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FLEET LIBRARY | Research Guides

Rhode Island School of Design

Object Research

A guide to researching art and design objects, utilizing museum and library resources

About provenance

Museums acquire works in many of the same ways you might acquire the objects you own: through purchasing them, trading them, or receiving them as gifts. Museums also borrow and loan objects. 

Borrowing is temporary, but the rest of these methods are intended to be in perpetuity. An accession is a transaction between the museum and either a donor of art, or a purchase from an artist, gallery, dealer, collector, or other source, resulting in the museum’s formal ownership of the object.

The life history of an object -- whose hands it passed through between its making and its accession by the museum -- is called its provenance. Sometimes museum curators have provenance records in their internal files. However, the provenance of objects is frequently unknown. Because some objects have made their way to museums through looting and other forms of violence, often tied to colonialism and armed conflict, this means provenance research is an important part of museum practice, and one that is often confidential upon the request of external individuals or groups. However, it’s important to think about it as part of your research process. Learn more about the museum’s provenance research here.

Researching provenance

As described in the object information section, donors of objects are often identified in credit lines. Do not reach out to anyone whose name appears in a credit line or on other museum records. Relationships with donors, past staff of RISD, and others involved can be delicate; there are staff dedicated to maintaining these relationships. If you want to interview someone as part of your research, reach out to and the museum’s Academic Programs staff will try to make it happen.

If you are interested in the provenance of a specific object in the RISD Museum’s collection, museum staff are happy to talk to you about what they know and have permission to share. Start by emailing or by making a virtual office hours appointment to talk to the relevant curator. If staff encourages you to do research on your own, or if you’re researching the provenance of an object in the collection of another museum, here are some general resources:

Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Object Registry
Getty Research Institute Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance
International Foundation for Art Research Provenance Guide