Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Pot, Cup, Lamp, Lid, Milk Warmer" or, Crazy Object Names

By: John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

Cow, Horn, Tip, Brass”
"Pot, Cup, Lamp, Lid, Milk Warmer"
To most people those lists probably sound like gibberish and sometimes even curators have to take a second look to figure out what they are. If we’re lucky, there’s an old image to look up or at least a good enough description to decipher an earlier curator’s naming structure.

Truth be told, most of us are accustomed to finding odd object names in a database, or the names so non-descript you have to scratch your head to figure out what they are, like “Tool.” Thankfully, there is a guide that helps avoid most of this confusion, but at the same time is confusing to use if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. It’s called Chenhall's Revised Nomenclature for Museum Cataloguing.

Bourcier, Paul and Ruby Rogers and the AASLH Nomenclature Committee.
Chenhall's Revised Nomenclature for Museum Cataloguing. AltaMira Press, 2010.

As collections curators and database administrators, Doug Kendall and I normally don’t need to consult this book all too often because we can look at an object and know the proper name. For example, a teacup and a tea bowl are completely different things, even though they serve the same purpose; one has a handle the other doesn’t. Thankfully, the database we use, PastPerfect, assigns the correct category as soon as we enter the object name or at least gives us an option to categorize it (sometimes we know a hammer was used for blacksmithing and not carpentry and can modify the category). Once in a while we’ll get an object and scratch our heads a little to figure out the correct name since the everyday name might not be the correct name. That’s where Chenhall’s comes in.

As an example, “Teacup” is categorized as Category: T&E for Materials / Sub-Category: Food Service T&E (T&E stands for Tools & Equipment). And did I mention that objects with two separate words in the name are reversed in the database! So “Tea Bowl” is entered into the database as “Bowl, Tea” and falls under the same categorical breakdown as “teacup.”

So why do we confuse ourselves with backwards names, categories and sub-categories? Well, it makes finding certain types of objects quicker and easier when you have the electronic database to work with because you can search for just a part or the entire object name and see all of the results. Is it confusing to someone just starting to work for museums? Absolutely! During my first internship at Saratoga National Historical Park, I often questioned the collections curator why this was done and as often as she tried to explain it to me I never really understood, and sometimes still don’t, even though I can sort of grasp the logic behind the lexicon.

So if you ever see a collections manager wandering around an antiques shop mumbling something that you can’t decipher, there’s a fair chance they’re thinking of the database name and categories. Either that or they’ve gone crazy from working with backwards names all the time.

The Milk Warmer formerly known as “Pot, Cup, Lamp, Lid, Milk Warmer,” Artist unidentified, Painted tin [Toleware].
The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, NY, F0285.1948a-d.

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