Category Archives: Off the shelf

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:

Off the shelf – Requests from the public

Just in case you thought I’d been twiddling my thumbs in between all the stuff I’ve written about in past issues, let me tell you about

Requests from the Public

Let me set the scene – I have two interns waiting for me to tell them about their next project. Not just what it is, but how to do it. And not just tell them but show them. And do a few myself so they get the idea. Then Kris is on the phone to tell me that she needs me to proof the texts for the Eagle Project panels before she sends it to the printer at 2:30. It’s 1:00. I bring up the texts on the computer, and then go over to the table to show the interns how to pad and wrap children’s dresses in tissue and put them into boxes. But the phone rings, it’s an elderly voice soft as sorghum molasses……

In attic, 1780s house, Nine Mile Point, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. View towards 20th century closet constructed within the attic. by Infrogmation via flickr“They told me that I needed to talk to you. We’ve been cleaning out the chicken house at my great grandpappy’s farm and we found this rock, I think it’s really old, it looks like something the Indians must have used, it’s all sparkly but it has these scratches in it. We washed it real good so it doesn’t smell too bad, and I went over it with a file to get rid of some of the scratches. I’m bringing it over in 15 minutes, I hope you don’t mind. I’m sure it’s valuable.”

Well, yes, I exaggerate. But by far the greatest number of calls from potential donors start out with “We were cleaning out the attic at my (choose your relative)’s house.” If it sounds like something we might want, I check with Kris and we arrange to go see it or have it brought in. If it doesn’t fit our collections parameters, I suggest other museums that might take it. If the caller wants to know something about the value of an item, particularly if they plan to donate it, I am forbidden by museum ethics to give them an appraisal. We keep a list of appraisers and websites to which we refer them. If they just want to know what something is, I try to help them over the phone, but if I can’t, I either have them bring it in or I try to suggest somebody else to help them.

Another common type of call is from a person wanting to know how best to preserve a family treasure. I try to find out as much as I can – what the object is made from, what condition it’s in, what the person wants to do with it. I also ask whether the area they want to store it in is heated and air conditioned, and what kind of light it has. It’s a ticklish situation sometimes, because I have to try to get an idea over the phone about whether the person is willing or able to spend any money on specialized storage materials. If so, I suggest what they might need and give them information about where to get it. If not, I often resort to the old quilt-in-a-pillowcase strategy. There’s also the zip-loc- bag strategy, the if-you’re-comfortable-it’s-probably-comfortable-too strategy, and the anything-but-cardboard-boxes-in-the-attic-strategy. I usually try to convince them that washing or polishing up something frequently does more harm than keeping it in less than ideal conditions. If I find I need to do more research myself, I tell them I’ll call back. And I do.

I even got myself into a volunteer gig of my own through a phone request for information. Later this month I am going to a small local museum to teach their only paid staff member and some of their volunteers how to mark objects.

I love helping people with these things, but it takes time. And I’ve got to go update the database.



Off the shelf – Mapping Maps

Map of Downtown Charlotte 1954, Map by Dolph Map Co., picture via flickr by davecitoThings have been kinda quiet around here lately. I’ve just about gotten the database updated. Only have about 100 or so digital photographs to rename. We’ve started processing some of the 2000 acquisitions, and we’re almost up to date on the ones that have come in during 2003 1. The problem is, though, that when interesting things come across our tables, it’s impossible just to write them up, slap numbers on them, and stick them on a shelf. You get involved with them. Lately, it’s been maps. Kelly, one of our oh-so-wonderful interns, and I were looking at a bound set of blueprint real estate maps of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County that date from the 1930s. They outline the lots downtown – excuse me, UPtown – and list property owners and assessed values. Property values have changed a bit since then, but Trade and Tryon was the place to be! This sort of documentation is of inestimable value to anyone researching the histories of buildings and businesses in the city. We were given in the same accession a fine Official Lot and Block Atlas of Charlotte, N. C. that is dated 1928. It is printed on heavily coated linen from hand-drawn originals and shows, among other reminders of a vanished past, the trolley lines that used to serve as mass transit for the city.

It is also instructive – and fascinating – to go back forty more years to 1888. The map, donated this year, is of Mecklenburg county. The center city is not detailed, but the names of property owners are written in for outlying areas. Sure enough, there are “our” Alexanders (see for details). On many of these properties, we can see names that are now given to streets, to parks, to buildings and businesses and neighborhoods in the area. Along with this map, we received as museum property an indenture of lease from England, dated 1696. It used to hang in a Charlotte law office and will hang in our library before long. It is hand written on calfskin vellum and hung with three red wax seals at the bottom, and I challenge you to try to read it! Not only is the script archaic, but the language is an opaque legalese that would put any modern writer of fine print to shame. Lee, another collections intern, started trying to transcribe it for me. Fortunately, the donor found a transcription done by another lawyer in 1975. We’ll probably make this available in the library for those who are curious, or are looking for lessons in obfuscatory verbiage!

Well, I better go update the database. And slap on a few numbers.


  1. The article was written 2003.

Off the shelf – A day in the life of a collections manager

As I uncovered recently, we registrars, collections managers and curators of collections are a strange breed of animals rarely spotted. As we know from Discovery Channel there’s nothing more interesting than spotting rare animals in their natural habitat. I’m really glad that my colleague Anne T. Lane started a series about the work in the collections departement. So, if you follow this series, next time your kids ask “Mommy, Daddy, what does a collections manager do?” you can come up with much smarter answers than “Well, a collections manager manages collections!”

It’s a different life back here. There are no windows, because light is detrimental to museum objects. We have our own separate climate control system, because heat and high humidity are detrimental to museum objects. So is low humidity. So if you see us blinking owlishly in the light and wearing long sleeves during a 90 degree heat wave, you will know from whence we come.

mask1So, you’d like to hear about a typical day in the life of a collections person? Sorry, there’s no such thing. I’m designing a storage mount for a WWII gas mask. I’ve been doing this for about two weeks. I get to work on it, oh, maybe 10 minutes at a time, in between labeling a collection of hairpins, packing some Victorian era women’s clothes with acid-free tissue in acid-free boxes, updating the collections database, doing condition reports on the prints for the upstairs hallway exhibit, visiting a potential donor’s home to look at a collection of WWI-era baby clothes, getting a quote on having some posters framed, updating the database, supervising the volunteer doing data entry from our old catalogue cards, cleaning the Hezekiah Alexander House, washing the gloves we use to handle collections objects (mild detergent, rinse twice, no fabric softener and don’t let the cats sleep in the bag), updating the database, ordering new sleeves and boxes for the postcard collection, attending planning meetings, doing the homework for planning meetings, photographing a beaded jacket and purse, steaming out creases in a quilt, discussing the exhibit calendar for the next three years with Kris, oh, and did I mention updating the collections database?

It’s not a boring job. You get to work with other people; then you get to weasel away by yourself for hours at a time. You get to be creative, you get to build things, you get to handle all the neat stuff, you get to do research, you get to solve problems, you learn new things every day, you get to work with like-minded folks – fellow employees, interns and volunteers. Oh, and did I mention…..oops, wrong paragraph. You have to be precise and detail-oriented to a fault. You have to be organized but also very flexible. And you aren’t allowed to eat lunch at your desk. Ever.

I will be writing here about some of the things, old and new, that reside on shelves or sit in crates in a museum. And about some of the processes and procedures for taking care of them. So many people have no idea what goes on behind the locked doors of a collections departement. You’ll find me trying to build a mount for this poor gas mask; or, updating the collections database.


Text: Anne T. Lane