Vocabularies & Folksonomies

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,

April, 2017


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Zachary Taylor says:

    Interesting article Amanda.
    I think you raise some good questions about how and why we catalog objects the way we do in museums. As museum professionals it is important to remember that we are playing to a diverse audience that includes both scholars and the general visitor. Whether the user is using an online database format or visiting the museum in person, the way we label objects does in fact make a difference.
    Perhaps the goal of cataloging, as it moves outside of the realm of specific scholarship, can help in assisting regular online explores to discover information about objects in collections that they would not be able to acquire otherwise. Additional traditional vocabulary might in turn assist in all users deepening their understanding of objects and how they are cataloged formally.
    It seems nice that the Getty AAT constantly updates their vocabularies depending on the needs of multiple users.


  2. Hailey Helmerich says:

    I loved your hands-on activity scrolling through different images and seeing what different people categorized them as. I was surprised how different our answers were, even amongst students in the museum profession. This was a great example of how different backgrounds and varying levels of expertise will determine how users interact with online collections. The AAT at the Getty seems like an invaluable resources for both museum cataloguers and those interacting with collections online to establish a common language and standards. I also like how you mention tag terms being used as a way to “bridge the gap” between perspectives of scholars using the collections as well as curious museum-goers. While this feels like a daunting and time consuming feat, it seems the Getty has taken great leaps in making collections online accessible to every type of user. Great job!


  3. Jenny Keller says:

    This was an interesting class exercise, too. It really brought home the differences in what people perceive an object to be. This really highlights how important, and surprisingly complex, cataloging can be, both as a discipline and an art.

    I’m glad you referenced the AAT. What an amazing resource! Any emerging museum professional should know about this site, and everyone – at any level – should appreciate the amount of work and attention to detail of those who created this database.


  4. Amy Bradshaw says:

    After utilizing the Getty’s AAT for our catalog project, I can relate to the points highlighted in your post. Specifically, I found the Union List of Artist Names (ULAN) to be very helpful in my developing my catalog. The ULAN was helpful in learning the artists’ preferred name, nationality and role. For instance, I typically refer to Woodrow Wilson Crumbo, as Woody Crumbo. After reviewing the ULAN, I was able to see what name the artist prefers and then I could enter the correct information

    In addition, I relate to Woodrow Wilson Crumbo’s nationality as Potawatami. The information provided in the ULAN relates that his nationality preference is listed in the following order: Native American, Creek, Potawatami and American. I also found the ranking of similar data to be of assistance with the tag information for Willard Stone.

    Your classroom exercise was great! I learned that tagging an item from a layperson’s perspective is a challenge. Utilizing very basic descriptive terms, museum professionals must look at the object as a whole and then break it down piece by piece to develop tag words. It seems more difficult to use basic words (from a laypersons’ perspective) for the objects’ detailed description. Clearly, I see the fine line between utilizing descriptive words to make the tags both “academically acknowledged and understandable by the public.” Great blog Amanda.


  5. molly noah says:

    Amanda, thank you for this article and your wonderful in-class activity. I appreciated the way you helped the class conceptualize vocabularies, showing how complex cataloging museum collections can be. Moving forward, I think tagging will be a great way for museums cater to different users. While we focused on object type categorization during your presentation, I am interested in the ways museums use vocabularies and tags in relation to artistic and historical movements. Often scholars will disagree whether a term like, Post Modernism, is appropriate but an online user may use that term as their starting point to search the collections. I’ll be interested to see how these ideas grow and change over the next few years!


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