1 - Why document?



Museums acquire objects and create collections because the objects convey a significant message or messages. These may be variously historical, religious, economic, technological, and so on. When an object is moved from its place of origin and its context, its significance is reduced and becomes more reliant on the documentation linked to it.

Furthermore, when an object arrives at a museum, it begins a “new life”: it will be studied, positioned, exhibited, restored, loaned and transferred, and will be placed alongside many other objects. It will thus be necessary to identify it in a unique way, and to facilitate the management of every aspect of this new life.

The value of a collection (whether it be for purposes of research, education or interpretation), its safety and its accessibility therefore depend to a large extent on the quality of the documentation associated with it.

Documentation is thus the organization of information.

Basic documentation is needed for the “administrative” management of collection. It enables the museum quickly and effectively to:

  • establish proof of ownership
  • locate a specific object
  • find out the total number of objects making up the collection
  • carry out an inventory
  • establish the (always unique) identity of an object
  • link information to an object
  • access information in an efficient and economical way (saving space, time or effort)
  • contribute to the safety of collection
  • carry out an insurance valuation


From this basic documentation it is possible to supplement it, if so desired, in order, among other things, to:

  • understand an object and bring it to life (history, use, social or religious value, etc.)
  • present it in a permanent or temporary exhibition
  • make it of interest to the public or researchers
  • analyze collections with a view to making acquisitions
  • have a record of the acts of conservation/restoration which the objects have undergone
  • plan preventive conservation, organization of stores, etc.

Through their experience, museums have developed practices that are to a greater or lesser extent shared.

The documents containing information should together form a system, a so-called documentation system.

A system is defined as “a set of elements related both to each other and to their environment and organized in accordance with a goal.”1

A museum’s documentation system is a set of elements (Accession number, Accession register, manual or computerized files, etc.) that are related to each other and to the museum environment and which are organized in order to manage the objects in the museum’s collection. The different information media of a museum’s documentation system are interdependent and enable cross-reference searches to be carried out. The information they contain is often duplicated, but organized in a different way.


A documentation system is composed of the following six elements:

The four elements in red for the basic documentation on which this Guide focuses. In the table below, some examples of their use show the relations between the different elements.


1 Françoise Raynal and Alain Rieunier, Définir des objectifs pédagogiques, 1987, IPNETP-Les Nouvelles Éditions Africaines, Abidjan.

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