Museum Terminology

Here are some common museum terms with some informal common sense definitions in plain English. Sadly people keep misusing some words e.g. “gift” and “loan” which are NOT verbs and “borrowing” which is a verb and not a noun!



The verb “to accession” is the act of entering an artifact(s) into the collection record.  The noun accession is one entry and consists of all of the items donated (or otherwise acquired) from one source (e.g. donor) at one time. A later donation by the same donor would be a different accession.


The cumulative record of donations or acquisitions by other means for the museum. The Accession Register should include the accession number, source (name and address), brief description of the artifact. This should be in HARD COPY form as well as in a DATABASE. Computers are stolen and hard drives do become corrupted and/or crash (yes I found that out the hard way). MAKE REGULAR BACKUP COPIES!!!!!! Store a copy off site in case of fire, flood etc. Imagine if the Registrar’s Office had a fire and the collection survived, but all of the accession records were destroyed.


The process of registering an artifact into the collection. It is sometimes called “registration”.


In museums this means to set a value as of a certain date on an artifact, usually for tax receipt or insurance purposes. One is looking for the “Fair market Value” (FMV) i.e. what the item would sell for in an open market between a willing selling and a willing buyer. It does NOT mean simply writing a tax receipt for what the donor says something is worth. (see scandal in Saskatchewan circa 1980 of Doctors buying art cheaply and getting massive tax receipts). CAUTION!  In archives however “appraisal” means something very different and it has come to mean culling out the documents and discarding whatever the archivist does not feel should remain or be entered into the collection.


An artifact is simply put, anything made by or modified by humans. Thus a meteorite as found is a natural history specimen, whereas a axe is an artifact. Artifact is the North American spelling, and artefact is the British spelling. In Canada we used the artifact spelling (and I still do) but by the year 2010, the use of “artefact” had flooded in with people jumping on the bandwagon.


As a noun, “catalogue” is the detailed description of an artifact(s). The Verb is “to catalogue,” as in cataloguing, and this is the process of creating and/or editing this detailed record. This is a huge bottleneck area in museum registration and is one of the areas where so many museums “go wrong”. My belief, after working in museums for 40 years, is that the priority should be 1. Registration 2. Cataloguing. It is better to have 100% of the collection accessioned (registered) than 50% catalogued and 50% completely unaccessioned. By the way, with computers is so much easier to catalogue than it used to be when we had to type multiple catalogue cards. It is easy to back and update, correct or add to any record. Remember to make back-up copies and store one set off-site!


The process of removing something from the collection and closing off the relevant record. This should be approved by the governing body and should NOT be secret. Curators should NOT simply give stuff away to friends or take items home (see Halifax Curator scandal). In a museum the Curator should receive approval in writing from the governing body before disposing of any accessioned artifacts (through discarding, destruction, sale, trade, return to source etc.) (see Director of the provincial museum in New Brunswick who lost their job over deaccessioning by secret destruction of pottery). The deaccessioning process should be a formal policy and written records maintained. Assume that you will be audited by the media when the Mayor discovers that you deaccessioned his mother’s sewing machine. You had better have a fully documented and defensible explanation (stolen, destroyed in fire, transferred to a museum where the history was more relevant etc.)


The legal owner signs something over to the museum. It is a gift, preferably without any strings attached. Remember that museums acquire items by various means other than by donation. A museum may find something (field collection at an old industrial site etc.), purchase or borrow as a loan (temporary). As such, “GIFT FORM” and “DONATION FORM” are too limiting. A better term is “ACQUISITION FORM”.


A noun. The verb is “to give”. A gift is something given by someone to another person or institution.  If someone gives something to a museum then it is a gift or a donation. GIFTING / GIFTED  – These are NOT proper English! DO NOT USE THEM!


Loan is a NOUN not a verb!!!!!!!!!!!  The verb is “to lend!  You go to the bank to ask for a loan, and they may lend you the money. Remember that a borrowed item, i.e. a loan, does NOT belong to the museum! It should receive a Loan Number not an Accession Number. Owners of their estates may show up decades in the future to retrieve the item. Good record keeping is ESSENTIAL as this in not your property. You are holding it in trust for the owner. The horror stories of loans that went bad are legion.


Verb: To register. The process of recording something in the collection records. This properly entails assigning an Accession Number, the source and  a brief description (if there are unique features such as a serial number do include this!)


The person who does the accessioning/registration of artifacts, and keeps the records.


A word used by museum snobs to say “display case”. From the Old French for “glass”.


Common use does NOT make these “words” correct though the preponderance of thweir use gains popular acceptance on social media.  The common excuse is that “everyone is doing it” simply does not mean that it is right. Yes, languages evolves over time, but the use of these fake words constitutes devolution of the English language. A museum using these made up words looks like it is staffed with ignorant fools when its forms use incorrect English (or French as the case may be). Please do have a well educated person proofread forms etc.


This is NOT a noun. Do not talk about “borrowings”. A borrowed item is a “loan.” The city museum is borrowing a 1914 car from  the car museum. The car came in as a loan.


This is NOT a real word. It is a made up word used by ignorant people who are too lazy to learn proper English. Donating or Giving are the proper words.


Loan is a NOUN. The verb is “to lend!  You go to the bank to ask for a loan, and they lend you the money (hopefully).

And while we are at it, since it is my web site …   😉


To fail is a verb. When describing something that went wrong, the word to use is “failure.”  


Verb is “To invite.” The noun is “invitation”. As in: I invited her to the exhibit opening. She has not yet replied to the invitation.


Lazy people’s writing for “self-portrait.”

Links to other pages of mine on museums:

About Museums