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  • Alex Weller

Collections of the Pass: Numbering Chaos


I should have known I was in trouble when the first two objects I picked up didn't have a number on them. The first was a typewriter; a big, heavy thing that screams 1970s office culture. The second was a black, plastic rotary telephone. I turned each object over (which was harder for the typewriter – that thing is heavy), trying to guess where the number might be that identified where exactly these thing belonged.

I can't understate the importance of numbers to my job, and I'm not even a mathematician. Every item in the museum's collection gets assigned its own identification number (we call them accession numbers). Think of it as a barcode that connects an object on the shelves with paper and/or digital records cataloguing its existence. These numbers allow us to organise records, track an object's location, and generally pretend that we know what we're talking about. Our job revolves around numbers, but today, those numbers were being very difficult.

In case you haven't guessed, neither the typewriter or the telephone had a number, and at nine in the morning, I'm afraid it was a sign of things to come. I had a heavy iron something with faint black marks that only the desperate would think were once numerals. I discovered that if I tilted my head just right with the light I could barely see something, but it still took me ten tries to match up what I thought the numbers might be with a record that described what they actually were.

I also had two cases of mistaken identity. Simple rule of thumb: every item in our collection needs its own unique number. No sharing allowed. Today there were two items that accidentally had the same number as two other items somewhere in the museum. Think of it like having a pack of really nice steaks that scan in at the checkout as a roast. Both are nice, but they aren't the same thing. I carefully changed the records and the numbers so that the steaks now scan as steaks and the roast as a roast (or in this case, the fan scans as a fan and not a hat).

Then there were the two black umbrellas. I spun them around, I scrutinised the handles, the tips, and the stalks, and I saw nothing that didn't look like an ordinary umbrella. No numbers. Finally I opened them, and I found the numbers tucked high up on the stalk right underneath the canopy.

Placing identification numbers on a museum object is a bit of an art. You want them to be discrete, easily hidden when the object is on display, but you also want them to be easily found by anyone looking for them. Generally speaking, the number will be on the base, or on the back, bottom right corner. Umbrellas are (understandably) a bit more difficult, but underneath the canopy is far from ideal. Imagine if you were looking for an umbrella on a shelf and you had to open every one of them to find the number that said, "This is the one". To begin with, that would be really annoying, especially for someone like me who regularly has troubles opening umbrellas to begin with. Second, repeatedly opening umbrellas simply isn't good for them, especially when they're made of century old silk and bamboo. It's best to limit rough handling as much as possible. For this reason (among others that cropped up during the day), I decided to move the numbers on these umbrellas to the top of the handles.

I'd love to say that I neatly tied up all of my numbering woes by the end of the day, but things are rarely that simple. I never did get to the bottom of the typewriter or the telephone, meaning that those will be adventures for another day.


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