How to: Label Art

A Simple Labelling How to Guide

As collections around the nation grow, labelling the items within is of increasing importance. With limited time and resources this task can seem rather overwhelming, however, don’t fret! Reversible and unobtrusive object labelling is fairly fast and simple these days and involves only a couple of inexpensive specialist items which will last you a long time.

Labelling Wood and Metal Items

What you will need:

  • A small artists paint brush
  • Acetone
  • Cotton swabs
  • Nib pen and spare nibs
  • Black ink
  • White ink
  • Water
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Acrylic resin which can be purchased from conservation supplies (Note: Some
    institutions use two different resins – one as a base coat and one as a top coat but we
    shall just focus on one for the time being)

The Steps:

(Note: Do not use this process or type of labelling on plastic, rubber or textiles.)

  1. Set up a clear and stable workstation in a well-ventilated area.
    a. Consider your work places health and safety requirements.
    b. Ensure you have a clear path for when you need to move objects around, areas for them to dry in
    and the required supports for each item.
    c. Also ensure that the workbenches are covered in a suitable material (such as a base of bubble
    wrap topped with Tyvek) to act as a clean, soft surface to place items on.
    d. Is there good lighting? Can you leave these items securely to dry? Will they be safe and stable?
  2. Locate the best place on your item to label it.
    a. Try and keep this consistent for all works you label. For example, bottom right corner of the back
    of all paintings, or the base of all ceramics.
    b. You want the accession number to be out of sight when the item is on display but visible when
    stored. Minimal handling to identify when in storage is good.
    c. Do not label on areas where the work is at risk of abrasion, wear, or where it is usually touched
    during handling.
    d. Do not label on a hard to access or view section of the item.
    e. Label all separate/detachable parts of an item (may not be with the same system e.g. paper label
    f. Avoid physically unstable surfaces or where the item is weak or broken.
    g. Avoid decoration and painted, varnished, pigmented or waxed areas.
  3. Clean the chosen area of the item by rubbing it with a dry microfiber cloth.
  4. With the artists brush make a small line of the resin on the work where you chose to write and leave to dry (approx. 2-3 hours)
    a. Only make the line as big as your cataloguing number requires.
    b. Consider the size you need to write the number for the people viewing it/ working with the objects. E.g. If they are older volunteers with vision problems you may need to number slightly larger. However, ensure the number remains fairly innocuous.
    c. Due to the drying time it may be good to have a system in place where you place resin strips on a
    selection of items, go and do other work, then return in a few hours and number them.
  5. While the resin dries practice writing numbers with the ink pen on spare paper to get your eye back in.
    a. This also serves to test the fountain pen is working well before using it on the item.
    b. Ensure your labelling kit/ supplies has extra nibs just in case one does break.
  6. When dry, write the accession number on the resin with the fountain pen then leave to dry.
    a. Ensure to stay on the resin.
    b. Use neat, tidy, clear printing.
  7. Apply a top coat of the resin and leave to dry.
    a. WELL DONE! Labelling of your collection item is complete.
    NOTE: If you have made a mistake at any stage, dip a cotton swab in acetone and wipe away the resin/ ink. Once this is done though you must start the process again.
  8. Clean and pack away all your labelling materials, especially the nib pen and ensure all ink is sealed.
    a. Some people prefer to use modern fine point archival ink pens from conservation supplies. This is entirely up to you but I do feel that the traditional nib pen works best. Can’t beat the old ways sometimes – It’s an oldie but it’s a goodie!

Other Things To Note:

  • Practice on non-collection items before writing on museum objects.
  • If in doubt use a tie on paper label or a sew on label for textiles (See the below section on labelling other mediums for more information).
  • Use gloves when handling the items. (Often the tighter fitting rubber ones are better for such fine work. These types of gloves also reduce the chances of fluff/dust getting into the drying resin).
  • Some people write straight on to artworks (especially paper ones) with a 2B graphite pencil. This is an acceptable method but one must use a very steady hand in terms of pressure and not dent the work/write so hard that the process cannot be reversed by
    using an eraser.

Labelling Other Mediums (Textiles, Plastics, and Difficult Shaped Items)

  • For textiles, write the accession number in pencil on a piece of cotton tape. Fold over the ends and gently tack the ends to the fabric/ textile in the chosen place using a curved needle and cotton. (When choosing this place consider all the same issues as above. For example, always placing the label inside the left cuff/write area on clothing is often practiced.) Try to put the needle through natural holes in the weave of the fabric.
  • Paper labels are simply an acid-free bit of paper tied on to the item with conservation approved cotton string. (Conservation supplies sells small paper labelling readymade kits). The number of the item is written on the label in pencil. (2B graphite pencil).
  • When using paper labels attached by a string it is important to realise that this could possibly become unattached and leave the item much harder to identify. In cases like this often conservators will ensure the item is wrapped or in a box which also has the objects accession number obviously displayed/printed along with an image of the work
  • While adhering a paper label to an object is still practiced, it is becoming less popular
    and often is not as effective as the paper can get worn and lose the recorded
    information faster than the other possible systems (not including paper labels on string).