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Demystifying the Museum: What is Cataloging?

Updated: Feb 26

By: Hannah Rodums, Museum Attendant at the Wayne Museum and Staff Member of the Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs

Forgive us for bragging, but we think cataloging 1,000 artifacts in one year is a pretty big deal!

Figure 1- A 'behind the scenes' look at cataloging at the Wayne Museum.

What is an artifact? Well, anything made or used by human beings, really- in fact, 'artifact' is just a fancy way of describing many of the objects you might have in your house. An artifact can be a pasta bowl; your favorite old T-shirt; a tube of toothpaste; a sofa; a piece of wallpaper; and so many other possibilities. Every artifact has a story to tell, be they fancy china plates in a museum or the pack of pens that live at the bottom of your desk drawer. As museum attendants, it's our job to figure out what those stories are, and how to tell them.

How we find these stories is what we call 'cataloging'. First, we start off with the easy questions: What is this artifact? What's it made of? What color is it? How big is it? Are there are any familiar shapes? Then comes the heavier research. Are there any other artifacts like the one we have that still exist? What do other museums say about similar artifacts in their collections? Can we find any primary sources, such as newspaper articles or advertisements, that mention the artifact by name? It's questions like these that allow us to peel back the layers of history an artifact has- stories of the people who made the artifact, stories of the people who used the artifact, stories of how the artifact was changed between its creation and our present moment. Research is the difference between 'that dusty old lampstand in the corner' and 'a rare brass lampstand made by Christian Cornelius & Co. of Philadelphia, between the years 1845 and 1850.' Every piece of the puzzle you find is priceless.