Inclusive Object Toolkit

Re-Making Knowledge in Museums and Universities

Resources: Taxonomy and Classification

Traditionally museums classify works of art according to certain aspects and traits. For instance objects may be grouped by medium (painting, drawing, sculpture etc.), style (Baroque, abstract), genre (portrait, narrative, landscape, still life etc.), production site, maker, time period. These schema grew out of eighteenth-century efforts to organize the world according to what they saw as rational principles and they impact everything from which curator has charge of a particular artwork to where it is located in the museum and how it is made discoverable online.

In 1942 Jorge Luis Borges wrote an essay that pointed out the arbitrariness of these principles. The key passage reads:

The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.....[:] animals can be divided into (a) those belonging to the Emperor, (b) those that are embalmed, (c) those that are tame, (d) pigs, (e) sirens, (f) imaginary animals, (g) wild dogs, (h) those included in this classification, (i) those that are crazy-acting (j), those that are uncountable (k) those painted with the finest brush made of camel hair, (l) miscellaneous, (m) those which have just broken a vase, and (n) those which, from a distance, look like flies. 

Jorge Luis Borges, "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," 1942; repr. and transl. from the Spanish by Ruth L. C. Simms in Other inquisitions 1937-1952 (University of Texas Press, 1964), p. 


Borges describes here a fictive Chinese encyclopedia to make the point that any attempt to categorize the world is arbitrary and culturally specific. The passage famously inspired Michel Foucault in his 1966 book: Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (in English: The Order of Things).

This matters because classification and taxonomy as a practice has its origins in Enlightenment attempts to order the natural world according to one objective, evidence-based system into which new species could readily find their position. Our binomial system of naming species is one legacy of that activity. 

The equivalent impulse in art museums manifests a model based on European painting as it started to be understood in eighteenth century princely galleries, leading to some odd results. Why is Native American art so often excluded from the American galleries? Why no Flemish painters after Rubens? Why do should fourteenth century Italian paintings be Renaissance and fifteenth-century Northern paintings be medieval?

And the same taxonomic impulses follow the artwork into its computerized catalog, which today occupies a challenging space that needs both to standardize and link data across the internet and maintain the historical character of local data.  

Further Readings

Historical Background

Andrew McClellan, "Collecting, Classification and Display," in The Art Museum From Boullée to Bilbao (Berkeley: University of California Press), 107-124.

Digital Knowledgescapes

  • Berners-Lee T, J. Hendler J and O. Lassila. "The semantic web." Scientific American 17 (2001): 35–43. 
  • Boast R, Bravo M and R. Srinivasan. "Return to Babel: Emergent diversity, digital resources, and local knowledge." The Information Society 23.5 (2007): 395–403. 
  • Cameron, Fiona, and Helena Robinson. "Digital Knowledgescapes: Cultural, Theoretical, Practical, and Usage Issues Facing Museum Collection Databases in a Digital Epoch." Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: a Critical Discourse. Edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, 165-91. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. 
  • Cameron, F., & Mengler, S. "Complexity, Transdiciplinarity and Museum Collections Documentation: Emergent Metaphors for a Complex World." Journal of Material Culture 14.2 (2009): 189-218.
  • Smith, M. "Viewer Tagging in Art Museums: Comparisons to Concepts and Vocabularies of Art Museum Visitors.” In Advances in Classification Research 17 (2006): Proceedings of the 17th ASIS&T SIG/CR Classification Research Workshop.
  • Srinivasan, R. et al. "Diverse Knowledges and Contact Zones within the Digital Museum." Science, Technology and Human Values 35.5 (2010): 735-768

Emily Graslie from the Field Museum in Chicago explains the many taxonomic systems scientists use to describe species today.

Amidolanne is a collaborative project between Ramesh Srinivasan and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center to rethink how we catalog indigenous artworks. The Amidolanne database validates and integrates community knowledge about Zuni objects around the world.

