Skip Navigation or Skip to Content

Object labelling

This training sets out our best practice guidelines for labelling objects in museum collections.
Introduction to Object Labelling: Overview

This training is for

people working with museum collections 

Level

beginner to learn the techniques/advanced for putting them into practice 

Length

2hrs (approx)

How to complete the training 

follow the sections below in order, watch the videos and read the added resources.

Why do objects need labels?

Labelling objects in a collection can be time consuming but is a necessary step in enabling you to identify, manage and care for a collection.

It is crucial to remember that part of what makes an object important to a collection is its history.

Labelling an object with a number allows you to directly connect the object to all the information you hold about it including its history. The object label is a passport to travel, enabling an object to move without risk of losing its identity. The label however is not intrinsic to the object itself so there are aspects to consider before physically applying any label to the surface of any object. 

This training and guidance sets out best practice techniques and materials when adding labels to objects in your museum collections.

An example of Paraloid B72 applied to the base of a glass vase

Adding a label

There are a number of factors to consider before labelling an object:

Is the label secure?

  • Ensure it is not likely to be accidentally removed or fall off easily
  • Avoid areas of high abrasion such as rims on bases

Is it reversible?

  • Ensure the label can be removed if needed and it comes off easily, without damaging or impacting the object.

Is it safe for the object?

  • The method of labelling should be safe for the object’s surface and not cause any damage. Some varnished and pigmented surfaces will react with inks and chemicals.

Is it discreet?

  • The placement should not deter from the overall appearance of the object or obscure details that could change its interpretation.

Is it visible?

  • The number one rule with objects is to handle them as little as possible. This means the label should be visible with minimal object movement. For example, labelling a chair on the underside of a seat means you have to turn it over. Instead, consider placing the label on the back of a leg.

Is it clear and accurate?

  • Practice clear writing and look up the number before applying it to the object. One person’s handwriting might be another person’s scribbles!

Are there removable parts?

  • If the object has multiple parts, it is crucial to label each part to prevent them from getting lost. Much like when we travel to the airport, the object doesn’t want to lose any of its luggage!

A Paraloid B72 label applied to the back of a walrus tusk brooch

Materials to avoid

Museums and galleries have been labelling objects with numbers for many years; with this in mind it is not surprising that materials and methods used have changed as technology and knowledge has evolved.

Many objects in collections bear the scars of past labelling methods but all we can do is stay abreast of what is safe and works best for what we know at the present.

There are however some commonly used items for labelling that should be avoided at all costs despite seeming useful.

We've listed them below:

Material

Reason

Typing Correction Fluid

This material is extremely harmful to the surface of objects and often is irreversible. Not only that, it ages badly and may flake and disappear in spots leaving a shadow of the number but not an identity.

Nail Varnishes

Although lovely on nails, everyone who uses it has experienced the harm it does to the nail surface. The same goes for an object.

Not only are the pigments/dyes used possibly irreversible but the chemicals added to the varnishes have the potential to react with the surface of an object.

Nail Polish Remover

Although these products often contain Acetone, it is best to steer clear of polish removers as many of them contain additional conditioners and chemicals designed to add smell or colour or just ease the harm on a human nail; these additions could cause irreversible harm to an object’s surface.  

Always ensure you use pure Acetone when required to remove labels.

 

Avoid using typing correction fluid as a labelling technique as it can damage the object's surface

When not to label

It is important to always choose a labelling method appropriate to the object.

If the object is very fragile or is a loan to your collection, you can use a simple Tyvek tag to attach its number and ensure its identity is not lost instead.

In addition, the below information is a guideline only and you should always consult with a conservator before labelling something with what you feel may not be appropriate.

Loans should always be labelled in a temporary way as the loan number is not their permanent number

Further reading

Powerhouse Museum Booklet

This booklet is great for breaking down what method to use and when for labelling objects.

A Simple Guide to Labelling Museum Objects (pdf)  

 

Collections Trust Booklet

A downloadable PDF resource providing an overview of labelling dos and don’ts

Download the pdf  

 

National Museums Liverpool Booklet

A link through the Collections Trust website to the National Museums Liverpool’s PDF resource for making and labelling objects. 

View the resource  

 

Spectrum Advice for Numbering Objects via Collections Trust website 

This resource gives guidance on numbering your collection, on different types and number formats and a summary of commonly occurring issues surrounding numbering.

View the resource  

 

Examples of Object Labelling

This resources gives some examples of good and bad object labelling from National Museums Scotland's collections.

View the resource

License for reuse

These training pages are licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

We are delighted for you to reuse, build on and publish the training content in these pages for non-commercial purposes. When you do, we ask that you credit National Museums Scotland and share the content under the same licensing terms.

Creative Commons License

Back to top