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Character of a Museum

The collection of most small museums is an admixture of many things. While there is nothing wrong in collecting many classes of items, this practice has to be given some thought if there is a choice. There have been many instances where after some time, a collection is needed to be rid of items which had become incongruous in terms of class or quality. It might be practical to define at the outset the objectives of the museum so that the collections can be made to support these objectives. In effect, one has to define the character of the museum. This character will help the curator determine, for instance, what type of structures and facilities are to be made available in terms of study, storage, conservation, and exhibition. There are general category museums like the National Museum, and specialized museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, the Museo ng Bahay Pilipino, and the Central Bank Money Museum. The need of the community is at times one of the factors determining the character of a museum.

In most cases, the museum curator is confronted with a conglomeration of objects the choice for which he had no control whatsoever. Optimistically, the items collected are originally from and reflect the community where the museum is located.


A collection may be built and augmented in a number of ways:

1. field collection
2. donation
3. purchase
4. exchange

When an object in the collection is acquired, the most important consideration is that information accompanies the object. The information should include data on the object itself and socio-cultural milieu. Although the collection item itself is a primary data source, and accompanying data merely secondary source, there is nothing more frustrating for a curator than to have an object with nothing but the fact of its existence in his hands. One cannot be too detailed in obtaining data on the collection item like the following:

– name of the object
– the ethnic group of origin
– place of origin
– description
– material (s) used
– functions
– name of parts
– function of parts
– manner of use
– definition of user (s)
– who / how produced
– accompanying ritual (s)
– ownership
– distribution


It is imperative for a museum to documents its collections, which at the very least is composed of a list of the various items. The list names the objects and states how many of each there are. There are various forms of museum records:

1. Accession Record/ registry
2. Catalogue
3. Photographic record
4. Database

1. Accession Record/Registry

A very important consideration is that each object must bear a number which corresponds to the list. The number must be marked on the subject itself. This is called the accession number, which is usually coded. The code is usually devised to suit the purpose of the museum. This should contain the most basic information about the object e.g. the year of acquisition, the provenance, a succession number:


The example represents 1992 as the year of acquisition; Ifugao as the ethnic group from which the object came; and the object is the 25th item acquired that year from Ifugao. The following must be remembered about accession numbers:

1. It should not attempt to code all the information.
2. It must be short.
3. It must be written permanently on the object.
4. The number should be written small, but legibly.
5. It must be written on the discreet part of the object where it is not likely to be rubbed off; and where it is not too obvious, specially when displayed.
6. It must not be repeated on another object.
7. It should be structured to follow the classificatory system of the collection.

Sometimes, fieldmen use a field number which they use to identify these objects until these are brought to the museum where the permanent accession numbers are assigned.

The Accession Record of a museum contains the basic information about the items in the collection among which are:

1.1 Accession number
1.2 Date of acquisition
1.3 Name of object
1.4 Provenance
1.5 Brief description
1.6 Recorder
1.7 Notes

The accession records constitute the museum register.


6395 Object quiver (native name – kubokub)
  Tribe Negrito
  Locality Balangkawitan, 3 hrs E. of Ragai, Camarines
  How obtained by purchase from Lucas
  Collector J.M. Garban, Jan. 1913
  Cost 40 cts. e
6396 Object guitar (native name — gitada)
  How obtained  
Fig. 1 Segment of page from a National Museum registration record.

2. Catalogue

Each of the accessions should have an individual catalogue cards. The card should contain all the information about the object:

2.1 Accession number
2.2 Date of acquisition
2.3 Recorder
2.4 Name (s) of object  (common, local, foreigner, etc.)
2.5 Provenance
2.6 Collector
2.7 Manner of collection (purchased, donated, etc)
2.8 Description
2.8.1 Dimensions
2.8.2 Material (s)
2.8.3 Physical description
2.8.4 Function (s)
2.9 Acquisition value
2.10 Condition
2.11 History
2.12 Publication (s)
2.13 Location in storage/exhibition
2.14 Photographic/negative number
2.15 Sketch or photo of the object
2.16 Notes

National Museum

Catalogue No ______________
Old Acc. No _______________

English Name ____________________________________________
Vernacular Name _________________________________________
Ethnic Group Collected From ________________________________
Own Name ______________________________________________
Popular Name ___________________________________________
Locality  ________________________________________________
How Museum Obtained ____________________________________
Value of Material _________________________________________
Collector’s Name _________________________________________
Date Collected ___________________________________________
Date Received ___________________________________________
Recorder _______________________________________________
Date Recorded __________________________________________
Storage Location _________________________________________


015688                                            (Over)

Fig. 2 Front of a National Museum catalogue card.


