On Mondays We Catalogue – Winterthur Week 4

Life is full of many seemingly unanswerable questions.

Mysteries so vast, so expansive, and so seemingly all-encompassing that figuring out how to find their answers seems impossible.

Luckily, my time at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library has lead to some knowledge about one of those big life mysteries. While I cannot tell you about the meaning of life, explain the phenomenon of human consciousness, or tell you how many licks it takes to get to the center of a lollipop – I can explain “cataloguing”, and how some of that process works for Winterthur’s museum database.

The “In” with Cataloguing

The reason I am learning to catalogue, and am part of a long-term cataloguing project during my internship, is sadly linked to a tale steeped in misfortune.

Winterthur recently received a large gift from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM), including textiles, print blocks, and dye.  The museum, located in Lowell, Massachusetts since 1960, was forced to shut down in May due to serious financial deficit.

As you can see, AHTM no longer has any hours.

As you can see, AHTM no longer has any hours.

But ATHM employees and other academics wanted to make sure the museum’s contents would still be cared for, preserved, and available for study. As a result, parts of ATHM’s collection has recently been passed on to a variety of institutions, including the Boston Public Library (MA), Cornell University Library (NY), National Museum of American History (Washington, D.C.), and the Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center (NC), as well as many others including Winterthur.

But now that Winterthur has acquired several hundred new objects and their records, they all need to be given new accession numbers, photographed, and uploaded to the museum’s online database.

That’s Where We Come In

This tedious task is the responsibility of the Registrar’s Office. They regularly catalogue newly acquired items, and track all object storage locations and movements once they are part of Winterthur’s permanent collection. One of the Registrars, Julia, once described herself as the equivalent of a librarian for objects instead of books. The work is detail-oriented, requires using databases, and involves lots of random knowledge of and interaction with a variety of objects (for example – carriage rugs smelling strongly of horse pee, Pennsylvania German Fraktur artwork, or snuff boxes made from cowrie shells).


Paula, another Registrar, has been kind enough to teach me how to help with the initial stages of the cataloguing process. As of a few weeks ago, we spend every Monday morning up in Textile Storage II, slowly working our way through 12 boxes of printing blocks. We read off the old accession number ATHM used, locate that number in a spreadsheet of all the gifted objects, and record Winterthur’s new accession number on the other side of the object’s tag.


A print block featuring its new Winterthur accession number

A print block featuring its new Winterthur accession number

Then I photograph the front and back of each object, and Paula records the file names for both photos in the spreadsheet for later reference. And we repeat the process again. And again. And again and again until lunch.

This Monday before 12:30, we took 261 photos of 130 different blocks.

back view

Reverse view of block 2017.19.121.51 A

front view

Front view of print block 2017.19.121.51 A








Round Two

In the afternoon, all the pictures need to be renamed with the object’s accession number, so object photos are easier to locate in folders and upload to the database. The images also need to be resized in Photoshop, but luckily the program has a feature that allows for processing multiple files at once, meaning 100 portrait-oriented pictures can be resized at the same time, and no one has to individually edit all 261 pictures.

Down the Road

So far, we’ve taken 323 photographs, corresponding to roughly 161 print blocks. Paula and I are only one third of the way through the 12 boxes of print blocks currently in Textile Storage II. The rest, and the massive collection of ATHM textiles will all eventually need photographing, resizing, renaming, and uploading to Winterthur’s database, where information in their object files and extra notes about their acquisition will need to be correctly compiled as well (One typo, and suddenly finding object 2017.0019.121.122 becomes much trickier…).

So many boxes to go...

So many boxes to go…

While I am only involved in a small part of the larger registration process, it has been really interesting to contribute to the slow and steady work required to catalogue objects and update digitized databases, whose information academics rely on – although they may not consider how the records got there. Working with Registration has also meant handling objects – sometimes repackaging fumigated textiles, removing objects for photographing, or finding accession tags to help with inventory. There are moments to directly interact with objects during processing, which can lead to interesting discoveries, funny conversations, and unexpected second-hand knowledge.

While it is sad the American Textile History Museum had to close its doors, they are lucky their collections will remain preserved and cared for by a variety of institutions across the country. And though bringing these objects into Winterthur is a slow and detailed process, I appreciate that I get to learn about this behind-the-scenes work, and contribute to the initial stages of brining these objects into their new home.

Another block from the collection, number 2017.19.121.125 A

Another block from the collection, number 2017.19.121.125 A

Reverse side of 2017.19.121.125 A

Reverse side of 2017.19.121.125 A