Critical Contexts of Object Marking in Museums

Prof. Alice Stevenson

University College London, UK

21 September 2023, 16.30-17.30 GMT

small pot bearing inventory details written on it in ink, placed above a colour scale
Image source: Alice Stevenson

Physically applying or marking an object with a registration, inventory, or accession number is integral to its transition from cultural belonging or artefact into a museum object. The procedure of assigning a unique number or providing a contextual label is also identified as being an essential aspect of care in order to avoid one of the ten agents of deterioration that affect collections – dissociation – the accession number or markings often extending into and tethering an object within an ecosystem of related historical documentation. In collections management and care, whether or not to employ a particular marking technique is usually informed by the material properties of an object. This talk, however, reviews some of the cultural, religious, political, moral and ethical conditions that are equally important to consider and what this data does in a museum context. The significance of inscribing and re-inscribing numbers or other such marks is highlighted in moments where source communities are confronted with labels, particularly obtrusive ones, which may cause grief, anger, or confusion, but possibly also feelings of relief that the markings ensure that remains are identifiable as specific ancestors or items as sacred belongings. ​​ Markings can therefore be both bane and boon (something that is both a benefit and an affliction) as artefacts and cultural belongings transition from institution to institution, or from public museum back to community. Care thus needs to be extended to even those more taken for granted aspects of collections practice.

About the presenter

Prof. Alice Stevenson is Professor of Museum Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (UCL), UK. She previously held positions as Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (2013-2017), Researcher in World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum (2009-2012) and Research Fellow in the Institute of Archaeology and Department of Information Studies (2007-2009). Between 2013 and 2017 she was the lead researcher and initiator of the AHRC-funded project ‘Artefacts of Excavation’, which explored the history and legacy of the dispersal of finds from British excavations in Egypt. She subsequently led the follow-on for impact project from this, ‘Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage’