Need to Move and Store Vast Trove of Art in Organized Fashion
December 3, 2012 8:03 AM   Subscribe

What's the easiest, cheapest way to barcode thousands upon thousands of world-heritage-level works of art before they go into storage?

A friend is executor for the estate of a great deceased painter who was incredibly prolific. There are tens of thousands of works, large and small, and next week it all gets moved into a storage facility in another state.

Most works have catalog numbers, and they're at least trying to build a database via software called ArtBase. But, aside from that, there's no preexisting organization scheme and no tech. The painter was in his 90's, working on his own. Stuff is in drawers, stacked against the wall, some cataloged, most not. It's not chaotic, but not far. And they're going to need to efficiently access individual pieces in storage later.

I want to reemphasize that the movers are coming NEXT WEEK. There's not a lot of time.

I'm thinking they should use barcodes. The work flow, I'd imagine, would go something like this:

1. Shoot a hasty iphone photo of each work
2. Enter in catalog info if available
3. Create a barcode number
4. Spit out label and affix to the work
5. Load out and drive
6. Differentiate the storage area into hundreds of zones
7. Scan each work as it's brought in, adding zone info
8. Store with bar codes as visible as possible (added bonus...if we place labels carefully, it will help assure all work is stored right side up....which makes things easier down the road).

So, please:

1. quibble with or add to the above work flow

2. suggest software and printing systems.

Note: it may just be too ambitious to get every single work barcoded and photographed. If so, the fallback would be to barcode, photograph, and track every box/bunch/cabinet/pile of work.

I may be popping back into the thread as my friend mulls it all over and thinks of problems. If this is interesting to you, or if you're feeling extra kindly helpful, please bookmark this so you can return over next few days and continue updated discussion.
posted by Quisp Lover to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I see I've contradicted myself ("Most works have catalog numbers" but then "some cataloged, most not"). Fact is, I'm not sure. The point is that it's not complete chaos...there is some basis of organization/cataloging going on. But they'd not imagined extending any of that to geographically tracking the works in storage.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:06 AM on December 3, 2012

Best answer: It is cheaper to buy preprinted barcodes and a scanner than barcode generating software and a printer. I've used Bar Codes Unlimited's offshoot, We print Bar Codes and they were fine - answered my questions, set up an order quickly and got the barcodes to me quickly. We used sequential barcodes and put the name of the company on them.

You'd put the barcode on the item, scan it into an excel sheet, fill in the item number and description, photograph (saving photo with barcode number as name) and then move to the next item.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:13 AM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your friend should hire a person trained in being a Registrar for an art museum or other collection. Barcodes should not be applied directly to pieces of artwork, especially not pre-printed barcodes with commercial adhesive on them.

The photos should have some number or other code visible in them to make sure each photo is matched to the correct object-- you don't want to try matching them after the fact with hasty catalog descriptions as your only source of info. I would also suggest at least a point-and-shoot camera for ease of editing decent pictures to add to the ArtBase software later. Better pictures will make everything from inventory to insurance to valuation easier. Document everything, especially condition-- if they go in undamaged, you will want proof of it for any future damage claims. And yes, definitely associate area/box of storage with the works inside.

But seriously, your friend should hire a professional. The RCAAM, the registrars committee of the American Association of Museums, has a very active member base and listserv (it serves people who work in commercial markets and students, too. A recent graduate might be less expensive but still have adequate experience.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:35 AM on December 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds like you're trying to do several different things here ... Here are some initial (not necessarily correct) things off the top off my head.

[On preview - yes, jetlagaddict's suggestions are good as well. And, are you hiring archival/art movers as well (not just run-of-the-mill movers)?]

First, where are you based? - You could possibly hire some local archivists as consultants for a few weeks to help manage this. It sounds like a major operation, so maybe there is some cash for this.

Second, you need a detailed 'map' of the places where stuff is coming from (rooms, shelves, cabinets, boxes, etc.).

Third, you need a detailed map of where stuff is going to - hopefully this will be ordered than where it's coming from. Zone, stack, shelf, etc.

You then need to figure out how stuff is going to make it into the database. You have a number of things to tie together:

- orginating location
- destination location
- Artbase catalog/accession number
- photo/photo id

You need to figure out what your organizational workflow is, pre- and post- move, in order to set this up in the best way.

