Archive for Stories

Beyond Shelf Life – A Registrar’s Garden Bench

Getting new shelves is good news for every registrar. More storage space, better storage conditions, you name it. But for some it doesn’t stop there. You know the wooden planks that keep the shelf parts separated on the pallets? Well, look what my colleague Bernd just built from it:

bench

The plan is an adaption from Jay’s Custom Creations.

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From “Kojak” to “Go-Jacks”

Go-Jacks Image : bendpak.com

Go-Jacks
Image : bendpak.com


This day you are translating an article for Registrar Trek, and you discover that what carriers call “Kojak” (term you thereby always use since you had to use it to move carriages) are called in reality “Go-Jacks”…

 

(Update of the vocabulary in my little head : done !)

 

 

Demonstration of the use of Go-Jacks : https://youtu.be/mush3hNbnmY
The article that enabled this discovery : Art work, Artefact, Auto, and Pop-Culture Shrine, Part 2

Aurore

Préparation des « petites charriotes » qui seront visibles à la ré-ouverture de la Galerie des Carrosses du Château de Versailles dès mai 2016.  Image : © Aurore T

Preparation of the « little carts » which will be visible at the re-opening of the Gallery of Carriages at the Palace of Versailles in May 2016.
Image : © Aurore T

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What happened September 2nd? A registrar’s climate mystery
Part 4 – Alternative Solutions

I hope you enjoyed our little climate mystery. A lot of our readers did and submitted possible solutions. Two people came up with the right solution in this case:
Geert Bellens suspected immediately that the logger was brought into another room and was right about this place:

”If someone was breathing close to the logger, the temperature would rise at 16:30, but humidity also. If a heat source was involved (local heater, lamp,..) I would expect rising temperatures, and lower humidity, but no that drastically.
I would think someone took the datalogger to another room (warmer, dryer) and then maybe outside in the car for a night, to put it back the 3th September…?”

And Michael Hall did a complete analysis that was accurate to the point:

”I would suggest that the logger was actually removed from it’s original location. The changes in humidity are being driven by the changes in temperature. Looking at the conditions before and after the fluctuations the conditions are fairly stable. The sudden change in temperature could be caused by someone accidentally putting the logger into their bag that has come from a warmer environment, walked out of the building allowing the temperature to cool, then got in a car,driven home with the air con on, got home at about 17:30, the car is left in the evening sunlight allowing the car to warm up before the sun disappears giving a gradual cool down overnight. At 07:30 next morning, the person drives into work, realises they have taken the logger home and puts it back in situ.“

Although those were the right solutions in our case, there were other solutions that are well worth considering when YOUR logger shows an odd graph like ours:

Christian Baars: “The weather was mild during early September 2013, with daytime temperature at around 24 deg C. However, your T changes are too rapid to be caused by normal daily fluctuations. The RH changes in this case are counter correlated with your T changes, which suggests that something affected T but confirms you have no independent RH control. As you say there is no HVAC an equipment malfunction can be excluded. Something lead to the steady then rapid T increase, then slow drop during the night, followed by rapid normalisation of conditions. Do you have central heating in the building which came on, the store got too warm, someone opened a window in the evening of the 2nd which was left open over night then closed in the morning of the 3rd?”

Kathy Karkut: ”Potentially something was dropped over the data logger such as a box or bubble pack, etc. and the readings are for a very small contained space surrounding the DL. The next time someone was near the DL they removed the covering.“

Chris Au: ”My first avenue of inquiry would be to confirm the integrity of the datalogger; was the data compromised in its collection, interpretation, storage or transmission?
Secondly, was there any other evidence of the T and RH fluctuation?
Thirdly, what are the items in storage? Could anything there be a cause?
Perhaps there would be clues in those answers.“

Hugh Glover: ”A staff member did something dry as they left for home and undid it when they arrived in the morning; not sure what they did though!”

