Labeling Artifacts

One of the most critical aspects to maintaining a large collection is to create an artifact inventory so that you can identify what types of objects are in the collection and other pertinent information (i.e.: donors, storage or display location, artist, etc.). More details about creating an inventory can be found online, but today's post is about how to label artifacts.

Step 1: Create a numbering system.

Once you decide what information is important to gather for your inventory, you will need to identify a numbering system to track and identify objects. This can be as simple as 1,2,3,4,5,6...... (with each new object occurring as the next number in the sequence) or as an alpha-numeric system such as FURN1990.003.001 where:

FURN: type of object, in this case furniture

1990: year that the object was accessioned or donated into the collection

.003: context or provenance of the piece

.001: the order of objects from that context

Keep in mind that whichever numbering system you choose, it will need to recorded in its entirety on the object. This number should be recorded into the database along with all of the other information at the same time. If possible, a photograph should also be taken which includes the artifact number. This is in case the label is separated from the object.

Step 2: Labeling the objects.

When deciding how to label artifacts, it is important to think about your collection environment. Is it an uncontrolled environment where the humidity can spike causing labels to separate from the object? Is the object stored in an area that may become flooded where a paper label will dissolve or become seperated (hint: consider tyvek labels in this case)?  The type of label you apply to an object also depends on the material type:

  • Textiles

Using a strip of muslin or cotton tape with a twill weave (available from archival suppliers), mark the artifact number with an acid-free permanent marker. This label can then be sewn onto an inconspicuous area of the textile using 100% undyed silk thread or 100% undyed cotton thread. The Gutermann brand of threads in a great option from local suppliers.

  • Uncoated Metals, Uncoated Wood, Glass, Pottery, Ceramics, Some Skeletal Materials, Painting Frames (Not Paintings Themselves), Stone

Always try to choose an inconspicuous area where the material has not been coated with any paints, varnishes, or waxes. In order to insure that the label can be reversed at a later date, conservators use a barrier layer that the numbering can be written on or the label can be applied to. There are two main techniques for applying labels directly to the surface of the object:

1) Adhering a tag to the surface: In this case, the number of the artifact is written on a piece of Tyvek with acid-free ink and the label is then adhered to the surface of the material using Paraloid B-72 (see the supplies resources below). This can have the advantage of seeing the label even on dark colored surfaces and for ease of application.



2) Applying the number directly to the object: A barrier layer of Paraloid B-72 dissolved in a solvent such as acetone is applied with a brush and allowed to dry. Acrylic ink applied with a quill pen (found at local art supply stores) or a Pigma pen can be used to write the number on the Paraloid B-72 layer once it is dried. Try to choose black or white ink depending on the color of the object. Allow this layer to dry. A final top layer of Paraloid B-72 dissolved in white spirits is applied over the number.



  • Painted Surfaces, Porous Surfaces, Basketry, Plastic, Leather

The best method for labeling these objects is to tie a tag around an opening of the object. For archival supplies, see the resources section below. Be sure not to tie the tag too tightly. Tyvek is recommended as the labeling material due to its durability.

Source: Gaylord Archival Suppliers

Source: Gaylord Archival Suppliers