Synthetic Classification of Museum Artifacts Using Basic Concepts

Rick Szostak, University of Alberta, Canada

Published paper: Synthetic classification of museum artifacts using basic concepts

There has been considerable interest in recent years among both scholars and curators in developing a subject classification system that could be utilized across museums (and also across galleries, libraries, and archives). This paper will argue that the answer lies in a synthetic approach to classification grounded in basic concepts: those for which there is broadly shared understanding across communities. This paper shows how a synthetic approach using basic concepts would enhance user access while easing classificatory challenges. It then applies a synthetic approach to samples of museum artifacts. It is hoped that this exercise both establishes the feasibility of a synthetic approach and identifies strategies for pursuing this approach.

Such an approach is easy for classificationist, classifier, and user to master. Curators, with their detailed understanding of artifacts, should be able to classify—or supervise classifiers—without needing detailed training in information science. The inherent flexibility of the approach allows each museum to signal the unique attributes of each object. Yet a simple but shared vocabulary nevertheless facilitates searches across institutions. Importantly, this approach is well suited to the needs of the Semantic Web, and thus allows museums to code their databases so as to facilitate computer navigation.

Museum artifacts might be usefully classified in terms of their purpose, material composition, and (for some items) methods of manufacture (provenance is beyond the scope of this paper). A synthetic approach is useful for all three: (axe)(for)(war); (wooden)(shaft)(steel)(head); (mass)(produced). A synthetic approach also allows these to be combined into one longer subject entry. This approach would allow the classifier to stress the most important characteristics of a particular artifact. Such an approach may better identify artifacts whose uniqueness lies in unusual combinations of the three elements: (golden)(axe).

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