions and modifications however are often required based on the relevant situation. For instance, at the Pictorial Archives of the Maharanas of Mewar in the City Palace Museum, Udaipur[x] it is an impossible task to try and record the source for the photographic collections as they were commissioned and acquired by, gifted and later added to by the Maharanas of Mewar, their families, their court, and visitors over a period of 150 years. Most of the details of this process remain conjecture at this time, and so it seemed prudent to avoid using a specific ‘source’ field on the one hand, and limit the ‘provenance’ field[xi] to record which location in the Palace objects came to the Archive from, which is useful information when trying to retrace an object’s route over time and space, even if it is not the prescribed formula.

The opposite is true with Weavers’ Studio’s collection of vintage textiles at Kolkata, where both source information on the acquisition was available, as well as two additional types of provenance, i.e. the place of manufacture, as well as the place of use (in some cases the same as the source of acquisition). In this case, an additional field was introduced to record all three types of information.

Other types of modification are facilitated by a thorough understanding of the full range of possibilities that a specific field of information encompasses. For instance, ‘dimension’ which is used to record the height, width and depth of three dimensional objects such as furniture, is necessarily restricted to two dimensions when dealing with flat objects such as works of art on paper. When working with precious metals it can be expanded to include weight, and when costumes and textiles are on the agenda as was the case at the Udai Bilas Palace in Dungarpur, it needs to be stretched to include multiple factors (sometimes including depth) that account for every possible measurement ranging from sleeve length to ankle width.


The essentials of documentation are simple, and with a minimum of training and ability most objects of material heritage can be recorded. Further, just as museums have thrown their doors open to visitors from all walks of life and seek to actively engage with them, there is a growing recognition in the Indian museum community that the recording of collections must be a more democratic process for it to work – aside from guidance from an ‘expert’ it must be useable by the average museum officer or small collections owner. The National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (NMMA) has an ambitious plan to allow anyone in possession of an antiquity to download a documentation form from its website, and upload the completed form thereby creating a national database accessible via the internet.[xii] Although tailored to antiquities and monuments, the format and fields used adhere closely to the essentials discussed here.

At the same time, the importance of the full range of information that it is possible to capture cannot be understated. Since documentation is a one-time exercise for most, it is vital that the exercise be a thorough one so as to meet its goals of minimising handling of sometimes fragile collections.

Records are empowering but as with a pearl, it is the core which indispensable; each additional layer of recording builds on the core and adds value to the whole.


  1. Annabi C, Kumetsu MB, Chieze V, & al. (Eds.) 1996, Handbook of Standards: Documenting African Collections. Paris: ICOM.
  2. Dawson A & Hillhouse S (Eds.) 2011, SPECTRUM: The UK Museum Documentation Standard 4.0. Cambridge: Collections Trust.
  3. Dorrell P, Lie H, & Thornes R 1999, Introduction to Object ID: Guidelines for Making Records that Describe Art, Antiques and Antiquities. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust.
  4. ICOM 2010, ICOM: History. Retrieved July 15, 2011, from ICOM website:
  5. ICOM 2010, ICOM-Museum Definition. Retrieved July 10, 2011, from ICOM:
  6. ICOM 2004), Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook. (P. J. Boylan, Ed.) Paris: ICOM.

[i] The International Council of Museums (ICOM), considered the industry-standard defines it thus: A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. (ICOM, 2010)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The local, or at least north Indian term for a museum. It is often referred to with negative connotations by museum professionals as an indication of mere spectatorship and of an absence of engagement on the part of the museum visitor. However, it is used in this context in a literal sense, for museums are indeed houses of wonder in terms of the extraordinary objects (whether a nondescript stone tool or a spectacular jewelled object) they contain, and our opportunity to work with them a true privilege.

[iv] This emerged at a conference conducted in Mumbai, India by the Commonwealth Association of Museums in June 2010. The theme was Rethinking Museums and was intended to provide a platform for professionals to ideate on the evolving needs of museums in India in the 21st century and on the larger role of museums in society. Most discussions however returned to the twin topics of the need for better documentation and training. The author was a participant.