Paul McAuley: ”I agree with Kathy Karkut, something has fallen over the datalogger unit creating a microclimate – a sheet of bubble wrap or tissue – or some creature has interfered with the sensor – or maybe there is a ghost in the machine…”

Pat: ”There was marked solar flare activity from Sept 1 to Sept 3 2013. Could that have had anything to do with disrupting the datalogger readings?“

The most interesting alternative solution, and something I really hadn’t thought about so far came from Doug Nishimura. We take it for granted that we – or the building and our technical appliances – control the climate conditions. However, sometimes it’s the other way round. The objects control the climate:

”I was going to comment that the places where temperature and relative humidity go up or down together (at least briefly) looks like the objects controlling the conditions. We’ve seen this in a historic house in which the attic went up and down in temperature with day and night. In the day, temperature would rise accompanied sometimes by a small dip in RH followed by a sharp rise in RH before plunging. As temperature peaked and started dropping, we might see a little upward spike in RH but followed by a sharp drop in RH as temperature fell before rising back up. This was the wood in the attic releasing water vapor as temperature went up (off-setting the expected drop in RH as temperature rose) and the adsorption of water back into the wood as the temperature fell again. We more recently ran into in a warehouse full of ceramic pottery pieces from archaeological digs. The clay was also adsorbing water as temperature went down and releasing as the pottery pieces warmed up.

IPM_Slide

I’ve included a pdf slide of on an experiment my colleague, Jean-Louis, did with sensors in a box of matted photographs. He actually had a sensor inside the stack, inside the box on top of, or beside the stack and outside the box. The large arrows point out the first points that show the effect of the material on the RH inside the box. So you see as the temperature goes up, the humidity sharply follows it up before talking a long slower slide towards equilibrium. When the temperature goes down, we get a sharp drop in RH followed by the long slow slide towards equilibrium. As we poked into data that people uploaded to eClimateNotebook, we noticed this pattern appearing surprisingly often and we figured out that if you start from an empty room with non-hygroscopic walls, the environment is what it is. We start adding objects into the room and the room controls the objects. Eventually you reach a point where the ratio of hygroscopic materials to free air in the room is just high enough that the objects start to control the room. We don’t really see it so much in temperature, although I point out that a ream of common office copy paper (and American copy paper is 8.5 X 11 inches or 215.9 mm X 279.4 mm and one ream is 5 pounds or 2268 grams) takes the same amount of heat in or out to change one Celsius degree as 3.64 cubic meters of dry air. Possibly the effect doesn’t show-up because of the slow thermal conductivity of paper, but it’s an example of what can happen.“

Keep watching your climate data, folks!

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.

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What happened September 2nd? A registrar’s climate mystery
Part 3 – The Solution

what_happened
“Looks like trouser pocket” said my colleague.

It wasn’t a trouser pocket, but it was the right lead. What we got here was definitely a people pattern. A storage area of the size at hand can’t change humidity by 20 % within 10 minutes if it is not to really catastrophic circumstances. It couldn’t be something that happened in the storage, it was something that happened to the logger.

Here’s the whole story:

The data from our data loggers is downloaded to a laptop at the beginning of each month, preferably on the first day of a month. September 1, 2013 was a Sunday, so September 2nd was the date for collecting the data.

On September 2nd about half past four p.m. our conservator responsible for the loggers called me to say that he just couldn’t make it to download the data on this day. But as we had a staff meeting on the next day and I was already at the offsite storage now, he asked if I could simply fetch the logger and bring it to the museum the next day.

Well, of course I could. I immediately took the logger and put it in my car so I wouldn’t forget it at closing time. While I was finishing my work at the offsite storage you can see how the poor logger lies in my car that was parked in the bright sun. About 20 minutes later I closed the storage and hit the road. As it was hot in the car, I rolled down the windows, resulting in a temperature decrease to a pleasant 25 °C (77 °F). At half past five I parked my car at home, again in the bright sun of a lovely, mild September evening. It was one of those last warm September evenings, where you can sit in front of the house with a cool drink and enjoy the warm rays of the setting sun. Apparently, it was far less pleasant inside of the car, hitting 30 °C (86 °F).