3. Photographic Record

Where expedient each object of the collection should be photographed, preferably upon acquisition. Photographs should include a scale to indicate the size of the object, and the accession number. At least, contact prints of the negative strips should be made. The contact prints should be filled with the negatives. The contact print and negative of each object should be identified with the accession number of the object. When the condition of the object is not normal, damaged portions should be clear on the photographs.


                                                                                             Fig.3 An ethnographic record photograph


4. Computer database

With microcomputers and database software now readily available with minimal capital outlay the setting up of inventories becomes relatively easy. Making backups and hard copies or printouts of all files is absolutely a must. One must not rely solely on computer database files. Storage disks like hard disks are notoriously unstable and short-lived. It should be noted that computer database files only supplement the ordinary manual system of documentation, which is the primary system.

While computers are nice to have around, these also require people who know how to make them work. Training and keeping personnel in this field are constant problems. Unless the museum is handling a tremendous amount of data, which, among others need to be analyzed, then a manual system might be more practical.

The application programs locally available to create databases are DBase IV and FoxPro. Another, Superbase, is rather slow but had graphics capabilities, i.e. the image of the collection item can be stored or displayed with the data.


Structure for Database     : B: Ethnoinv.DBF
Number of data records   : 5346
Date of last update          : 04/12/90
Field Field Name Type Width Dec Index
1 Ethn_group Character 30   Y
2 Artif_type Character 30   Y
3 Eng_name Character 30   N
4 Vern_name Character 30   N
5 Provenance Character 20   N
6 Acc_num Character 15   N
7 Datecollec Date 8   N
8 Collector Character 30   N
9 Acquiprice Numeric 10 2 N
10 Total value Numeric 10 2 N
11 Condition Character 30   N
12 Notes Memo 10   N
13 recorder Character 30   N
14 Last_update Date 8   N

Fig. 4 Sample of a computer database structure.

Physical Facilities

The facilities a museum requires correspond basically to the various steps in the processing of specimens or collection items. The ideal certainly is to have adequate space in the museum premises to carry out all the functions.  Where the ideal does not exist, provisions should be made for vital functions to be carried out.

1. Fumigation/ Cleaning

A collection item that has just come in and is newly registered ordinarily undergoes treatment. The final phase of treatment is cleaning of the item or object just before it is placed with the rest of the collection. The reason is that it might be infected with fungus, wood borers, etc., which may contaminate other items in the collection. Fumigation is imperative. In the absence of fumigation chambers, other means can be resorted to, as illustrated on page 30, depending on the type and size of objects. (discussed more fully under the Conservation Section)  

2. Storage

Most small museums do not have provisions for storage. Storage space is imperative not only as the usual little closets and rooms reserved for office equipage and facilities but also and more so for collection items. A museum continually collects even though exhibition space is usually limited. Rotation of exhibitions require space for keeping items not on display.

The storage area should be near enough to the curator and the exhibition area that it services. The following are among guidelines to be strictly observed:

– No one should hold office in the storage.
– No food or drink should be taken inside the storage area.
– Only fumigated/cleaned specimens should enter the storage.
– Everything that goes in and out of the storage should be recorded.
– Items should be stored systematically easy retrieval.
– No smoking inside the storage room.
– Only authorized personnel should be allowed inside the storage room.

Storage System

Collection items should be classified while in storage. The items may be grouped according to type of items, e.g. baskets, clothing, agricultural tools; or by ethnicity, e.g. Tagalog, Ilocano, etc.; or by material e.g. wood, metal, etc. For conservation purposes, storing by material is recommendable since it is easier to treat, for instance, textiles as a group instead of individual pieces scattered all over the collection.

