What Is an Accession Number?

What Is an Accession Number?
Museums keep track of donated items by assigning each artifact a unique number called an accessions number. It is made up of three banks of numbers:

FIRST NUMBER is the year in which the donation was made

SECOND NUMBER is the number of the donation made in that year (it starts over again in a new year with one)

THIRD NUMBER is given to each unique item in that donation


Say someone brings in a donation of two pairs of shoes, one dress, and a cast iron frying pan in 2008. And 25 people already came in the door with donations this year. This is how the accession numbers would be assigned:

2008.26.1 Shoes

2008.26.2 Shoes

2008.26.3 Dress

2008.26.4 Frying Pan

This donation would be the 26th donation made in 2008, and there are four items within that donation, each assigned a number 1 through 4.

When numbering the artifacts, curators usually assign A & B to items that belong together in a set. Which means one shoe would say 2008.26.1A and the other would say 2008.26.1B.

These numbers are entered into a database, which is where all of the information about the artifacts is stored. When cataloging each donation, the collections workers include as much information as possible about each artifact. You couldn’t write all of that out on the bottom of a shoe!

For example, if one of the pairs of shoes was worn to the donor’s senior prom, that will be included in the cataloging process. At the time of the donation, the curator will ask as many questions as possible to determine the history or provenance of the item. She will want to know where the prom was held, who the person’s date was, and any stories associated with the prom. A photo of the prom would also be great! Along with the program, tickets, or anything else related to the donation.

In the future, if the shoes are ever placed on exhibit, this information will be invaluable when writing a label for the shoes.

Now, say the dress in this donation is the prom dress that goes with the shoes. Some people make the mistake of giving the dress and the shoes the same number, and making one “A” and one “B.” This is incorrect.

Letters should only be used to define something that is a true set, such as salt & pepper shakers, a creamer and sugar bowl, a teacup and a saucer, a pair of gloves.

If shoes go with a dress, it is appropriate to mention that information when cataloging the donation. You should note in both records that the shoes go with the dress and the dress goes with the shoes. But each should be given their own unique accession number. Reading the description in the catalog will alert someone in the future that the shoes and dress go together.

In a future article, we will discuss how accession numbers are actually applied to artifacts.

You Should Also Read:
So You Want To Be a Curator
Writing Exhibit Labels
Finding Your First Museum Job

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