Museum Cataloguer

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Museum Cataloguer


Museums are full of artifacts. Not only are there the items on display, but there can be acres of storage space and archives filled to the brim with artifacts kept in safe, environmentally controlled places. Every museum, no matter what the size, has someone who works as a cataloger, documenting items in the collection, keeping track of everything both in the galleries and tucked into storage. The cataloger may work exclusively in this area in a large museum, while in a small museum, cataloging may be the responsibility of administrators, curators, and conservators.

If you look closely at artifacts in a museum or on a historic site, you will see that each item has a little number either printed on it directly, or on a card nearby. This number is its catalog number. Every time a new item is donated or acquired by the museum, the cataloger must register it. They examine the whole item, inspecting it thoroughly. They record everything they know about the piece--where it came from, the previous owner, the date it arrived, size, shape, color, and any writing that is on it. Catalogers may even photograph or reproduce the item. Catalogers try to find out as much information as they can about each item, including its historical significance and its role in the collection.

Catalogers use computer databases and other programs to keep their records. This way, the information is easily accessible to museum staff, in case of damage, theft, or when curators and historians need to research. If catalogers have been thorough and consistent, keeping tabs on a collection is as easy as clicking a mouse.
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  Interests and Skills  
Museum catalogers need to be patient, firm, and decisive individuals with good communication skills, especially good writing skills. An open cultural outlook is important, as are some foreign language skills. They should have good eyesight, be able to lift heavy items, and have good manual dexterity . They should have a love for art, history, and an understanding of various styles, genres, and time periods. They should enjoy research. An analytical mind, as well as a thorough, methodical approach to work and tasks, are important qualities for catalogers.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Examine each artifact, finding out as much as they can about history, condition, and use
  • Assign each artifact a number
  • Program information and number into computer programs
  • Update the catalog when necessary
  • Retrieve information for other museum staff
  • The typical day for the cataloger will involve working in labs or offices, examining each new artifact before cataloging it. They will consult with curators and conservators, as well as other catalogers, when necessary. They will use a database for recording new acquisitions, and when staff are looking for a particular artifact. The cataloger will locate the item using the cataloging systems. Catalogers work regular hours, unless a large number of artifacts are acquired and need to be stored or displayed immediately, which means longer hours. The job may allow for some travel, when visiting archives and storage spaces of other museums, historic sites, and libraries.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Museum catalogers are employed by archives, museums, historic sites and non-retail art galleries.They may travel a few times a year, within the city and around the world, visiting other museums and attending conferences.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Museum catalogers can advance to conservator, interpreter, and administrative positions, or leave museums altogether and find work in public and university libraries. They can also apply their methodical and analytical skills to other fields, such as journalism, history, bibliography, and data entry.

  Educational Paths  
Museum catalogers typically require some form of postsecondary education. They need an bachelor's degree in art history, history, administration, anthropology, English or sociology. This is enough to acquire some work in museums, however, a master's degree in library science, art history, or museum studies improves your chances at being hired as a cataloger. It is recommended that mueseum catalogers supplement their education with courses in computers, business studies, and languages.

Volunteering with a library, archive, or museum now, can provide valuable experience in this field.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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