The key, of course, for retrieval is through a cross-indexed file combined with a systematized storage. An item when taken out should be returned to the same place.

If available, acid-free paper should be used to line shelvings. The shelving section should be identified so that each item has its own particular slot. 

If the object is removed, a piece of paper noting the removal of the object, the date, where the object was taken, the purpose and by whom, should be put in its place. This is apart from the logbook, which records the entry and exit of items. The following are some do’s:

– Stack materials with no objects touching them or placed on top of another. Allow air circulation
between objects.
– Do not roll or fold materials. Textiles can be rolled around a tube.
– Keep area free of dust.
– Use gloves in handling specimens. There is acid on your hands.
– Use both hands in holding specimens. Handle items as gently as possible as if all these are very
fragile. Restored objects are specially fragile. Check on which is the safest place to hold.
– Allow only trained personnel to handle items.
– Use only soft illumination in the storeroom.
– Allow adequate ventilation to maintain an even temperature in the room.
– Fumigate the room periodically.
– Provide fire-fighting and firescape facilities.


Curators should take a keen interest in visitor profiles in order to make the museum effective in a community. The population of museum visitors shares general characteristics. Among these are:

– The art audience is from a narrow segment of the population, generally white collar and well-educated.
– The sexes are just about evenly represented.
– Museum visitors at least have some college education.
– People tend to go to museums with others.
– Many are repeat visitors.
– Museum attendance vary seasonally with the least during the summer months.
– The museum visitor spends an average of five minutes in an exhibition, and less in an art display.
– The average visitor’s attention span is about thirty seconds per exhibit in a science museum.
“The majority of the public appears to be gaining little or nothing other than trivial impression of the exhibits”
(Zyskowksi, 1968).
– Only a small percentage of visitors make use of printed guides.
– Education and place of residence are important determinants of museum attendance.
– Museums actualize the experiences of the visitors.
– While adding to knowledge, museum exhibits tend to amplify feelings.
– Some form of visitor participation is advantageous in maximizing the effects of a museum visit.
There are beliefs, however, that visitors expect to remain passive, preferring to be left on their own.
– Education is the best predictor of museum attendance.
– The museum visitor has a wide variety of interests and backgrounds.
– The museum visitor has limited time.
– The museum visitor is physically exhausted after a visit and often overwhelmed by too much sensory inputs.
– The average museum visitor is not anxious for more information or educational materials on museum
collections. Most people do not read display labels. Keep children in mind with respect to labels.

In sum, museums provide different services for different people. Visitors have different personal interests, thus a museum visit cannot be structured. A museum should therefore aim to provide a wide range of opportunities for their visitors to choose from, making the museum experience unique for each individual.

The primary concern of many museums is display of the collection items. Limitations of space call for well organized exhibits and periodic rotation. Most museums tend to display everything at once.

The exhibition gallery should be well-ventilated, dust-free with some means to control light, temperature, and humidity. This would mean that the gallery be an enclosed hall with no windows through which direct sunlight could enter. Windows, too, can get in the way of the placement of exhibition facilities and visitors traffic flow.

No general lighting for the hall is needed but a large number of outlets should be well and conveniently distributed throughout the room; on the base of the wall, the flooring, or the ceiling, would be recommendable. This would allow tapping of power as needed.

It is advisable for small museums to opt for display structures that are generalized, that is, designed to accommodate different kinds of objects with varying sizes. There are three types of display structural facilities needed:

1. Shadow boxes
2. Pedestals (glassed or unglassed)
3. Display panels

Display facilities should be highly adaptive to various needs. In case of shadow boxes, the glassed portion should be deep and high, which could accommodate a number of related objects rather than just one. Some means of providing adequate ventilation for the displayed object must be made, specially if high-intensity lighting is to be used which will increase temperature inside the showcase. Of course, specially valuable objects warrant a special case.

Where storage space is a problem, the bottom part of display cases can be utilized for storage if constructed as such and provided with access.

