Museum accession numbers are like gang tattoos

Left column: Museum objects with permanent accession numbers. Right column: Latin Kings gang tattoos.

Left column: Museum objects with permanent accession numbers. Right column: Latin Kings gang tattoos.

I think one of the most bizarre museum practices is the act of marking museum artefacts with an accession number. Like the tattoos of gang members, it is a permanent symbol which marks their lifelong membership in a collective from which they can never again be completely separate.

The most common tattoo among gangsters of all nationalities is one that denotes the gang that they are in. This is seen as the mark of lifelong membership. The gang ethos of “blood in, blood out”–the idea that the prospective member must kill someone as the price of admission to the gang and cannot leave except by dying himself–is embodied in the tattoo as a sign of permanent belonging to the gang.

Linda Goldberg, “Gang Tattoos: Signs of Belonging and the Transience of Signs” (2001)

For anyone not familiar, an accession number is an identifying sequence of numbers and letters assigned to an object when it is formally accepted into a museum collection. The accession number is what connects the item to a body of information about it: what it is, where it came from, what it is made of, etc. Generally it is considered best practice to permanently write this number on an inconspicuous part of the object which won’t be seen by a visitor when on display. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the logic of this. It is very easy for a label to become separated from an item over time, which risks the loss of important information or even the object itself in a sea of thousands of museum objects.

But with the permanence of this gesture, it becomes a symbolic gesture where the object loses its autonomy as an object with a function and a context and becomes a part of the larger collection. This is like gang tattoos. Blood in, blood out. By becoming marked, it gets the protection of the big tough conservation team, the savvy street smarts of the curators, a sense of valuable community among the other esteemed objects in the collection, an assurance of income from the museum funders, and it earns respect for being valuable enough to belong to the collection.

But it stops having a context, a true function of its own. A vase will never again hold flowers. An altarpiece will never again be prayed in front of. A piece of clothing will never again be worn to a fabulous party. They all cease to exist as objects in their own rights, and become purely aesthetic and cerebral considerations. Their context exists only with other castrated objects like these; they become mere symbols of the function they once had, of the places they came from, of the people who they belonged to.

And it all begins with the ritual tattooing of the accession number, which permanently marks its acceptance into the gang museum collection…

Left: a curator marks a dish with a museum accession number; Right: a tattoo artist tattoos the arm of a patron// Top images (clockwise from upper left): Natural Trust Historic Sites; Mug Shot Museum; PI Bill Warner; Wikipedia; Pitt Rivers Museum; The British Museum.

Bottom image: (left) Archaeology in Cebu; (right) Buzznet.


Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:

Two little girls captivated by looking through a vent instead of the modern art on the museum walls.

4 thoughts on “Museum accession numbers are like gang tattoos

  1. Pingback: GUEST POST: Jessica Draper on Die Antwoord | The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

  2. I love this post, but I wanted to slightly change one thing. Some of the objects that get ‘jumped in’ by curators actually do get used again as they were initially intended. Thanks to modern repatriation efforts to connect indigenous cultures with materials collected from their ancestors, many museum pieces are returning to a more active cultural life. Some cultural groups have chosen to reclaim artifacts that have been required by federal laws to be returned to them. Other groups have worked out arrangements with museums to be able to visit and use their cultural items while allowing the museums to continue caring for and studying them. It’s pretty cool to see how different institutions and cultural groups are working around the issue of ownership and appropriate, respectful treatment of artifacts.

  3. Pingback: Cleaning the elephant skin | The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

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