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How to Number an Artifact

Each artifact receives a unique number called an accession number when it enters the museum’s permanent collection. The artifact must be marked with its accession number in order to keep it attached to its provenance.

Artifacts are marked in one of three ways, depending on their material.


Artifacts with a hard surface such as furniture and china are marked with permanent ink. First, paint a stripe of clear B-72 acryloid lacquer on the artifact and allow it to dry completely. If the artifact is dark in color, use lacquer that is tinted white. Next, write the accession number with a permanent ink pen, such as the Kaiser CD[R] Pen. Some curators choose to paint a second stripe of clear lacquer over the number, but sometimes it can cause it to smear and become illegible.

Fabric Tags

Curators do not write numbers directly on textiles. Instead, we put the number on a piece of fabric tape and sew it into the artifact. Write the number with the same type of permanent ink pen mentioned above. Move the pen across the fabric tape quickly to avoid pooling the ink. Try to sew the tag into the lining of a dress, hat or coat if possible so the stitches do not show. If it is not possible to hide the stitches, choose a thread in a matching color.

Bags or Paper Tags

Sometimes an artifact like a necklace or pair of earrings is too small to be numbered directly. Tie an acid-free tag onto the artifact, or place it inside a polypropylene bag and write the number on the bag. Be sure to note in your database that the artifact is not marked with its number in case it gets separated from its tag or bag in the future.


1. Write the number neatly and clearly, so future museum staff will be able to read it.

2. Place numbers in an area that will not be seen when the artifact is on display, but not someplace so obscure that it cannot easily be found.

3. Try not to place the mark where it will easily rub off in storage. For example, place the number on the bottom of a plate where the side begins to curve up slightly instead of directly on the bottom where it will rub against the shelf or the plate stacked below it.

4. If an artifact has parts that come apart, like a soup tureen or teapot with a lid, be sure to number both pieces individually. You may want to add an “A” and a “B” to the number to indicate they go together as a set. Always use uppercase letters because a lower case “b” can look like a “6.”

5. To mark cardboard boxes or any material that will soak up the lacquer (such as untreated wood), use a soft pencil instead of ink.
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Content copyright © 2015 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.


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