Marking costume in museum collections

1 QR-a

QR code, which stands for “Quick Response”
These codes can be used to make stored data available, for example information about a museum object inside a packing case.
However, these codes need either a special scanner or a smart phone with built-in camera and app.


Katia Johansen
Royal Danish Collections


Museum objects always receive an accession number, which is its permanent link to all the object’s information gathered and kept by the museum. The number is usually marked directly on the object so it can always be identified and cannot become separated from its documentation. Attaching this number must not damage the object in any way, but it needs to be durable enough not to fall off, fade or get rubbed off. 

Accession numbers need to be legible, durable, non-damaging, and removable.

Often the accession number consists of the year of acquisition and a sequential number. If numbering systems are changed, it is wise to continue to maintain the old system, as there will be old references still valuable in scholarship and research. Numbers from objects which have disappeared or been de-accessioned should not be reused for new objects.


Methods for marking costume and accessories

There are many different ways to mark costume – and there need to be! Each museum will have different standard ways of doing it, but there is general agreement that the numbering should be legible, permanent but unobtrusive, non-damaging – and removable. Each of these demands can be in conflict with the others, so choosing the method to use is always a matter of compromise, to be determined by the individual conditions.


Hand-writing the number in ink on cotton tape which is then stitched into the garment.

For: permanent, but should be removed for washing in case the ink is not permanent;

Against: cloth tape labels tend to be large and clumsy, and are then placed so they are difficult to find, requiring unnecessary handling.


Typing or laser-printing numbers onto prepared fabric, archival paper or Tyvek, which is then painted with a protective lacquer, cut out and stitched or hung as tags on the garment.

For: can be faster and allow for smaller labels, as the printed numbers are more legible, and not dependent on good handwriting skills of a single person;

Against: requires typewriter and special materials; some typewriter inks may smudge.

Handwriting numbers with pencil on acid-free tags with strings which are attached to the garment. Note! Please remember to write the number on both sides of the tag to save yourself and colleagues time spent turning tags.

For: quick to do and to find, if they are hung in a visible place.

Against: can get lost because they may be removed for photography or exhibition and not reattached.

Bar codes, data matrix and QR codes printed on acid-free paper or Tyvek, stitched or hung on garments.

For: easy and accurate to read, and these codes can contain much more information than just the accession number;

Against: the accession number itself cannot be seen, identification requires special equipment (scanners and printers), and labels are sometimes too large and conspicuous


Where to place accession numbers

Many institutions have house rules about how to mark museum objects. For costume, it is especially important to agree on where accession labels are mounted, to minimize the amount of handling that is required to find them. If your museum does not yet have guidelines as to where costume should be marked, some suggestions might be:

  • in the neck of the garment: today we are used to looking here to find manufacturer's labels, and it is a place that is usually quite visible without having to handle the garment. However, depending on how it is exhibited, a label here might be visible in an exhibition. If a label has to be removed so as not to show in exhibition or photography, there is always the risk that it might not be reattached, and the museum piece risks losing its identity and all its information.
  • for hats, inside at the center back, on the sweat band if possible.
  • for shoes, written under the sole, just in front of the heel, depending on the shoe's construction. A hanging tag tied on through an eyelet or to a button shank means the number is easily removable for photography and exhibition.
  • for trousers, inside the waistband, for example at center back
  • for accessories, lace, etc.: as invisibly as possible. Remember not to attach heavy or sharp-edged hanging tags to very delicate fabrics like lace.
  • costume hung in garment bags should have additional, highly visible labels hanging on the outside of the garment bag, perhaps on the shoulder edge facing outwards. A small photograph (in addition to the number) makes finding what you are looking for much faster than reading accession numbers.
  • boxes and drawers containing costume should have a complete list of the contents on the outside, as well as lying loose inside. Photographs of objects inside boxes and drawers can be an aid in finding objects, as it is quicker to identify “a purple bag” than it is to read a long series of numbers.
  • if the garment consists of separate pieces all parts of should be labelled. The main accession number should indicate that it includes several pieces, so they can be recognized as belonging together (for example a suit consisting of jacket, vest and trousers). Shoes should be labelled (a) and (b) for left and right, as should gloves.


When do we need to see the accession number?

Every time an object is moved or looked at, the accession number is important. Checking the museum number – that it is visible, correct and is correctly attached to the garment – is part of what museum people do every time they examine or move an object. Good labelling and documentation minimize handling, as it is easier to find objects, and save time, confusion, and, ultimately, the loss of objects entrusted into the museum’s care.


Links to guidelines, instructions and fact sheets

Labelling and marking objects, CIDOC Fact Sheet No. 2

Labelling and marking, Collections Trust (UK) 

Numbering museum collections, Northern States Conservation Center

Applying Accession Numbers to Textiles, Canadian Conservataion Institute
(downloadable as a PDF)

An alternative technique for applying accession numbers to museum artifacts
, Thomas J. Braun in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, summer 2007, Vo. 46, nr. 2

Fact sheet: Marking museum objects with their accession number, Museums and Galleries NSW

Caring for Textiles and Clothing, National Services Te Paerangi, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2009


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