Museum FAQ: Object research
People visit museums to learn more about topics that interest them. Museums showcase a wide range of rare, and unique items from all over the world. Museum collections staff are specially trained in how to preserve and protect these items so that future generations of visitors can enjoy the same experience. They also typically have an academic background that is closely related to the topics featured in their museum, so they can be great resources when you have an item you’d like to learn more about. Here at the Institute of Texan Cultures we frequently get questions from our guests looking for more information about objects that they have discovered. Sometimes when the story of “what is that?” gets lost, and museums can help.
One of the questions that I often get asked, when people find out where I work, is: “How do you know if the objects are real?” By which, I assume, people want to know how museums do object research to know things like…when was it made…who made it…what was it used for…where did it come from. This type of research can be time consuming, but is definitely something that most people (even non-museum experts) can learn to do. In fact, it can be one of the most exciting parts of acquiring a new collections object.
So, what are the basic steps in researching an object?
Investigation: First, I spend some time talking to the person who brought me the object, to see what they might already know about it. Like a detective, I’m looking for clues about what it might be and where it came from. Sometimes, the person knows parts of the story already and I just need to find the evidence to either confirm or disprove what they already know. Other times, the person bringing the object may have information that can be useful but not even realize it. It is important to know where the item was found, and any previous owners, as these can sometimes be the clues you need to point you in the right direction.
Examination & Documentation: Next, I like to thoroughly examine the item. Are there any makers marks or writing on it? What types of materials is it made of? How big is it? How is it put together? During this step it is important to document any clues that I find. Taking photos and notes will help you refer back to these clues later.
Research: Depending on the type of object, and what you’re wanting to know, some museums may be able to tell you immediately about your item after just these first steps. However, some objects and inquiries need a little more thought and research, even for someone with a museum background. Museum professionals will then use a variety of written and online resources, along with consultations with subject matter experts, to help discover more about your object. However, even a non-expert can sometimes turn up a wealth of information, just through some basic internet searches and a little patience.
Just like the professionals, start by investigating your item’s history and examining it for clues. These steps should give you some basic information to start your search with. Begin by searching for any names that you discovered. Today there are a number of genealogy and public records focused websites that can help you to find: obituaries, probate records, census records, military service records, newspaper articles and other documents related to these names. Business names, patent numbers, and makers marks can also be searched on the internet with great success, and foreign language inscriptions can be roughly translated using a number of free internet based translation tools. The results of these types of searches can often help tell you where your item came from, and when it was made.
If your investigation and examination did not turn up any names or marks, try to learn more general information about the type of object you have. For instance, if you are researching a wooden trunk, you can use the internet to find out what type of trunks there are. Were certain shapes manufactured, or more popular, in certain areas or at certain times? Sometimes you will discover that your item belongs to a recognizable type, that can be dated or linked to a specific company or maker. At this stage, it is also helpful to use the internet for image searches. These can help you find other similar items, that might have already been identified by someone else.
Hopefully, after these steps you will have discovered what type of item you have, where it was likely made, and roughly how old it is. To find more specific details you can sometimes find collectors guides or books written about your specific type of item. These resources can help you compare how your item is constructed and what it is made of with other similar items, to give you more information about your piece.
If you still weren’t able to find any information about your object, please feel free to seek expert help. Museums are often willing to do some identification research for our visitors, even when they aren’t interested in donating the item. However, do remember that museums are not able to provide any appraisal information. University departments are also sometimes willing to help research objects, and (for a fee) you can contact an appraiser to find out more about your item. [Kathryn S. McCloud]