What is Nomenclature?

Nomenclature 4.0 for Museum Cataloging is an updated and expanded edition of Robert G. Chenhall’s system for classifying man-made objects, originally published in 1978. The Chenhall system is the standard cataloging tool for thousands of museums and historical organizations across the United States and Canada. For this fourth edition, hundreds of new terms have been added, and every category, class, sub-class, and object term has been reviewed and revised as needed by a professional task force appointed by the American Association for State and Local History.

This new edition features crucial revisions including:

  • A revised and updated users’ guide with new tips and advice
  • An expanded controlled vocabulary featuring nearly 950 new preferred terms
  • 475 more non-preferred terms in the index
  • An expanded and reorganized section on water transportation
  • Expanded coverage of exchange media, digital collections, electronic devices, archaeological and ethnographic objects, and more

Why Should I Use It?

Nomenclature 4.0 for Museum Cataloging is a structured and controlled list of object terms organized in a classification system to provide a basis for indexing and cataloging collections of human-made artifacts. It was developed for people responsible for the creation and management of museum collection records and is based on three fundamental assumptions relating to the usefulness of catalog records for research, collection management, and exhibition planning:

  1. Catalog records are most useful if objects are named consistently;
  2. Creating functionally defined groupings of catalog records in a hierarchical format makes it easier to work with record groups; and
  3. Consistently cataloged records facilitate the sharing of data with researchers, other museums, and the public at large.

Nomenclature is built into the lexicons of many vendor-supported museum collections management systems, but it can also be a useful tool for museums with homemade databases and even for museums without computerized cataloging systems.

What Does Nomenclature Do?

Nomenclature 4.0 provides an extensive list of object terms based on the collections of many museums, and it relates each object term to others within a hierarchical taxonomy based on the object’s functional context.

Nomenclature 4.0 includes thousands of terms, and it is greatly expanded from the last edition, The Revised Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging, published in 1988. However, it does not and should not include all possible names for all possible museum artifacts. It is important to recognize that Nomenclature will not include all the terms any given museum needs, and that it will not be suitable for all purposes. Instead, Nomenclature provides a practical, flexible framework that has been used successfully by thousands of museums for more than three decades.

Because Nomenclature does not include all possible terms, some museums may need to expand the list of terms in order to express the finer points of distinction among similar but subtly different objects. Nomenclature is flexible, and the Nomenclature Committee encourages museums with similar specialized collections to collaborate in compiling lists of specialized terms as the need arises. As long as new terms are added within the Nomenclature framework, the reasons for adding the terms are documented, and the additions are made only after careful consideration, Nomenclature will function just fine.

Bear in mind that Nomenclature establishes a convention for object names only. It is important to consider other standardized vocabularies for other useful pieces of data about museum objects and their characteristics, including materials, styles, design elements, geographic origins, manufacturing techniques, personal and corporate names, and related subjects and concepts. When considering new object terms, it is important to avoid using words that may belong in other fields of an object’s catalog record such as “plastic,” “wrought,” “Civil War,” or “suffrage.” Computerized databases allow users to query multiple fields to narrow searches for artifacts that meet specific criteria.

Object terms in Nomenclature are indexing terms intended to facilitate data retrieval. They are not substitutes for fuller descriptions that may be useful for inventories, exhibition labels, catalog captions, or other applications. “Chair, Rocking” is a legitimate object term for Nomenclature, but “Chair, Victorian, walnut, with green needlework cushion” is not.

There are many useful books and online resources for learning more about data standards that apply to museum collections, including material developed and distributed by the Museum Computer Network, the Canadian Heritage Information Network, and the American Library Association (particularly its manual, Cataloging Cultural Objects: A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images).

(Table of Contents for Nomenclature 4.0 for Museum Cataloging by Paul Bourcier, Heather Dunn, and the Nomenclature Task Force, 2014)

An Introduction to Nomenclature 4.0
Nomenclature Users’ Guide

Category 1: Built Environment Objects
Category 2: Furnishings
Category 3: Personal Objects
Category 4: Tools and Equipment for Materials
Category 5: Tools and Equipment for Science and Technology
Category 6: Tools and Equipment for Communication
Category 7: Distribution and Transportation Objects
Category 8: Communication Objects
Category 9: Recreational Objects
Category 10: Unclassifiable Objects
Alphabetical Index of Object Terms