Capturing the Story: Adding Context to Objects

Joy Tahan Ruddell

Museum & Collections Consultant

A wise friend and colleague once told me that an object without a story is only half an object. This is 100% true. We all collect objects that, without context, are pretty dull. A museum may have the quill pen in its collection that was used by John Hancock to sign the Declaration of Independence. However, without the story behind the pen, it is just an old quill pen, much like one of the thousands you would see in any historic museum, antique shop, or even eBay. Include who used the pen and why it was used, and now you have an artifact with historical significance and an engaging story.

This is true for museum collections as well as our personal collections. Whether you are cataloging for your job or for yourself, CatalogIt can help you capture the full story behind everything in your collection.

Discovering a Connection to the Past

My grandmother came to America in 1921 via a French ship to Ellis Island. I learned the name of the ship and found the manifest with her name on it through the National Archives. There was also a photo of the ship, the La Lorraine, in the archive. I spent many years researching the ship and came across an artifact - a monocular -  on the internet that was used by a crew member of that ship. I was able to purchase the monocular on an online auction and, much like a museum would, cataloged it into my own collection.

The monocular itself was not as interesting to me as the story behind it. I will never know if it was used on the exact voyage my grandmother was on, but I can dream that it was. That monocular could have looked out at the same seas that my grandmother did in 1921.

Enriching Descriptions and Expanding Narratives

CatalogIt includes fields and profiles to allow me to include the full story of the monocular. 

I first used the “description” field to write a short statement on what the item was and its significance. I included who used it and how in the “Use” field:

After cataloging all of the general information, CatalogIt also includes expansion panels to allow me to include the relationships associated with the object. Using “Related Person or Organization” and  “Related Event” I was able to further flesh out the story:

Adding Relationships and Context to Build a Complete Record

Using profiles, I was also able to include more information about the relationships. For example, after further research on the ship, I was able to learn more about its history and the builder; I even found more images, and included that information in the profile record about it: 

In the end, I have created a complete record of this monocular that places it in a historical context. Now I can share the record with my family so they may also understand the significance of this object. This is not just some old piece of maritime memorabilia. This is a part of my grandmother's story and her incredible voyage to her new life:

About the Author

Joy Tahan Ruddell

Museum & Collections Consultant

Joy Tahan Ruddell has almost thirty years of collections and registration experience.  Prior to independent consulting, Joy coordinated the registration department at a large California museum which included insurance, loans, acquisitions, collections access and research, policy and procedure development and management, and intellectual property management. Working with staff museum-wide she developed programs that helped the community engage with collections. Joy has extensive experience with major collections projects including: inventories, collections moves, project management, acquisition and deaccession activities, NAGPRA projects, grant writing, insurance and risk management, and loan processing and organization. She specializes in helping museums build capacity through creative problem solving and determining scalable solutions. Extensive knowledge and advanced understanding of national standards allows her to assist with virtually any collections conundrum.