Pedestals, to save on space, can be made into sizes that can nest inside one another. There must be some means to lock the glass tops to the bases. It is better to have a large pedestal holding a small object than vice versa, so large sizes are better. Large ones also are more stable.

Sufficient number of assorted sizes of small boxes to be used as individual pedestals of smaller objects inside a display case should be available.

Display panels should be dismountable so that these can be stored in as small a space as possible. To last longer, perforated panels are recommended because things can be laid out on them without the continual use of nails. It is preferable that the panels are double-faced.


All materials change through time. Conservation merely retards the rate of changes to perpetuate the condition of an object. In general, rapid and frequent changes in the physical environment of an object will lead to its earlier deterioration. A relatively stable environment without the extremes is therefore ideal for conservation of museum objects. the Philippines is fortunate in being in the tropics where the fluctuation of climate is not to the extremes. The difference in annual temperature is not that pronounced. In fact, the difference in temperature between day and night is greater. The problem is more with respect humidity for our environment has plenty of this. Countries in temperate regions have greater museological problems due to the fluctuation of environmental conditions to the extremes.

Attacks of insect and fungi, are constant threats. The most common insects that are the bane of museologists are wood borers, silverfish, cockroach, termites, moths, and bookworms. The museum should be fumigated periodically. Non-residual fumigants are preferable.

To avoid the growth of fungi, extreme temperature changes and dampness should be avoided. Thymol crystals can be used to inhibit the growth of moulds. This must be used with  care. It should not be used near oil paintings, painted woodwork, etc. because it can soften many paints and lacquers.


Even clean air contributes to the decay of specimens due to its oxygen content. Atmospheric pollution aggravates the situation for museums particularly with respect to carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and the soot from insufficiently burned fuel from motor vehicles. Dust is dangerous for this provides the nuclei for water condensation and the start of chemical and physical reactions. Nearness to sea poses dangers of the corrosive effects of salt. The only effective control of air pollution is air conditioning. Where this is not possible free air ventilation with filtration may be used.


If the temperature range can be managed then this should be kept within the range of 20ºC ± 2ºC as most collection items will not deteriorate as quickly at these temperatures. A simple room thermometer will do to measure the temperature. In the absence of air conditioners, electric fans or other forms of ventilation will suffice.


A relative humidity of 50-55% is recommended. If the relative humidity goes above 65% and the temperature is also high, moulds will develop and destroy many objects such as textiles, pigments and paper. Hygrometers are used to measure relative humidity. In the absence of these, one can more or less feel increased humidity by a feeling of heat, oppressiveness and stickiness of the skin.

Electric fans which can circulate air continually during hot and humid weather can help arrest the development of such fungi since these prefer dark, damp and warm places to be able to grow. Dessicants in small dishes inside display cases can help. Charcoal and silica gel substitute in small storages to keep stable temperatures and relative humidity.


Light has a deleterious effect on certain materials like pigments, inks, dyes, paper, textile and the like. It should therefore be controlled. Natural light has both ultra-violet and infra-red rays. Ultra violet rays can cause chemical changes on some objects while infra-red light or heat can effect physical changes.

Ultra-violet filtering plexiglass can be used in frames and cases instead of glass. Fluorescent lights can also be covered by these filters. There are lighting facilities like Philips TL-37 which have ultra-violet filtering components.

To control infra-red rays the amount of light falling upon an object should be limited. Spotlights give off excessive heat.

The amount of light that falls upon an object should receive serious consideration. Maximum luminance is measured in lux units. A 100 watt tungsten incandescent bulb has an illumination of 14 lux at a distance of 1.5 meters, at 30 degrees angle. Using this as comparison, the following are the maximum illuminance recommended for museum objects:

50 lux: Textiles, clothing, watercolors, tapestries, prints, drawings, manuscripts, wall paper, dyed leather, natural history collections like botanical and zoological specimens.

150 lux: Oil and tempera paintings, undyed leather, horn, bone, ivory, and Oriental lacquer work

300 lux: Stone, metal, glass, ceramics, jewelry, enamel, wood

Objects should be exposed to lighting only for minimum periods.

