Vocabularies: Changes and Standards
“Jar!” “Vase!” “Pot!” These are all terms that the students in our data management class shout out to describe the object on the screen. In fact, the object we were looking at is cataloged as a bottle by the bottle by the Dallas Museum of Art.
As different images flash across the screen, we continue to disagree over what we would call the objects if we were the ones cataloging them. This gets to the bottom of an issue of cataloging: how to determine what an object should be named in a catalog in order to allow both museum professionals and the public to find what they are looking for.
There is a difficulty in the museum world to utilize terms to describe an object that are academically acknowledged and understandable by the public. An average museum visitor would not know the difference between a Folsom point and a bifurcated point. They would be more likely to just search a museum catalog with the terms arrowhead or point. However, scholars want to be able to search a catalog using the accepted terms in their fields. A catalog needs to be able to accommodate both types of people that are performing searches. Utilizing tag terms can help this difference in perspectives. This way, a cataloger can name the object its more academic name but also make it searchable by terms that an online visitor may use to describe it.
Differences in opinion about what to name objects in a museum catalog led to the creation of many different efforts to standardize vocabularies through various projects led by both national and international groups. The Getty Research Institute has compiled several different vocabularies that cover diverse types of collections. The Getty’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) is one of the most commonly used. It provides hierarchies of terms to help catalogers determine standards for naming their objects to avoid having similar objects with completely different names. The AAT initially focused on object names dealing with works of art and architecture. It is searchable online which is useful for catalogers who are trying to determine the most suitable terms for the objects in their collections.
The results also show the hierarchies that the terms fall into which allows them to narrow down the best name if their initial choice was not a best fit. Each of the terms has detailed descriptions as to its use, which also assists the catalogers in picking the best option. The Getty has other vocabularies that help with all aspects of cataloging such as the Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN), which provides information on locations from around the world to help catalogers present both the current and any historical names associated with that location. The Union List of Artist Names (ULAN) provides biographical information on artists from all over the world. This resource is really helpful and cuts down on time-consuming research. Since a biography of the artists already exists, catalogers can pull all of the relevant information into their records rather than having to go through and create their own biographies of the artists represented in their collection. These vocabularies are constantly being updated and having new terms added as ongoing projects reveal new needs. These resources may not provide catalogers at different institutions with all of the help and information they need but they do provide a standard for museums which forms a basis for their cataloging terms.
Amanda Vestal, Graduate Student, Museum Science & Management, Education track
University of Tulsa,