Creating a Collection: A Tour Through the Smith College Museum of Art

How to Read a Museum Label

Reading labels in an art museum helps visitors navigate the galleries. Labels usually share what is known as "tombstone information." This is the basic information about an artwork that helps new museum-goers and art experts alike understand what they are looking at. 

An important piece of information often included on labels is the acquisition information, or how the artwork got to the museum's collection. This may include an accession number (such as SC 1879:1) and the credit line, which will share a bit about how the museum got the artwork—for example, if the museum bought the artwork or received it as a donation, exchange, or transfer. 

Let's look at accession number for Thomas Eakins's In Grandmother's Time, for an example. The "SC" means it belongs to Smith College. The "1879" means it was bought in the year 1879. And the "1" means it was the first painting bought that year. 

Maker(s):Eakins, Thomas
Culture:American (1844 - 1916)
Title:In Grandmother's Time
Date Made:1876
Materials:oil on canvas
Place Made:United States
Measurements:stretcher: 16 x 12 in.; 40.64 x 30.48 cm
Narrative Inscription:  signed and dated on spinning wheel: Eakins 76
Accession Number:  SC 1879:1
Credit Line:Purchased

Not all credit lines look alike, but hopefully this helps you start to decode one the next time you see a museum label. 

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