[v] Developed by ICOM and the AFRICOM Co-ordinating Committee for use by museums throughout Africa, based closely on general guidelines developed by ICOM-CIDOC

[vi] Principally developed by the Museum Documentation Association (MDA)of the United Kingdom (re-launched in April 2008 as The Collections Trust), revised and re-issued four times since its initial publication in 1994, translated into other languages and increasingly used across Europe and in various international locations.

[vii] ObjectID was initiated by the J. Paul Getty Foundation and jointly developed with several stakeholders including the MDA, cultural agencies, museums, as well as law enforcement agencies. The premise of this project was to ensure interoperability between documentation systems both between institutions, and between institutions and law enforcers. This took the form of a minimum set of standardised fields with a specific scope of entry.

[viii] Aimed at facilitating retrieval of information resources on the internet.

[ix] See below for a full list of essential and optional fields that have been used by the author across a range of collections.


  1. Serial Number: Used to keep track of number of records, either in each lot or across the entire collection.
  2. Accession Number: The unique ID number associated with an object
  3. No. of pieces: To specify exactly the number of items associated with each unique accession number. E.g. A dinner set may be accessioned as one item but may contain 24 separate pieces; helps keep track of quantity.
  4. Title: Has a descriptive function, but ideally limited to a name, inscribed title or if all else fails, a single descriptive sentence.
  5. Maker: Information on who created the object. Could be an individual, a firm, or a community.
  6. Material/ Medium & Technique: Records the composition of the object and the method of making.
  7. Description: For most objects, can be divided into Recto (front) and Verso (back). Should be a detailed description, but which focusses on identification rather than being an appraisal. Should also ideally note distinguishing features, including the location of inscriptions. Contents of inscriptions can also be recorded here, but for ease of reading may be placed in a field immediately below or adjacent to this.
  8. Dimensions: Part of the physical description of an object but of particular significance. Measurements are taken in centimetres and if approximate should be mentioned as such. The standard format is H x W for two-dimensional objects, H x W x D for three dimensional. Can include weight, and can be expanded to include multiple measurements for special collections such as textiles. Must however always include the maximum dimensions.
  9. Period: When was the object created? If approximate should be mentioned as such.
  10. Provenance: Origin of the object. Can denote either place of acquisition, manufacture &/or use. In case all three types of information are available, advisable to record all three (unless source & place of use are the same)
  11. Location: Current location of object, ideally with a provision for recording a change to location.
  12. Inscriptions: Marks on the object like writing, stamps, labels, stickers, engravings, paint, monograms, cartouches, inscriptions etc.
  13. Condition: A note on the object’s condition as observed during documentation. It is essential for any later decisions regarding conservation or exhibition of the object. The report will help to record the extent of damage caused over a period of time when examined repeatedly in future. It also helps determine what to retain in the Museum. The condition report can use a five-point scale ranging from unacceptable, poor, fair, good, to excellent.
  14. Date: Date of documentation; helps pinpoint condition and description in time.
  15. Documented by: Name of person (s) responsible for documentation; useful for accountability


  1. Other number: Number assigned by earlier inventories; helps trace object’s movement through a collection
  2. Published references: Records every instance when an object has been published/ exposed to the public, whether in the media, or through exhibitions and books/publications.
  3. Access/ use restrictions: Relevant in case of highly sensitive material (either contents or condition)
  4. Action note: Useful for recording significant changes to the record; based on good faith and does not preclude the need to ensure authorised access to data
  5. Keywords: Once documentation is complete, keywords can help the database be more user-friendly and searchable by cross-referencing thematically or otherwise linked records.

Insurance valuation: Should include date of assessment and details of assessor.

For a more detailed overview of the scope of each field, ObjectID (Dorrell, Lie, & Thornes, 1999) and SPECTRUM (Dawson & Hillhouse, 2011)on which they are based.

[x] Managed by the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF)

[xi] Traditionally used to denote the origin of an object but without delineating the various nuances that the word ‘origin’ has – for instance, the place of manufacture as well as acquisition could both justifiably be recorded as ‘provenance’ and indeed, this particular field often does double-duty for both types of information.

[xii] The website and forms of the NMMA are not yet publicly accessible. A brief introduction to the Mission and its Mandate are available on the Archaeological Survey of India’s website:

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