Museum CMS 101: Workflow and Record Construction

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

November 20, 2019

If selected and used correctly, the museum collections management system (CMS) has the power to positively impact museum staff work and increase digital user enjoyment.

One of the primary uses of a museum CMS is to catalog museum objects and publish them online. In order to do this, collections managers or museum registrars have a workflow that leads them from object selection to digitization to catalog. Workflows are in place to ensure consistent practices among museum staff, and catalog record fields are predetermined based on the museum’s set of best practices.

Workflow Creation

A workflow is an accumulation of actions taken for each step in a process. Cataloging object records is a process and one that comes with a unique workflow specific to each museum. A sample workflow can look like this:

  1. Select an object to catalog (determined by museum priority or current project)
  2. Review any existing (physical and digital) object file notes
  3. Retrieve or capture a digital image of the object
  4. Research the object to establish basic information such as: title, creator, creation date, and description
  5. Enter required information into CMS object record per established standards and best practices
  6. Submit the record for approval or publish (dependent upon staff permissions)

Depending on museum staff size and what object information is already available, this workflow can be expanded or contracted. When using a CMS, it’s important to create and periodically review CMS-specific workflows to confirm they’re still accurate given the shop setup, staff capabilities, and current technology in use. This will help guarantee a consistent quality of museum CMS content and help mitigate future CMS clean up.

Museum Catalog Standards

While the concept of a catalog of curious objects is centuries old, it’s important to note how the catalog has evolved. The largest recent change was the adoption of the digital CMS. In the last 40 years, museum catalog systems and rules have evolved. Unlike libraries and archives where there are only a few endorsed descriptive standards—and controlled vocabularies to choose from—the museum field has several options and tends to be less regulated. Often, cataloging rules are predicated on the type of collections held at the museum, as opposed to universal rules adopted by the field.

CMS Catalog Fields & Controlled Vocabularies

The following are fields commonly used to capture important object data. It’s important for the museum to determine which fields are required or recommended within the catalog record, and how field content should be entered. For example, the title field should use headline capitalization and the description field must use full sentences, spell out acronyms, and use proper grammar.

Object Identification Number (must be unique, usually the accession number)
Object Title
Object Creator
Object Description
Object Provenance
Object Materials & Format
Object Size
Object Location

In addition to object-specific information, the catalog record should also include controlled vocabularies to help identify and cross-reference related materials through: classification, creator, subject, taxonomy, and other term delineations. Commonly recognized vocabularies are: Art and Architecture Thesaurus, Library of Congress, Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging, and Chenhall’s Nomenclature.


Knowing which catalog fields are used in the museum CMS will help to inform the CMS workflow. When setting up the CMS workflow and constructing the catalog record it’s important to test each to make sure they meet museum requirements, and periodically review them to make sure they’re still suited to museum purposes. It’s equally important to follow the established workflow and predetermined catalog record structure in order to maintain museum data quality and consistency across records. Maintaining high-quality work within the CMS signals to external stakeholders (funders, researchers, community members, visitors, etc.) that the museum is committed to excellence in their stewardship of the museum collection.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and digitization and read more of Rachael’s blog posts here.

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