Counting Objects: From 1 to 98,901 in Four Years

The Kentucky History Society opened its doors in 1836 and has been collecting objects for more than 150 years. A lot can happen in a century and a half. KHS moved locations several times. The museum field developed as a profession with professional standards and practices. Technological advances made recordkeeping easier.

Several years ago, we decided that it was time to make sure we knew exactly what we have in our museum collection. We not only wanted to know what items we have, we also wanted to know why we have them and where we came from. This information is important because it allows us to best care for and use our collection.

We applied for a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to fund a complete inventory of every object we have stored, as well as those in our exhibits at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, the Old State Capitol and the Kentucky Military History Museum.

With the last full inventory dating to 1939 and an estimated 100,000 objects in our collection, we knew we had our work cut out for us. To call the project overwhelming is an understatement; in fact some people called it impossible.

Our artifacts collections team started the process in 2013. Staff, interns and volunteers opened every box, door and drawer in museum storage; took out each object, photographed it, measured it and wrote a detailed description and condition report on it. Then we uploaded the information and photos into an online, searchable database so everyone can have access to it.

Now, four years later, we are nearing the end of the project. There have been many challenges and bumps along the way, as well as some interesting surprises. We have rediscovered objects, the people of Kentucky and their stories.

Some of our favorite items include the small watercolor portrait we found in the bottom of a storage box. We believe it to be a work of itinerant painter Guildford Limner (1939.118).

We discovered a World War II-era machine gun camera – a camera the shape and size of a machine gun, mounted to an airplane in the same fashion, used for photo surveillance (1990.106.01).

Among our impressive collection of tools is a wood molding plane that Cesar Cheslor made. Cheslor was a freed salve, once owned by and apprenticed to planemaker Francis Nicholson. Once he gained his freedom, Cheslor continued to make tools and was the first known African American toolmaker in the United States (Unnumbered-873).

Nine volunteers, nine interns and 10 staff members dedicated more than 11,000 hours to the project.

Our team has handled everything from clothing, quilts and political buttons to large vehicles, medical equipment, paintings and swords. We ventured into uncharted territory and inventoried a substantial archeology collection that had not been touched in 20 years. We even installed a temporary exhibit, “From Jeeps to Looms: Artifacts in Kentucky’s Attic” to highlight some of our larger vehicles, agriculture equipment and looms – and, to be honest, to give us room to move around storage to conduct the inventory.

Our latest count is 98,901 objects – some as small as print type and needles, others as large as pianos and even a Corvette. While we have finished inventorying our objects, we still have plenty left to do through record management and database cleanup. It is exciting to turn the final pages on such an immense project.

Please visit our online catalog to see our collection!

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