The Accession Table: an international database for museums

The Accession Table: an international database for museums

From Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

By Luciana Rosa, Feb. 2021

The Accession Table, I learned from Oliver, is an enormous database that tracks all artifacts in all museums, everywhere. It’s been around since the middle of the twentieth century. Back then it ran on punch cards passed around, copied, kept in catalogs. In a world where artifacts are always on the move — from a museum’s third subbasement, up to the exhibition hall, over to another museum (which is in Boston or Belgium) — it is a necessity.

[...] The Accession Table helps catch forgeries: each museum sets up its terminal to watch for new records bearing suspicious similarities to artifacts already in its collection. When the Accession Table sounds its alarm, it means that somewhere, someone has just been duped.”

Well, in this case, we've been duped.

Mr. Penumbra's is such a fantastic book. It is the story of Clay, a web designer in San Francisco who starts working for this bizarre book shop / library. It mashes an old story of a secret society that started 500 years ago with the recent developments of Google and how new technology and old knowledge can merge.

There are so many things to explore in this book, but I chose The Accession Table just because I liked the idea. And I wondered how museums actually track what they own and what is in the inventory of other museums.

Turns out they don't, or at least not properly. There is no integrated international system of museums' inventory - heck, there isn't even a national one.

Each museum has its own "Collections Management System" (CSM), and the first one, GRYPHOS, was developed in the 60s by a group of New York Museums (you might recall this name from one of the characters in the book, the Italian font designer from the 1500s, Griffo Gerritszoon. But actually, Griffo was based on the real Italian font designer, Francesco Griffo. So here it comes in a full circle).

But do "accession tables" exist?

Yes, if you are talking about furniture for museums. This is an accession table:

I believe Sloan based the name of the system on "accession numbers".

""Accession" is one or more objects acquired at one time from one source, constituting a single transaction between the museum and a source (Burcaw 1997)."

"Accession number" is a unique number to a single museum object. It is physically attached to the object and also appears on records that relate to the object. In other words, it is a link between an object in a collection and its paperwork.

Some institutions are trying to build a global database like the Access Table, such as the Worldwide Database of University Museums and Collections, a project of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). But this one is focused on the inventory of universities only.

I kept thinking that The Accession Table is something very necessary for museums, however, it can also be a liability. If it would be hacked then it would be a feast of information for burglars all over the world.

Every museum in the world uses the Accession Table, from the humblest community history co-op to the most opulent national collection, and every museum has an identical monitor. It’s the Bloomberg terminal of antiquity. When any artifact is found or purchased, it gets a new record in this museological matrix. If it’s ever sold or burned to a crisp, the record is dropped. But as long as any scrap of canvas or sliver of stone remains in any collection anywhere, it’s still on the books.”

― From Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan


Will Travel For Art Blog, "The Accession Table"

Wikipedia, "Collections Management Systems"

Harvard Art Museums, "A Numbers Game"

Gallerysystems, "Best Practices in Collections Management Policies"

Worldwide Database of University Museums and Collections

Book: "Introduction to Museum Work", George Ellis Burcaw, 1997