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The drudgery of inventory

When a collection item comes into the museum’s possession or ownership, it is to be designated in a register of items received, and the surrounding circumstances of acquisition are to be noted. The inventory number due in succession is assigned and associated with the object. It makes no difference whether the register of items received is kept very traditionally as a bound commercial journal or in digital form. It is crucial that it is kept completely and that it does not allow any manipulation. Erasing is forbidden! Redacting is taboo!

The next step is the conservation of the inventory, i.e. cleaning, stabilisation and the like. Only with this is the acquisition concluded and the inventory can begin. Putting the inventory number on the object and making a technically flawless photograph are time-consuming. Different objects – glass, leather, steel, fabric – present very different problems.

Inventory customarily occurs with the aid of a card index. Digital database programmes have been a standard aid for a long time. The Finsterau and Massing Open-Air Museums utilise the “MuseumPlus” programme with success. Every inventory sheet and every index card must include at least the following information: inventory number, name, photograph, origin and location, reference to direct appurtenant sources as well as the endorsement of the specialist. Description and reference to other sources are important, but not imperative.

Every object requires a name. Via the name we link it with an inventory number. And only with the aid of a name are we able to communicate concerning the object. Some names are unquestionable, but many things must be agreed: Which name should which object bear?

A thesaurus should help in this regard. There are two methods to reach an agreement in the practice of making an inventory. The simpler method is to agree on a manageable structure of subject groups and to subdivide this into two or three levels. The structure of the names is to be obtained so that any possible thing in this world finds its place. It should suffice for it to say: “I” also belong here, no matter which name I bear. This is practical. The other method is more burdensome, but it leads higher. Every object gets its unique name, on which the museum professionals agree. Each name is inserted in a growing system of generic terms. In the distant future, the ‘world of objects’ will find its image in a comprehensive thesaurus. This is commendable.

The Massing Open-Air Museum has embarked on this arduous journey with the “State Office for the Support of Non-Governmental Museums in Bavaria”.

Knowledge also passes away with elderly people, old crafts and trades. It is the task of the folklorist, art historian and archaeologist to determine the name of historical objects, to establish their form and function, to discover their belonging to a greater good, yes also to identify and to describe their importance.

In cooperation with experienced folklorists, the Finsterau and Massing Open-Air Museums have compiled, evaluated and arranged historical sources regarding several object groups, and commented on this for purposes of inventory. Images are added in many cases. The publisher, Martin Ortmeier, calls these inventory aids “guidelines”. In the meantime, such guidelines are available for object areas to include hop farming, rope works, shoemaking, blacksmith & locksmith tools, wickerwork and textiles. An exemplary publication by Werner Endres already exists with regard to pottery.


TEXT: Martin Ortmeier | PHOTOS: Josef Lang, Hans Eichinger

Keeping a register of items received in traditional form

Inventory crate

Putting the inventory number on the object

Object photography