For the Record: How Times have Changed for Museum Registrars

By Sheila Carey


The MCN job description history team has been mining #musetech jobs over the last 50 years to learn about the evolution of our field. In this post, we’re on the island of registrarial positions. I’m looking at how the registrar’s job has changed over MCN’s lifetime, and in this post I’ll be using “registrar” and “collections management positions” interchangeably. I didn’t dive through archives, although I did dust off a few old (paper!) publications in the hunt for descriptions of registrarial jobs in the past with an emphasis on jobs from the 1960’s through the 1990’s.

A history of the Canadian National Museum of Science and Technology lists the responsibilities of the registrar in 1968 as: responsibility for all loans of artifacts, incoming and outgoing, arranging for transportation, as well as responsibility for creating, maintaining, and preserving the collections records. In 1968, a newly hired registrar drafted a worksheet to help curators document their acquisitions so that they could be fully catalogued in the form of an acquisition record form. In the 1970s a longer and more elaborate worksheet was created with expanded information about the acquisition along with qualitative information about the item’s geographical area and period of use.

This cataloguing work gained new importance in 1972 with the creation of the National Inventory Programme, which later became the Canadian Heritage Information Network, a federal initiative intended to create a computer-based inventory of Canadian cultural and scientific collections. This was a centralized inventory with a few terminals in larger Canadian museums. While the system was digital, there was still emphasis on printing reports and creating new catalogue cards and cross-reference cards. In some museums, registrars were dealing with paper and digital records. A 1978 article about the National Inventory Programme system described the “speed afforded through modern technology allowing a fine-arts record to be displayed in a specially designed format on the screen. A print of this record may be ordered on paper or card stock.” So, the jobs were changing, but the way of working was still very much paper-based. It’s a bit amusing to see the somewhat awed description and one can’t help wondering just how speedy it actually was!

One of the National Inventories Programme Univac 90/30 mainframe computers (Photos from the Canadian Heritage Information Network).


According to a brochure, memory sizes for this model ranged from a minimum of 32,768 bytes to a maximum of 262,144 bytes


Vucom Terminal (Photo from the Canadian Heritage Information Network)


A 1979 publication by the Canadian Museums Association described the primary duties and responsibilities as: compilation of clear and accurate records, accessions, carrying out limited research for documentation, recording gifts, loans and bequests, planning and supervising location and movement of objects in the collection or those borrowed, and assuming responsibility for insurance and contractual matters regarding the collection. Still in a paper world, the list also refers to classification cards, category and cross-reference cards along with maintenance of an accession book. The suggested qualifications included formal training in records management, a rudimentary level of museum studies training and effective written communication skills. No reference was made to computer training. Another 1979 research publication “Profile of a Museum Registrar” was written with the aim of providing helpful data toward the development of materials and methods for the training and education of museum registrars. The authors surveyed registrars and museum directors about the preferred setting, course content, and faculty for professional training. Regarding technology, some registrars commented that they had very little exposure to theory or application of computers, and several registrars commented that a critical lack was that they did not know how to type! However, in topics selected for study, “Cataloging by Computer’ was relatively low in order of preference along with “Film and Videotape Production” and “Importing/Exporting.”

A decade later, as shown in the first post of this series, the National Museum of American Art posted a job in the “developing field of museum work,” an internship with an Art History or Information Management background to “work on a new on-line database of the museum’s collection.” Duties involved interpreting and reconfiguring data. The word “data” had entered museum collection jobs, and collections jobs were becoming more frequently automated. With desktop computers becoming more common, the pace of change was accelerating.

A 1993 classified ad from the Detroit Institute for the Arts in the Office of the Registrar was quite a bit heavier on some more specialized skills as well as “computer literacy,” something not required a decade prior, but required everywhere now. As Sean Blinn points out, it’s a skill that is expected these days.

In the 90s, collections managers had new challenges to deal with when faced with the World Wide Web. Not only had they had to transition from paper records to electronic, but these records were also beginning to be shared online! Records that had been developed for internal record-keeping were suddenly being exposed to the eyes of the public, and new issues related to putting images online would arise as well. This is still a topic of discussion in some museums where they may not be keen to expose their research-focused records and related images.  Undaunted, registrars have faced these challenges and now records are not only online, but increasingly being made available in open formats.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access on Github:


As Sarah Outhwaite’s post noted, registrars may have been the pioneers for modern tech-savvy museum staff. In MCN’s lifespan, collection records have come out of their cabinets onto computers and into the public space.

Are you a registrar?  How have these technological changes impacted your job and what new jobs might support initiatives in which you’re involved?  What do you think will happen next?



Canadian Museums Association. A Guide to Museum Positions: Including a Statement on the Ethical Behaviour of Museum Professionals, 1979.

Getting Things Done: 1967 – 1981. Building a National Museum of Science and Technology

Hoachlander, Marjorie E., Profile of a Museum Registrar, Academy for Educational Development,  Washington, D.C., 1979.

Homulos, Peter S. “The Canadian National Inventory Programme.” Museum Vol. XXX, 3 / 4 1978.