How to Prioritize Which Museum Objects are Cataloged First

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

February 21, 2024

If you are starting from the beginning, it is critically important to prioritize which sections of the museum collection you intend to catalog first.

Prioritization will help portion out the project, allow you to create concrete projects, and achieve a steady set of outcomes. This can also aid your attempt to have a portion (or all) of the work funded by donors or a grant award—as it is easier to write a successful proposal for a focused area of work. But where to begin? And, how to prioritize? This post will walk you through prompts to aid in identifying high priority areas of the collection.

Identify Museum Priorities (at-large)

The priorities for one collection will not necessarily be the same at another museum. It will depend on a variety of factors specific to your museum. This first set of prompts are a high-level set so that you can identify important functions of your museum, program goals, and stakeholders.

With that in mind, we have the following prompts to consider:

  • What is the mission of the museum?
  • What elements are in the museum’s strategic plan?
  • Who are our stakeholders?
  • Who are regular consumers of our collection?
  • What educational programs are slated for the next few years?
  • What exhibitions are scheduled for the next few years?

Once we have information for each of these areas, we can consider how our collection presently supports those areas—and how cataloged data can further enhance the collection’s contributions toward larger museum programs and goals. Knowing this information helps to provide a vision for how cataloging the collection supports foundational work at the museum. This vision can also help guide you in determining which areas of the collection are priorities for cataloging first.

Identify Prioritization Criteria for Collection Items

There is an inherent set of prioritization criteria based on item use and fragility, as well as its ability to represent diverse communities and ultimately serve the museum’s audience.

Consider the following:

  • Which items are used the most?
  • Which items may be used more if information was more readily available?
  • Which items are incredibly fragile, such that a catalog representation could guard against further handling?
  • Which items help to diversify the currently “known” collection?
  • Which items may help to drive stakeholder interest?

I recommend creating a spreadsheet to help capture your answers to these prompts so you can begin to coalesce the criteria for priority areas of the collection. As your collection isn’t cataloged (yet!) you may need to stick with descriptive identifiers for items versus a set of accession number or collection category.

Picking the Top Priority Criteria

At this point, you likely have many priority areas from which to choose. It is now time to select one or more criteria you will start with first.

Of the following, which will you choose first? And if you were to choose two or three criteria, would a high priority cross-section reveal itself?

  • Objects that meet the museum goals and mission
  • Objects that meet museum program needs
  • Objects that meet stakeholder desires
  • Objects that are used frequently
  • Objects that are fragile
  • Objects that help to diversify what’s on display in the collection
  • Objects that may further help to increase stakeholder interest

For example: If I select objects that support museum program needs and are also incredibly fragile, which cross-section of the collection meets both criteria? Those items (in this example) are priority #1.


You are now more than half-way to commencing your catalog project. You have gathered the information you need, you have put together a strategy for your approach to the project, and you have now completed your prioritization criteria so you know exactly where you will start your project. Next week we finish our series with tips on how to batch process cataloging large amounts of museum objects.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

To learn more, please join us for a free webinar, What to Do When None of the Collection is Cataloged, February 28,  2024 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we will send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now

Similar Posts

Leave a Comment

Comments are reviewed and must adhere to our comments policy.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This