A Numbers Game

June 23, 2015
From a visitor’s perspective, the accession number can offer an opportunity to play detective in the galleries; each number provides clues as to how and when each object was added to the Harvard Art Museums collections.

This story is part of a series of articles about “museum-speak,” or the lingo of those who work in museums, as well as museum-related knowledge. It is intended to deepen your understanding of the behind-the-scenes workings of a museum, and in particular the operations of the Harvard Art Museums.

In our previous Museum-Speak installment, we discussed terms used to refer to wall labels, and introduced the notion of the accession number, which is part of every object’s “tombstone.” Now we’ll take a closer look at that number, a tiny detail with enormous responsibilities.

From a behind-the-scenes perspective, “an accession number is basically a link between an object and its paperwork,” said Kathryn Press, the museums’ associate registrar for the collections. It also ensures a unique identifier for each object, preventing confusion that could arise from colloquial or secondary titles, or from the ever-popular “Untitled” moniker.

From a visitor’s perspective, the accession number (also known simply as an object number) can offer an opportunity to play detective in the galleries. That’s because each number provides clues as to how and when each object was added to the collections. Here’s how to decipher the Harvard Art Museums’ accession numbers:

The first four digits in an accession number typically represent the year in which the object was given to the museums or was purchased. The numbers that follow (preceded by a period) refer to the order in which the object was added to the museums’ collections. So, 1943.329 (Benjamin West’s Fidelia and Speranza) is a work that was accessioned in 1943, and it was the 329th object accessioned during that year.

There are some cases in which additional numbers or letters appear before the year. Objects on long-term loan, for instance, such as LTL124.1979, have accession numbers that start with digits corresponding to the order in which their loan was processed, followed by the year in which it was loaned. Various special collections are also denoted with letters: BR, for instance, appears at the start of accession numbers for some objects in the Busch-Reisinger collection. (Those works were obtained before the Busch-Reisinger’s accessions were integrated into the museums’ system in the 1980s.)

Longer accession numbers, such as 1977.216.154 (referring to Stamped Amphora Handle), often use multiple sets of digits after the date to indicate collections or groupings. The 216 in this instance refers to objects that were accessioned all at once (but only after 215 other objects or object groups were already processed in 1977). The number that follows 216 refers to each object’s order of accession; therefore, we can deduce that Stamped Amphora Handle was the 154th object to be processed in its group.

In rare instances, objects may have multiple accession numbers. That’s the case for 1899.9+1932.49 (Sarcophagus Sections with Men Fighting Amazons), currently on view in one of the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Art galleries. What’s the significance of the double accession number? We can surmise that different parts of the object were added to the museums’ collections at different times, once in 1899 and once in 1932.

Though an accession number is hardly an obvious concept to a museum newbie, it’s actually one of the most straightforward and powerful pieces of information about an object—once you know how to read it. 

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