Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Museum Catalogues Through the Ages

While museums in the modern sense were an invention of the eighteenth century, the accumulation of objects, both by individuals and by institutions, goes back millennia, and since the beginning there has been a need to keep track of the items a collection contained. In comparing catalogues that were produced hundreds or even thousands of years ago to those maintained by museums today, what is striking is both how much they have changed over time and how much they have not. In this post I would like to discuss examples from three time periods: the inventories of donations kept by temples in ancient Greece, the ledgers created by collectors and curators from the early modern period, and the digital records prepared by present-day museums. The developments (or lack thereof) in cataloguing throughout history speak to how we perceive objects and collections and raise questions about how well modern records are serving their purpose.

The format of catalogues has certainly changed with the progression of technology. Physically, what used to be pressed in clay or carved in stone steles (tablets) was eventually transferred to vellum and then paper, and now often (though not always) exists in electronic form. Structurally, developments in form have been more cyclical. In ancient Greece, annual inventories listed objects room by room, resulting in a flat organization based loosely on the material of an item, which seems to have been how the storage space was assigned [1]. By the eighteenth century, the development of ontologies led to catalogues delineated into hierarchical structures, for example the material culture time periodicon order used by Samuel Shuckford (1694 -1754) in one iteration of his catalogue of coins in the Canterbury Cathedral's collection [2]. In present times, digital search systems have made it possible once again to flatten out these organizational structures, as records can be dynamically retrieved and ordered base on any number of traits.

The content of catalogues, meanwhile, or the metadata that is included about each object, has developed over time in a way that suggests a universal human conception of how to define material objects. David Lewis, in discussing metalwork in ancient Greece, provides a summary of the information included in temple inventories in the 5th century BCE [3]. Entries consisted of an object name, dimensions (specifically weight), value, material, and a brief physical description, as well as who donated it and why—and occasionally, in later years, the name of the artist who created it.

Over two thousand years later, the catalogues describing the contents of British cabinets of curiosities, though different in focus, are very reminiscent of their Greek predecessors. The following is a typical example of an entry from the catalogue created by Ralph Thoresby (1658- 1725 ) for his collection [4]:
        Burnt Bones found in a Roman Urn
        near Peckham above 1500 years old
        given me by the Learned Dr. Gale Later
        Dean of York who presented the pot with
        the rest to the RS [Royal Society].

Though the metadata must be picked out of the description, they similarly contain the object name, culture, location of origin, time period, and a general sense of the item’s provenance. Other entries also contain dimensions and materials when they are relevant to why the object was worthy of collecting. Shuckford’s catalogue contains similar metadata (though some of it is captured in section headings rather than individual entries), and adds consistent physical descriptions based on the developing conventions of numismatics [5].

The information now included in online catalogues, as demonstrated both by metadata standards such as CDWA and CIDOC-CRM [6,7] and by a survey of museum websites I have completed in previous research [8], represents only a minor advancement from what has existed in previous eras. The emphasis remains on listing the same information: a name, time period, culture, material, location, dimensions, physical description, and provenance of an object. The only significant changes are an increased emphasis on including the artist (if known) and, at least in principle, that the metadata are separated into labeled segments rather than a single descriptive block.

The final facet of how catalogues have changed—and the reason why the lack of development in other ways is significant—is the intention or purpose of the records. On the one hand, throughout history there has been a consistent thread of needing inventories to maintain collections. This was the impetus for the Greeks to begin keeping written documentation [9], and it continues to be an important use for catalogues today. For this purpose, the format and content now included in records is entirely appropriate: pulling out specific traits in order to identify objects is fundamental to conservation activities. Increasingly, however, a secondary intention has developed for catalogues: to serve as a window into a collection. In modern museums, supporting education is part of the mandate, and records need to explain the nature and context of an object to a wide variety of visitors. The practice of simply listing attributes, which has been common to catalogues for millennia, is effective for describing objects individually (when the record is relatively complete, at least), but is not sufficient for representing the larger context of how objects relate to each other or to the world in which they were created, discarded, found, collected, etc. As a result, the users of museum catalogues see only part of what an object is and may leave with a limited understanding of it.

In sum, museum catalogues are not what they once were—the physical support has changed extensively (from clay tablets to networked servers), and the roles that records must play is expanding—but the ways that an object is described have advanced very little. Despite massive advances in technology, which continue to open doors for how data can be stored, retrieved and presented, the available tools and current practices are not taking advantage of these possibilities. There are few projects, either professional or scholarly, that are examining this topic, but the few that are give hope that in the future catalogues may truly progress beyond the ancient ideas.

- Sara Vela


[1] Kenneth Lapatin, “The Statue of Athena and Other Treasures in the Parthenon,” The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present, ed. Jenifer Neils (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), 282-283.
[2] Canterbury Cathedral Lit_MS_E_16_D.
[3] David M. Lewis, “Temple Inventories in Ancient Greece,” Selected Papers in Greek and Near Eastern History (Cambridge: CUP, 1997).
[4] Leeds, Yorkshire Archaeological Society YAS_MS17, 1r. [5] Canterbury Cathedral Lit_MS_E_16_D.
[6] Getty Institute, Categories for the Description of Works of Art,
[7] The CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model.
[8] Sarah Vela, Representing Classical Artefacts Online: A User-Centric Approach for an Academic Audience, Master’s Thesis, University of Alberta, 2014, Chapter 5.
[9] David Lewis, 41.

Sarah Vela designs and builds content management systems for museums and archaeological sites. She holds a Master of Library and Information Studies and a Master of Arts in Humanities Computing from the University of Alberta. Her areas of research include museum informatics, information architecture and user-centric website design. Sarah was also a research assistant on the Digital Ark project.


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