The next morning I got back into my car which had cooled down to 13 °C (55,4 °F) during the night. I was freezing, so I turned on the heating. When I found a parking lot in front of our museum at 8:10 the car was quite comfortably warm at 22,5 °C (72,5 °F). I took the logger and brought it to our conservator, so from now on the logger logged the regulated climate inside of our museum.

Hope you enjoyed our little real-world riddle.

The Start
The Hint

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.

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What happened September 2nd? A registrar’s climate mystery
Part 2 – The Hint

what_happened

I had a look at the graph. It looked like a pretty normal day in this area until about 16:40. We have a slow increase in temperature from about 21 degrees to 25 degrees Celsius (69,8 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit) and a drop in humidity from 60% to under 50%. Nothing odd for this less-than-ideal hall in the changing season of a German autumn. If you take a look at the weather dates of said day from the nearby weather station you can see that our inside correspondents with the outside: http://archiv.mannheim-wetter.info/2013/pcws/20130902.gif (thick green line for temperature, thin purple line for humidity).

Then, after 16:40 things got odd. We see a sudden increase in temperature up to 29 °C (84 °F) and a drop from 44% to 23% within only 10 minutes. If this weren’t odd enough, only 20 minutes later we see the temperature dropping back again to 25 °C (77 °F) and humidity slowly increasing to 32%. At 17:30 we see again an increase in temperature, climbing up to over 30 °C (86 °F) and staying as high until 19:00 to slowly, slowly start decreasing over the next few hours, reaching 13 °C (55,4 °F) at half past seven the next morning. Then, suddenly, the temperature increases, again in an unusual way, reaching 16 °C (60,8 °F) at 7:40, nearly 19 °C (66,2 °F) at 7:50, peaking to 22,5 °C (72,5 °F) at 8:10 to become quite stable again at 21 °C (69,8) and 57% relative humidity.

Again and again I looked at the data and discussed it with colleagues. Then, a colleague mumbled “Looks like trouser pocket.”

Suddenly I could see the whole story when looking at the graph. Can you?

The Start
The Solution

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.

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What happened September 2nd? A registrar’s climate mystery
Part 1

I received a call from our conservation trainee. She was in the process of analyzing the climate from one of our offsite storage areas for 2013 and discovered something really, really odd. She sent me the data and asked if I could make sense of what happened on September 2 and 3 in the said year. Please see the graph below, showing the temperature in degrees Celsius (red line) and relative humidity in percentage (blue line) between September 2, 7 a.m. and noon on September 3. Can you make sense of what you see?

what_happened

The data logger is a portable digital logger powered by batteries in the middle of a large storage area without HVAC that is approximately 2,000 square meters (about 21,500 square feet) and 5 meters (16.4 feet) high. In the next part we will discuss the graph and I will tell you the hint from a colleague that finally brought the solution.

What do you think happened in those 29 hours?

A Hint
The Solution

Full spreadsheet of data

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.

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How NOT to number objects

It all started on an early Friday morning when I opened a box and found a cast iron plate with its accession number as well as object title and year or production written down on a post-it and the post it secured all around with adhesive tape. I found this both horrific and hilarious, so I shared my experience with my colleagues at the RCAAM listserv (http://www.rcaam.org/Listserv). Apparently, I was not alone. Here are the experiences our colleagues shared:

  • I remember working on an object where the accession number was painted over the original manufacturer’s label.
  • That sounds like the types of things I witnessed when I first started at my job! My predecessors didn’t know how to accession anything or where to write the numbers. Some of the beautiful frames have the accession numbers written on all 4 sides in giant sharpie letters. It is horrific!
  • And then there was the fine 19th century linen handkerchief with the number written in 1/2” high characters in red nail polish directly on the fabric. Still makes me teary-eyed to think about that one.
  • 1880’s playing cards with white paint and ink numbers
  • I actually saw a director of collections where I used to work write an accession number with a large black sharpie on a cardboard hat box!!!
  • Sharpie marker on unglazed ceramics…
  • Another example of stapling the tag to the textile