These are just initial thoughts, I will check in later.
posted by carter at 8:57 AM on December 3, 2012

Best answer: I suggest making an emergency call to a nearby school of library science that also has an archives/preservation program. There may be a professor there who could wrangle in a few students who would love to have the experience, but would also bring some training and methodological understanding to the whole process.
posted by arco at 9:15 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I second/third hiring professional art movers. I assume your friend already has, but just in case...
posted by arco at 9:17 AM on December 3, 2012

Best answer: You can generate barcodes for free using a barcode font.
Call Artbase to talk about your situation. It does mention barcodes in its feature set, but may not be supported in your version.
I'd get 2 decent cameras and an external flash that can be mounted off to the side to avoid reflections. B&H Photovideo or Adorama are reliable stores to talk to about what you need.
Consider in addition to the barcode using QR codes , printed 7 inches wide. This way you can include them in the shot and it could be read with software a bit more robustly than barcodes. (there's different types of QR codes, so you can trade data for error correction)
I'd generate the bar/qr codes first, makeing 2 or 3 copies of each. Then I'd shoot the art, and attach the codes to the art. When the art gets packaged, the extra codes can go on the outside of the package, and if those go into a larger box then you have the 3rd code for that.
Also, before things get moved too much, shoot lots and lots of overlapping pictures of his workspace so that you can make a photosynth.
posted by Sophont at 9:22 AM on December 3, 2012

My only suggestion is that if anyone recommends ArtSystems to you, ignore them and possibly shun them for the rest of their lives. It is the worst possible program with the worst customer/tech support and just thinking about it can make former users of it break out into hives and screaming.
posted by elizardbits at 9:34 AM on December 3, 2012

Response by poster: --------
"Your friend should hire a person trained in being a Registrar for an art museum or other collection"

As I said, the move is happening in the next week or two. No one's going to be hired, and no rigorous scheme will be applied. Those are the parameters, and suggestions outside those parameters (about how it really ought to be done) aren't useful.

I'm not even sure my friend will accept my stop-gap proposal. If so, that would make things a little better, and I (and you guys) will have been helpful in all this. Thanks for help honing that proposal.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:07 AM on December 3, 2012

Best answer: I work in a large archives, I take care of the photographs. You have alot going on here, but I would like to just say that you don't need to barcode everything individually. Seriously, that's a huge job - and a job for the archives/museum/foundation that will (hopefully) acquire the material later. It's perfectly acceptable to inventory things at a folder, box, or carton level. If you have lack of time or labor (and it sounds like you lack both) it is perfectly fine to maintain the integrity of the materials while organizing it in larger, more manageable chunks. Don't lose yourself in the minutia of labels and barcode scanners and whatnot. Look at the big picture of the material, how it can be batched, and concentrate on getting it safely moved into storage.
posted by gyusan at 10:17 AM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

no rigorous scheme will be applied. Those are the parameters, and suggestions outside those parameters (about how it really ought to be done) aren't useful.

Humbly disagreeing, and I'm not sure if you or your friend are talking about the cataloging/metadata or not, but this is really a case where as much effort as possible needs to be put into this area right now, despite the potential for chaos and pain, in order to avoid potentially enormous archival headaches later on.
posted by carter at 10:18 AM on December 3, 2012

Response by poster: That's what I'm starting to think, yeah (it was my fallback option in the OP).

Please clarify your first sentence, though.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:19 AM on December 3, 2012

Me, or gyusan ...?
posted by carter at 10:21 AM on December 3, 2012

Response by poster: That was to Gyusan.

I can't prevent you or anyone else from wasting their time and this thread's space by scolding the parameters of my question. I realize you mean well, but it's non-useful.

Thanks for all suggestions fitting the stated conditions.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:26 AM on December 3, 2012

Response by poster: gyusan, ok, I understand the first sentence. You do photography at the archive you work in. Got it.

The photography would take as much time as the bar coding; I'm starting to think it's equally unviable.

And if we organize only in batch form, there's not much sense photographing (though photographing batches/boxes might make sense).

It'll be a shame to let go of the idea of photographs for the database. But based on what you said, and what I'm starting to realize, yeah, I think that's going to have to not happen. Shame.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:31 AM on December 3, 2012

That's okay Quisp Lover, no problem ;) I think I was actually trying to address this part of the question: And they're going to need to efficiently access individual pieces in storage later.

Best of luck with your friend's move.
posted by carter at 10:39 AM on December 3, 2012

Response by poster: Agreed, it ain't gonna happen efficiently via mere stop-gap measures. But I'm not sure they'll even go for my stop-gap. So I'm trying to offer the best-possible proposal given circumstances. Thanks for reading/replying!
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:43 AM on December 3, 2012

FWIW, I am an archivist and prior to that was an art historian and worked at a major US art museum. I have a lot of experience processing artists' papers and preparing condition reports for works on paper ( and more limited experience with paintings). Archival practices, regarding description at the aggregate level, doesn't really work for individual art works. However, I think that there is a compromise. I'm assuming that since there are thousands of works, including some in drawers, this collection includes both finished works, and studies, including sketches on paper. Perhaps you could use individually catalog the major finished works and catalog the studies and sketches in batches.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions. Good luck!
posted by kaybdc at 10:44 AM on December 3, 2012

A note about choosing barcode labels, in my experience there are 3 things you need, particularly for long term storage:
  • A label that sticks onto the item and doesn't peel off easily
  • Ink that doesn't fade or rub off
  • A barcode that will scan reliably
Unless you use quite large labels, you will generally only get 2 out of those 3 properties. We eventually gave up on barcodes and just used labels with a simple character prefix + number. That also has the advantage you can photograph items next to the label, stick the label on the box and you are done.
posted by Lanark at 1:12 PM on December 3, 2012

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