Pedagogy: Active learning, Critical thinking, in-class exercise


Sorting Postcards

Any collection of postcards will do. I have done this successfully with a collection of museum postcards and a collection of real photo postcards. You will need twenty to thirty postcards. Team students up and ask them to sort the cards into piles of no fewer than three cards and no more than six cards, trying to find a logical system for organizing the collection. Students should then share with the class their choices and reflect on the challenges and friction points in the process. 

Taxonomy of Candy

Replicate Emily Graslie's taxonomy of candy activity as shown in the video below.

Questions to ask:


Learning Outcomes:

Art Catalogs


An essential type of publication in the field of art and cultural heritage is the "catalog." Art catalogs are designed to thoroughly document art and cultural objects and help researchers track what artworks exists, where they currently are located, and where they've been since their creation until the current time.

They also generally provide good images of the art objects, reliable descriptive information about the objects, and basic or core secondary literature about the objects and the artists that create them. For catalogs that document a particular artist's work, they will also very often provide biographical information and timelines.

Parts of a Catalog

The catalog serves as a fundamental information package that helps structure the meaning museums make from objects. Its parts include:

  • The registration number – a unique and permanent number given to each object as a form of identification
  • Object name – use simple terms, in common usage, so that people from different backgrounds can find the object they are looking for
  • Title – a discretionary field used for books, artworks, titled documents etc.
  • Description - the aim of the catalog description is to provide a clear, concise picture that enables another reader of the worksheet to visualize the object and recognize it immediately if searching for it. 
  • Distinguishing marks - examples include labels, signatures, serial numbers, patent dates and trade-marks.
  • Dimensions- accurate measurements of height, length, width, diameter and weight (where relevant)
  • Condition and completeness – a general physical description of the condition of the object as it appears when cataloged
  • Make – details about the person/people involved in creating, producing or manufacturing the object (name, role, address)
  • Place and date of manufacture
  • Provenance – history of the object’s use, previous owners etc.  
  • References – books or research files used to obtain catalog information.
  • Location - the current location of the object and the date it was recorded
  • Statement of significance - the meaning and values of an item or collection, or what makes it important.
  • Handling/storage/display requirements – any specific requirements needed for the preservation of the object.
  • Acquisition details – name and contact details of donor or where/whom the object was purchased (include cost and receipt number)
  • Conservation treatment notes

Find Catalogs That Document:

Catalogue Raisonné is the published catalog of an artist's entire oeuvre, or portions of it by medium or chronology. 

They are essential to find provenance, chronologies, physical descriptions, illustrations, related bibliography, and basic scholarship concerning a particular piece of art or an artist's complete body of work. They are also good sources for basic biographical information about artists and images of artwork.

To find them in Catalyst, our online catalog:

To find published and forthcoming catalogues raisonnés, whether our library has them or not, use the IFAR Catalogues Raisonnés database. If you discover a catalog that the library doesn't have, you may either request to use it via Interlibrary Services or contact the librarian who purchases materials for the library to suggest a purchase.

Museums publish essentially two types of catalogs:

Museum Collection Catalogs - document institutions' permanent collections partially or in their entirety, by providing descriptive, systematic lists of objects in an institution.

Exhibition Catalogs - document the content and themes of temporary exhibitions and serve as those exhibitions' permanent record.

What do you find in museum catalogs?

  • Provenance, physical descriptions, illustrations.
  • Related bibliography, basic scholarship about particular works of art, the history of an institution or collection.
  • Scholarly and cultural contexts surrounding artworks, artists, and institutions.

Finding each type of catalog separately in Catalyst, our online catalog, is difficult. Search in a general way that will retrieve both collection and exhibition catalogs in one search result:

Experiment! Add multiple limits to the initial search to find more specific information, such as:

The key to success using Catalyst for this purpose is creativity and flexibility!

Auction catalogs are used mostly by galleries that sell art and by museums who purchase art for their collections. They are also very useful for curators who track provenance or investigate art attributions.

Since they have limited utility for scholarship, MSEL has only limited access to auction records, including some printed and microfilm catalogs, mostly historical, from major sources:

Here's a more general list of auction-related catalogs.

Articles in journals and trade publications may have some auction information. You may wish to search Art Full Text to see if articles have been published on the object you're researching.