Emergency Conservation

1. Wood

1.1 Remove dust or dirt with soft brush. Clean stubborn dirt with cotton swab and distilled water,
moving in one direction only.
1.2 Replace missing parts. Cracks can be filled in with sawdust with methyl cellulose. Sandpaper
to remove excess.
1.3 Insect attack can be controlled with fumigation or the use of insecticides by spraying, injection
or brushing.
1.4 If wet or water-logged, keep wet and soak in water to remove soluble chloride that might have
come from the soil or sea water. Call expert help from the National Museum.

2. Copper and Copper Alloys

2.1 Mechanical cleaning should be done on the surfaces using dental tools, fine chisels and
2.2 Degrease by using acetone to remove other impurities and greasy coating.
2.3 Do not remove entirely corrosion products since these may contain details.
2.4 Distilled water can be used to wash away corrosion or soluble chlorides.
2.5 Aggressive cuprous chlorides are removed using 5% oxalic acid solution and soft brushes.

3. Iron

3.1 Do not wash or scrub iron objects. Water will accelerate the corrosive process.
3.2 Objects found wet or affected by sea water must be kept until expert help is obtained. An inhibiting solution of 2% sodium hydroxide may be used in packing it.
3.3 Consult experts.

4. Textiles

Textiles are dedicate and need extra care and handling.

4.1 Photograph and document details, e.g. materials, weaving techniques, dimensions, condition, etc. before treatment.
4.2 Test for fastness of dyes.
4.3 Test for strength of fibres.
4.4 Vacuum clean gently.
4.5 Flatten folded portions and creases.
4.6 Roll on board with acid-free paper, e.g. Japanese paper.
4.7 Store in a clean, well-ventilated room with good environmental controls.
4.8 Avoid intense light.
4.9 Store in wooden cabinets lined with starch-free cotton or polyester.

5. Ceramics and Glass

Ceramics (earthenware, stoneware, porcelain) and glass are generally stable and require only simple hygiene.

5.1 Mechanical cleaning is generally sufficient.
5.2 Ceramics and glass from underwater sites may have in them harmful chlorides, which need to be removed by soaking in distilled water for long periods.

6. Basketry and Mats

These are prone to degradation since the materials are organic.

6.1 Know the kind of plant materials.
6.2 Mechanical cleaning using cotton swabs and distilled water with ammonia to remove oil and grease, and dirt.
6.3 Organic solvents like alcohol, acetone, toluene and petroleum may also be used. Test for the appropriate
solvent. Use the weakest.
6.4 Marks, tapes, adhesives should be removed.
6.5 Condition the fibres by relaxing these so they can be reshaped without breakage.
6.6 Store baskets and mats in relatively dark, cool ventilated areas. Non-air tight plastic bags may be used. Do
not place one on top of another. These should not sag under their own weight.
6.7 Mats should be rolled or stored flat like textiles.


All museum collections should be protected from:

1. Mishandling by personnel
2. Theft
3. Fire
4. Water
5. Vandalism

Staff members should be taught how to hold or carry an object of different kinds, e.g. painting, sculpture, ceramics, baskets, etc. Training is needed in opening a book, stacking paintings, taking materials out of a frame, carrying an object from one place to another; the use of tapes, the acidity of bare hands and so on. In fact, in-service training is indispensable in the handling of all types of museum objects in all possible situations or processing steps in the museum. It is fatal to assume that people automatically know how to handle objects. Mishandling is one of the greatest factors that contribute to the deterioration of an object, and this is an area where museums tend to be most guilty.

The museum should be secured from theft. The threat can come from within, outside and the security system itself. All means of entry, including from the roof, should be studied and secured. Control over keys to locks of entrances should be an ongoing concern, including the duplication of these. The selection of security personnel and how they would be disposed should be well considered. Bonded security firms should be preferred but their personnel should be trained for the needs of a museum.