    Another example of stapling the tag to the textile

    Stapling the tag to fur collar instead of sewing in the tag.
  • Sharpie on Duct tape wrapped around 19th century leather-bound books (to prevent them from opening).
  • Wow – you had the fancy Sharpies. In my museum previous staff had to make do with the inferior Marks-A-Lot brand for marking cardboard and silk.
  • I’ve got red oil paint on unglazed ceramics. Does size count? The numbers are about 3/4″ tall…
  • How about paper tags written in pencil that’s completely faded after less than five years?
  • Many of our older paintings are victims of the old “red nail polish” method….
  • One place I worked had numbers written in sharpie marker on nearly every object in the collection. In addition, the number written object often did not match what was listed in the Accession Book, e.g. different year.
  • Many of the documents in our archive are labeled with a layer of clear or white acryloid, then the number written with an archival pen, then sealed with another layer acryloid… it still puzzles me every time.
  • The university administration used to keep track of “items” by assigning property numbers, sometimes with metal plates on the objects. Fortunately, we no longer do this. Yes, we are learning…and we are a learning institution.
  • At a museum I worked at years ago I had a parchment land document from the 1770s numbered on the front, in large letters, in blue ballpoint pen. And the person made sure they pressed really hard, and went over the numbers many times to make sure it was really on there.
  • I found a box stuffed with artifacts. Some in (too large) plastic bags, and one pair of boot moccs (not old, very, very modern). Someone wrote on the plastic bag with sharpie, didn’t let it dry and put all bags and unprotected moccs in the box…well the sharpie ink rubbed off on the moccs. Backwards object number at the top.
  • I have seen a lot of ink in books, well paper in general. And just not numbering at all….
  • We see things constantly that were done 50 or more years ago and it just makes us shake our heads a bit. Here are two of my favorites.

    1. With metal tools, I’ve seen pieces where someone ground away a noticeable amount of metal (enough that it changes the shape of the artifact) to make it smooth, then used a rotary tool to incise the numbers into the surface.

    2. You know the plastic tape that you emboss numbers into with a little hand punch? I’ve seen that directly stuck onto artifacts and on top of that, stapled into the surface on each end. The adhesive is so strong that it can’t seem to be removed without risk of damage, so I usually just leave it when I see it.

    You find some interesting things with a 100+ year old collection!

  • How about carved inside a wood mask? I can say this was not done by anyone claiming to be a museum professional. It was done by the donor in an effort to keep an inventory of the collection. As you can see from the photo, hanging hardware was included for no extra charge. Lucky me!

    How about carved inside a wood mask? I can say this was not done by anyone claiming to be a museum professional. It was done by the donor in an effort to keep an inventory of the collection. As you can see from the photo, hanging hardware was included for no extra charge. Lucky me!

    Our office of inventory control for the university still assigns property numbers, but a long time ago someone explained to them that actually putting them on the art would damage it. Now they just send us the tags which I place in the object file.

    When I first got here I found it amusing that when inventory control did a random inventory of the museum they didn’t want to see the object, just the tag. In the past few years this has changed and they now want to see both. I am so appreciative that they really seem to care about our collection and want to make sure we’re taking care of it.

