Processing the Unknown: Logistical Solutions

Elizabeth Fiorentino
Project Manager

Presentation Slides

I am going to briefly introduce to you our process that took place over three years. I am going to touch upon the start of the project, the move from the Brooklyn museum to the offsite warehouse, and our method for processing the collection. I'll also make a brief note about processing the Charles James material.

At the start of the project, there were three main unknowns influencing our planning strategies. First, we didn't know how many objects there were. As Jan mentioned we estimated it to be about twenty-seven thousand. Second, we didn't know the content of the collection. We knew about the select objects and collections that were well documented over the years, but we would all being seeing everything for the first time. Third, we didn't know how to find anything with precision. The majority of the locations of the objects were unknown. We had a general sense of what types of garments and accessories were stored where, but we needed to build a retrievable system from scratch. Once the move was complete, we would have a unique opportunity to have everything in 1 dedicated space: the entire collection, the permanent accession records and flexible access to the database.

The first step was the move. The collection was stored by object type in nine different storage areas in various containers. These are images of various storerooms. Most garments were hanging on stationary racks or on rolling garment carts. Many garments were also stored in large dress boxes or oversized boxes. Accessories were stored in hundreds of boxes of varying sizes. Many hats and shoes were stored on open shelves; and other garments and accessories were layered in cabinet drawers.

The storeroom that was the most challenging to evacuate is shown on the left. This room held mid- to late twentieth-century garments stored hanging on stationary poles. They were stored in order by decade and then by designer. This order was retained as garments were loaded onto empty carts that had been previously purchased for the move. The image on the right shows a cart being filled. The storeroom was only accessible by a narrow staircase, so a hole had to be made in the ceiling and the carts were lowered down on a mechanical lift.

The image on the left shows a cart about to go to the floor below with a label indicating the cart number. Each cart was given a number in successive order. This allowed us to retain the original storage order once we were in the new space. Assigning container numbers was also a way to manage the collection in bulk and, secondary to the object number, became our main system for tracking the collection. On the right is an image of a cart suspended from the lift. In total, we unloaded 2,800 garments onto 114 carts.

In the image on the left are garment carts loaded with large dress boxes. We were lucky that the sixty-inch boxes fit perfectly onto extra empty garment carts. This became an unexpectedly efficient transport method. Each box had already been assigned a container number, and similar to the carts, this became our way to track the objects inside. In the image on the right, hats are being loaded into temporary boxes, which would then be boxed again for transport.

This is a list of everything we ended up moving. The image on the right shows a trailer truck about to unload garment carts. As Jan mentioned, it took eleven days to move to the offsite facility. In total, there were twelve runs (two per day) with a forty-eight-foot trailer truck and three runs (one per day) with a twenty-four-foot truck.

We had fifteen thousand square feet in the new space and these are the twelve areas or rooms we created to store the collection, in addition to office space. Containers were loaded in first by container type (cart, box or cabinet) and then by object type. Each room, shelving unit and cabinet drawer was assigned a number and/or letter combination creating more than five hundred unique locations. These were loaded into the database and became our system for storing and retrieving objects once object processing was complete.

As Jan has introduced, we created work flow procedures to process the collection. I am going to talk about four stages: preparation for cataloging, cataloging, photography and return to a home location. Though the storage formats varied and the logistics evolved as we encountered different types of objects, the process essentially remained the same throughout the project.

During each quarter of our three-year schedule, objects were retrieved from storage in the order of our plan. If an object type was in more than one type of container, such as hats being both on shelves and in boxes, one container type was processed first from start to finish, then the other type.

A tag was created for each object in the container, listing designer or date range, accession number and each component part. The accession number was searched in the database to make sure the record corresponded to the object. If needed, the accession book was checked to clear up any minor number or description discrepancies. If there was a major discrepancy, the object was set aside for further research.

The container number was then recorded in the database and a temporary location assigned. Since most collection items did not have an existing location, this became the first time the objects were officially tracked. A checklist with object number, title, date, designer and location was printed for each container. Preparing and annotating a physical checklist became our way to track where an object was at all times within the processing stages.

As the objects were cataloged, they were sorted according to curatorial status. Empty containers with pre-assigned numbers were made available for sorting. The RA would then annotate the checklist with the curatorial status and new container number and give completed lists given to CM. If there were any object number changes based on a thorough comparing of the object with the database and the accession books, these were also noted on the checklist. As containers became full, they were separated in the staging area according to the type of photography needed: special or access and marked "Cataloging complete." CM updated the new container numbers, assigned another temporary location if necessary, printed a new checklist by status for photography and marked the container "Ready for photography."

The photographer would then retrieve the readied container and copy the checklist so that the date of each image could be recorded. If any number or location discrepancies were discovered during photography, these were recorded on the checklist. After photography, the finished list given to CM and the container tagged "photography complete."

After photography, CM would update the database with any corrections. A home location was assigned and updated in the database, a new list printed, and the container was returned to storage. Here are a few images of completed containers with an object list. 

As much as possible, like material was stored together by status. Deaccessions were kept in one area, and regular and special items were either interspersed or kept separate. These images show the various ways containers were labeled to indicate the content inside, many generated with images from the completed database records.

I had to include this image because it shows our three stages of processing in such a low-tech way. Notes were made for preparation, cataloging, and photography.

Spreadsheets were another matter. For each quarter I kept a list of each object type that was processed. This examples shows the home location, the content, stage of processing that had been completed. Keeping track of the object count was also important and was consistently compared to our initial object count to make sure that we were on track. As our quarters progressed, the phasing between what was being cataloging, what was being shot in the photography studios was no longer in alignment. This was often due to the photo setup, since it made more sense to shoot by the current set up, rather than by the cataloging order. The result being that an object cataloged in quarter six may not have been photographed until quarter eight.

The James collection was well documented in the 1982 Charles James exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and the accompanying book The Genius of Charles James by Elizabeth Ann Coleman. Many garments came into the collection with sewn muslins and flat patterns that were used in the process of creating the garment. We also had almost four hundred sketches, some of which related to specific garments. Because so much preliminary research had been done, we had the unique opportunity of being able to study the supporting material and document and cross-reference it. The image on the right shows the paper patterns in portfolio boxes, and the image on the right show one of the paper patterns fully laid out.

Using the related records feature in the database, we were then able to cross reference the supporting muslins, patterns and sketches for each garment. This screen is showing an object record of a ball gown; the upper half shows the ball gown and the lower half shows the supporting material. To the right is a half sewn muslin created in preparation for the garment and to the left are all of the other associated garments and patterns. Many garments had a model number and/or a specific name which was entered into each relevant record.

In the end, we were able to answer our three unknowns. We cataloged 23,821 objects in total, almost evenly split between garments and accessories. Every item was located and here is an approximate breakdown of the numbers by method. And also, in the end, the three places to record the unique object number of each object: the object tag, the accession record and the database all said the same thing.


Explore the Met's publications.


Now at the Met offers in-depth articles and multimedia features about the Museum's current exhibitions, events, research, announcements, behind-the-scenes activities, and more.

Thomas J. Watson Library

Thomas J. Watson Library is the central research library of The Metropolitan Museum of Art—one of the world's most comprehensive collections of books, periodicals, auction catalogs, and online resources relating to the history of art. Open to all visitors college age and older. Search the collections.