The IMLS-grant-funded Inventory Project: Behind the Scenes

Once every ten years, collections staff at The Sixth Floor Museum conduct something called a “wall-to-wall inventory” – it’s a way for staff to account for every item in the Museum’s permanent collection. In 2016, the Museum received a Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to help fund such an inventory. Intended to be a three-year project, the Museum started its latest inventory project in October 2016. Our Curator of Collections, Lindsey Richardson, oversees the project. Her first step was to hire two full-time Inventory Technicians – Anne Hanisch and Jennifer Browder. This is the team that will carry our project through from start to finish.

A wall-to-wall inventory is just what it says: a count of every single collections item in the Museum’s storage spaces. “Inventory is an important standard in museum collections management because it helps maintain intellectual control over collections,” says Lindsey.

“The collection is already really well-organized. There are at least 50,000 items, and we expect that number to increase as we go. This year alone, we have inventoried 15,000 items,” adds Anne.

Caption: Anne Hanisch (left) and Jen Browder (right) inventory items at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

Lindsey explains, “It’s important that we know exactly what we have, where it is, and if there are any storage issues that need to be addressed. In general, the standard has been for museums to conduct a complete wall-to-wall inventory on a regular, cyclical basis – in our case, every 10 years.” Thanks to the IMLS grant, The Sixth Floor Museum can add a few extra steps to the usual inventory procedures. “Instead of just counting everything and matching to existing data, we are also processing unnumbered items.” Lindsey goes on, “So, at the end of the inventory, every item in our collections should have both a number (that will make tracking and finding it much easier) and a basic record in the database (which makes searching the contents of our collections infinitely easier).”

Jen explains further. “For example, one of the items we’ve come across is a board game – it didn’t have a number. Since the board game is an item, it gets an object number. Each little part that comes with the board game, such as the dice, cards and tokens, also needs to be accounted for, so each is assigned a part number. That way they are still connected to the game as a whole but are also accounted for as individual items in our collection.”

Caption: This board game from the 1960s comes with many parts such as dice, cards and playing pieces. Jen and Anne inventoried every single part associated with the object.

Jen also points out the care and attention to detail they and other members of collections staff practice in order to preserve, document and store objects in the collection: “We house every single object in archival materials so that they’ll be preserved for as long as possible. Hopefully, these 50+-year-old objects will remain in good shape so that multiple generations after us can still access them and learn from the stories and history they represent.”

This type of detail-oriented work can be difficult, but Anne and Jen are up to the challenge. The goal for the three-year project is to account for every item in The Sixth Floor Museum’s collection at every location where collections are stored. The team has already made great progress and other members of the collections department are happy to see the connections made between collections items and the improved quality of data for items already inventoried.

Both Jen and Anne are familiar faces at The Sixth Floor Museum. Anne previously worked in the Museum Store + Café, and Jen interned at the Museum while she was in high school. They both knew that they wanted to end up working in collections, and their degrees in history and museum studies have prepared them for the work they are doing at the Museum. They’re happy that the work they’re doing over the course of this three-year grant will have such a large impact.

“I think people need to understand how large a museum’s collection is. What you see on the surface, or what you see on display at the museum, is the tip of the iceberg. Since the museum wants to preserve and make accessible everything in collections, the things on display are the most obvious form of access. The rest, all the other collection items we have in storage, are hidden from view,” says Anne, “Because that’s the best way to ensure their preservation.”

Caption: Anne examines documents from The Sixth Floor Museum’s collection.

For the next two years, Jen and Anne will continue to work toward ensuring our collection is completely inventoried, with accurate data and archival, well-organized storage. And if you’re wondering about all the interesting objects they get to inventory, they love that part of their job, too.

“The coolest part about our job is we will get to handle every single one of those objects. So, it’s a large task, but it’s a very important task,” says Jen. Anne says it’s super-exciting to be working on an IMLS grant, especially for self-proclaimed history nerds like themselves. They wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services MA30-16-0215-16.

The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.