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"Cultural heritage institutions whether archives, libraries, or museums gather, preserve, and interpret the record of human thought, word, and action. The collections of these institutions come in many forms and are managed according to different curatorial traditions. Yet archivists, librarians, and curators share mutual activities that reflect common social, administrative, fiduciary, and legal responsibilities.  Among these is the need to document the origins, nature, and physical characteristics of the materials they collect and preserve.

Among archivists the term documentation has several meanings. It refers to a process: a broad range of activities undertaken to create descriptive tools to make collections easier to use, to establish the authenticity of holdings, and to satisfy administrative needs. Documentation can also denote the products of this process, the descriptive tools themselves: inventories/registers and catalog records. Finally, the materials in archival collections can be considered documentation in that they provide documentary evidence and information concerning people, events, activities, objects, and ideas."

There are three primary reasons for documenting the collections of cultural heritage materials.

  1. To facilitate users' discovery of materials
  2. To establish the authenticity of holdings
  3. To satisfy administrative needs

What is Documentation? in Introduction to Archival Organization and Description:Access to Cultural Heritage, Getty Standards and Digital Resource Management Program, Getty Research Institute, J. Paul Getty Trust

Documentation: All of the records, written and pictorial, accumulated during the examination and treatment of a cultural property. Where applicable, documentation includes the examination records and report, treatment proposal, owner consent, the treatment records and report, the recommendations for subsequent care, samples taken from the cultural property and relevant correspondence. The purpose of documentation is:to record the condition of the cultural property;
to record information revealed during examination or other conservation activities that assists in the understanding of the cultural property;

  • to record the changes to the property due to conservation activities, and the justification for those changes;
  • to provide information helpful to future care and treatment of the cultural property;
  • to record agreements or understandings between the conservation professional and the owner; and
  • to provide documents that can be made available if and when required for legal purposes.

D. Glossary, Code of Ethics, Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property
and of the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators


ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums

6.4 Documentation of Collections
The recording and documenting of collections in accordance with appropriate standards is an important professional obligation. It is particularly important that collection documentation should include a complete description of all items, their provenance and source and the conditions of acceptance by the museum. Collection data should be maintained and augmented for as long as any item is part of the museum collection. Such data should be kept in a secure environment and be supported with retrieval systems providing access to the data by the staff and other legitimate users (see 2.7). When collection data are made available on the Internet or published by other means, particular control must be exercised to avoid disclosing sensitive personal or related information and other confidential matters.

Refer to related standards in this Report:


Part II, Museum Records,, Museum Handbook, Museum Management Program, National Park Service.

  • Ch. 1: Documenting Museum Collections (download as PDF format file)
  • Ch. 3: Cataloging (download as PDF format file)
  • Appendix C: Cataloging Guidelines (download as PDF format file)
  • Ch. 4: Inventory and Other Special Instructions (download as PDF format file)

Principles for the Recording of Monuments, Groups of Buildings and Sites, Text ratified by the 11th ICOMOS General Assembly, held in Sofia, Bulgaria, from 5 to 9 October 1996), ICOMOS.

Museum Collections Management/Documentation Standards, Canadian Heritage Information Network

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