    As funny as all of these things are, we should remember that at some point people thought they were doing the right thing with their marking. I wonder what future registrars will be saying about us in 50 years…

  • This is not related to numbering objects specifically but…we received a donation of books, photographs, and other ephemera from a donor many years ago that are now a part of our archive. I suppose it was done to identify who owned the work and/or for posterity but the donor stamped everything with an Ex Libris ink stamp that also includes her name. Most of the works have been stamped multiple times in different places (front, back, inside cover). And in many cases (a pet peeve of mine) the stamp is upside down…
  • We ran into a similar situation at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, but with signatures. Thomas Wolfe owned several books that are in the collection and signed them on the flyleaf. After his death, one of his sisters went through the books and wrote “Tom wrote this” and drew an arrow to his signature.
  • I’ve got 45 year-old ball-point pen on masking tape fossilized onto hundreds of pieces accessioned in the early 1970s…
  • At The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, some industrious soul in the 1940s used a pot of red paint and a small brush to place accession numbers on many three-dimensional objects. Because of the ancient staff person’s lack of skill in that endeavor, he or she has traditionally been identified as the Red Blobber. Finding the number on the object is never a problem, but differentiating a 5 from a 6 or an 8 or a 9 (ad nauseum) can be impossible.
  • I also recall a tale from the late Caroline Keck, regarding numbers painted on hundreds of archaeological metal items that were being catalogued and placed in climate-controlled storage. The rapid drying of the corrosion layers caused almost all the objects to shed their outer layers… along with the numbers.
  • I worked somewhere once where most of the objects had been numbered multiple times, with a variety of numbering systems in a variety of sizes and materials. We used to play “can you see it now” and hold up the items to see how far away one could read the numbers…
  • Great topic and could be a chapter of a book. This is my personal favorite. If the black 1.5″ lettering isn’t legible the White 1.5 lettering should be. Whatever they used as a clear coat has so far resisted any attempt at removal. I have thought of sand blasting but I think the metal might disappear before the clear coat did (only a little bit of gallows humor here).
  • The plague of Mad Number-ers also scourged the woodlands. We have evidence like the above parti-colored markings. On some objects the number is also etched, sometimes with an etching tool, sometimes with a sharpened nail.
  • Cupboard
    Someone, long, long ago, must have found a sale on house paint. Several of our objects look like the pics I am attaching.  The second shows the bottom of a totem, you can see my little number in the center, as well as the yellow painted number I found on it. I just had to re-number it myself to indicate my disgust at the first method. At least they could have gotten the number right the first time (you'll see it is marked out and rewritten, as if one go-round with paint wasn't enough - sheesh!!).

    Someone, long, long ago, must have found a sale on house paint. Several of our objects look like the pics I am attaching.
    The second shows the bottom of a totem, you can see my little number in the center, as well as the yellow painted number I found on it. I just had to re-number it myself to indicate my disgust at the first method. At least they could have gotten the number right the first time (you’ll see it is marked out and rewritten, as if one go-round with paint wasn’t enough – sheesh!!).

    Good to know we’re amongst friends! Here are some of our past sins…sharpie, red nail polish method, yellow nail polish method, metal etching, metal stamping, ball point on paper artifacts, white out (literally numbers painted on with white out), multiple numbering systems labeled on an artifact, stapling tags into textiles, masking tape labels, metal tagging…numbers of various shapes and sizes…I think we may even have some neon painted
    numbers…sigh.
  • I am so, so pleased that my institution is not the only one that has a history of using those old plastic label makers! Our intrepid predecessors were apparently afraid that we would be unable to identify the purpose of the artifacts in the future, and so they gave us plastic adhesive labels with things on them like “Wooden Bowl” and “Butter Mold.” Right on the front of the artifacts. Those poor bowls didn’t stand a chance.
  • Actually, I forgot one of the most diabolical numbering applications. Years ago, a previous NC State Historic Sites curator instructed staff at historic sites to write accession numbers on adhesive labels and put them on the objects. Through the years, the labels have dried up, fallen off of many of the artifacts, and then dutiful staff swept them up and disposed of them. Not only do we now have a sticky shadow of where the label was, we’ve been hard-pressed matching records and artifacts–thanks to poor measurements and descriptions. But that’s another story. [sigh]
  • Before I started to work here we had a former director who had the staff use silver fingernail polish as a base with the accession number written on with a red Sharpie pen. This was followed with a topcoat of clear fingernail polish. Over the years these numbers have faded so much they are almost impossible to read. Or, if it wasn’t silver fingernail polish it was White Out.