If there is a possibility for the installation of an alarm system, then this should be done. There are many systems available but the selection must be suited to a particular situation and need. Infra-red sensing devices that create invisible curtains can be more effective than the photo-electric cell devices that use beams of light. It should be kept in mind that burglar alarms give a false sense of security. It should be remembered that alarms must also be secured.

Fires are always possible. Preventive measures are ideal besides being the cheapest. Possible sources of fire should be checked periodically like the electrical wiring, presence of flammable materials like volatile fuels, chemicals, waxes, oil soaked cloth, etc. Fire extinguishers should be distributed in key areas, and personnel should not only know where these are but also how to use them. The staff should also know and be trained on what to do in case of fire. Fire drills should be held regularly. Foam and water-type extinguishers can do more damage to collection items than anticipated. Extinguishers that do not leave residues should be preferred.

Water can be as dangerous to collection items just as fire and should be avoided. Storage areas should be above ground level to avoid ground water and floods. As much as possible there should be no water pipes in storage areas. Water can also come from leaking roof gutters or ill-placed pipes. Always be aware that the presence of water is damaging to collection items so that even in conservation processes it must be used with care.

Vandalism is a problem that can be prevented or minimized by the visibility of security personnel. An understanding of this can be considered in the layout and placement of objects, e.g. roping off sensitive areas; the use of glass; placing susceptible objects near security areas. Usually, an exhibition layout that exposes the visitor to view at all times is highly preventive.

Recourses for a Museum

1. General cleanliness of the storage, exhibition and curatorial areas should be constantly
2. Control of environmental conditions.
3. General security from theft, fire and water.
4. Maintenance of a registry and documentation, including the documentation of the conservation
processes used in any object.
5. Periodic  fumigation preferably by trained personnel.
6. Emergency conservation.
7. Use of white cotton gloves in handling specimens to protect these from the acid and oils of the skin.
8. Use of water-soluble adhesives.
9. Mounting and storing of objects in acid-free containers, including photos and negatives.
10. Use of professional conservation help when necessary. The Chemistry and Conservation Laboratory under the
Anthropology Division of the National Museum in Manila is the best equipped for this type of work not only in
terms of equipment but also of personnel. Technical assistance can be made available upon request. (tel. no.

Fumigation with Paradichlorobenzene (poison)

    1. Single small objects

Place the object to be fumigated in a plastic bag or envelope, then sprinkle it with some paradichlorobenzene crystals. Seal the opening completely with tape. Leave the bag for at least two weeks out of direct sunlight.

    2. Multiple or large objects


To treat sheets of documents (1) cut two pieces of Japanese paper one inch larger than the document. (2) Place Japanese paper on glass sheet and weight on document. (3) Place two-sided tape on melinex leaving a gap. Place the other sheet on top. Japanese paper is the least acidic of papers locally available.



Reference/s:Abinion,Orlandon.d. Field Conservation of Marine Artifact, Chemistry and Conservation Laboratory, National Museum, Manilan.d. Museum Environment, Chemistry and Conservation Laboratory, National Museum, ManilaA.C.T. Membersn.d. Exhibition and Storage Recommendations for the Small Museum, Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material.August, Raymon S. 1983 Museum: A Legal Definition. Curator, American Museum of Natural History, 26:2Johnson, E.V. and J.C. Horgann.d. Handbook for Museum Collection Storage. DraftZyskowski, Gloria1983 A Review of Literature on the Evaluation of Museum Programs, Curator, American Museum of Natural History, 26:2.1991 Training Report on the Care, Maintenance and Basic Conservation of Museum Artifacts, National Museum
About the Author:
Jesus T. Peralta is a Bachelor of Philosophy graduate from the University of Sto. Tomas, with a Master of Arts in Anthropology from the University of the Philippines, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology from the University of California. He was Director III of the National Museum until he retired in 1997. Most interestingly, he is also a ten-time winner in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards in Literature in the field of playwriting. He has more than 120 scientific papers and publications on anthropology, archaeology, and general culture to his name. He is the author of The Tinge of Red, Glimpses: Peoples of the Philippines and Insights into Philippine Culture: Festschrift in Honor of William Henry Scott. He now works as a Consultant for The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)-MIS.