    This same director also liked to take the eraser on the end of an ink pen (remember those?) and “clean” a spot on coins before marking them with a number.

    One more – when the collection was still at the college a retired professor became the director. He decided everything needed to be clearly marked. He would paint a large white blob on the artifact and use India ink to put on a number followed by shellac that often ran down the artifact. This was usually in the most conspicuous and prominent place on the front of the artifact and the size never varied. It was always HUGE! Sometimes he added two or three more examples of the same exact number to the piece. We have a beautiful polychrome Zuni Pueblo pot that has a number painted on over some of the designs. The shellac then ran all the way down the sides of the pot.
    Oh the humanity!

And the winner is…

Three days after my original cry came an answer we all declared as the ultimate winner:
“At a previous institution, a human skull with the accession number dutifully written in black pen across the middle of the forehead sometime during the previous century. And this was an individual that we repatriated.”

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There is such a thing as too much documentation!

via pixabay, openvectorgraphicsThis may come as a shock to Rupert Shepherd and all the other folks who support the #MuseumDocumentation campaign on twitter. In fact, it was a shock for me, too. I have to elaborate a little bit to explain this:

It’s really, really hot in Southern Germany with temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees Celsius / 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Until three weeks ago I would have stated with confidence that this doesn’t bother a dyed-in-the-wool museum professional. That my brain started humming “In the Summertime” by Mungo Cherry or some other summer hit of the last 40 years whenever I seriously tried to think something through should have given me a hint that the heat had an effect. But as I already wrote a while ago a registrar’s mind is a wicked thing, so I didn’t give it a second thought.

Then it happened. I sent a chapter of my upcoming book about managing unmanaged collections to a friend who offered to cram reading and commenting on my writing efforts into her already tight schedule. She’s always very polite with her comments, so this time she suggested that maybe I should think about replacing the word “documentation” or “document” in a few instances in the following paragraph:

“As you see by these examples, your documentation strategy will look different every time, because the foundation of a good documentation strategy is to consider all circumstances that play a role in this process. It is also important to recognize that ”documentation strategy“ doesn’t mean to define a certain set of fields you will fill in your data base and totally ignore that there is other useful information contained in the objects that is worth being documented. A ”documentation strategy“ is seldom one single step after which all the documentation is done but more likely a set of steps where you first document what needs to be documented immediately and define later circumstances under which you will add further documentation. Be careful to define these ”later circumstances“, as they have the tendency of translating into ”never“ if not properly defined. In Example X it is the moment the online data base is online and the proper documentation is done by the volunteers (and preferably checked by a museum professional), in Example Y it is the time directly after the move. Preferably the order in which the objects will be documented after the move is already laid out in the documentation strategy.”

Yes, I managed to write “documentation” or “to document” 12 times in a paragraph with just 200 words! Apparently, it doesn’t make things clearer which is what documentation normally should do. I really shouldn’t write this stuff when the temperature is above 30 degrees Celsius (86 °F)…

I hope you all keep cool at those temperatures and manage your job well! Enjoy the summer!

Angela

Postscript: Oh no! Here it comes again! Alalalalalong…

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.

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Creative Crate Recycling

Some say museum people are natural hunter-gatherers. While this may be true, it’s also true that museums always lack storage space. That’s especially a tough one for the collections manager: while the thrifty side of his or her personality wants to keep everything in case it is needed someday in the future, the logistic side tells him or her that you just can’t keep everything because you will run out of moving space, soon.

A common issue are special built crates. Made for a special purpose, i.e. letting a certain object or set of objects travel to a distant location, they are clogging space after completion of this task. Too bulky or unsuitable for longterm storage and no matter how hard you try, it seems that there is never a travel request for an object with exactly those dimensions…

There are many possibilities what can be done with used crates. Offer them to other museums is a great one, for example. Here’s another that is quite comfy: A bench made from a crate originally built for a couple of model ships.

bench2

bench3

bench1

bench

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Off the Shelf: Pair o’ Docs

Communication about objects, no matter what they are, is made easier if all parties know exactly what is meant by the names of those objects. I offer to you the following scenario:

flowerThe Extremely Amateur Garden Club is having its annual meeting and plant swap. A group of members is gathered around a robust pot of something green and lacy and hairy covered with deep purple flowers. Mrs. Soapwort exclaims, “Why, I remember those from my grandmother’s garden. That’s a Hairy Purplecup!” Mr. Thymus rubs his jaw and grumbles, “No, no, my brother used to raise those commercially. They’re Lake Lucy Laceleafs, anybody knows that!” “Laceleaves,” mutters his wife, who used to teach English. “Actually, when I was a kid, my mother made tea out of the leaves and called it False Chamomile.” At that point, they all decide to consult Dr. Plantaverde, the University extension agent. “You’re all right,” he says. “Those are all common names for jargonius confusus, or Common Aliasleaf. It probably has other names in other parts of the world, and some of those names could easily refer to more than one plant. However, if you wanted to specify this particular plant anywhere in the world, its two part scientific name would identify it unmistakably.”

The expert was using a type of controlled vocabulary; in this case, the system of binomial nomenclature we all learned about in high school science classes. It allows scientists all over the world, no matter what language they speak, to know exactly what type of plant of animal is meant by jargonius confusus. Let’s go now to our museum. A donor has given us a collection of furniture, bottles and instruments from a doctor’s office. I have no idea what a lot of these things are called. Fortunately, our family doctor is also a long time friend. I call him in to provide proper medical terminology instead of the “chrome-plated thingy with a long wire sticking out of it with a little ball on the end” that is all I know to call it. He brings with him a retired doctor friend who practiced with just the types of instruments that came with this donation. The two have a great time examining the collection. I notice that, sometimes, one of them calls an item by one name and the other calls it something different. Usually they come to some sort of agreement, so I’m reasonably sure that the term I am writing down in the inventory is the equivalent of the scientific name for our potted purplecup.

That’s not the end of it, though. Most museums, in order to facilitate communication about artifacts, make use of their own controlled vocabularies. In the case of museums that collect man made objects, many use a book called Nomenclature1, in which the author has classified artifacts according to the way they are used. There are ten categories, such as Furnishings or Tools and Equipment for Communication, under which are numerous sub-categories such as Bedding and Floor Coverings, or Written Communication Tools & Equipment. If you look under each of these sub-categories, you will find a list of words. These are the names that you are allowed to use for artifacts in this sub-category. In this way, if I call up a museum and ask to borrow a dining chair, they will know not to send me a hall chair. If I ask for a sofa, they will know not to send me something that only has an arm at one end. However, problems arise when the only name you know to call something isn’t in the book. Sometimes you have to find the closest approximation and then put the name you want to use in the description. Now, in the best of all possible worlds, Nomenclature would come with definitions. Since it doesn’t, I often have to resort to a dictionary, or to the Getty’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus2, a wonderful on-line vocabulary that includes definitions. Or, in a pinch, I can rely on my pair o’ docs.

Anne T. Lane

  1. Nomenclature is a controlled vocabulary for the classification of cultural objects invented and first published by Robert G. Chenhall in 1978. Refined ever since it is a standard work for classifying cultural artifacts in U.S. museums. Version 4.0 was published recently:
    Paul Bourcier, Heather Dunn and The Nomenclature Task Force (ed.): Nomenclature 4.0 for Museum Cataloging, Robert G. Chenhall’s System for Classifying Cultural Objects, 4th Edition, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers /AASLH 2015
  2. The Getty Vocabularies including the Art & Architecture Thesaurus can be found and used free of charge here: http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/
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