Introduction to Object ID
  Project Team
  Part 1
  Part 2
part 1: overview

Describing Art and Antiques Using Object ID


This part of the publication offers guidelines for using Object ID’s nine information categories — Type of Object, Materials & Techniques, Measurements, Inscriptions & Markings, Distinguishing Features, Title, Subject, Date or Period, and Maker as well as suggestions on the preparation of written descriptions of objects. It also adds brief discussions of five additional categories of information not selected for inclusion in Object ID because there was no clear consensus on their importance. These categories are: Inventory Number, Related Written Material, Place of Origin/Discovery, Cross Reference to Related Objects, and Date Documented. All were regarded as being important by a large majority of respondents in at least four of the six communities surveyed.

Records that describe art, antiques, and antiquities serve a variety of purposes, including the protection, conservation, management, recovery, valuation, and sale of objects. Different types of organizations inevitably have different information needs. For example, police hold information concerning the circumstances of an object’s theft, museums need information on the location of an object and proof of ownership, the art trade is interested in the provenance of an object, while appraisers record the value of an object together with the basis of the valuation. The information needs of these organizations vary, but all need documentation that identifies individual objects. Broad consensus across the various communities on the categories of information essential to identify objects was the essential precondition to a successful outcome to the Object ID project.

The differences between the communities in their approach to documentation do not end with the categories of information included in records. Differences also exist in the importance accorded to particular categories and on the ways in which the information is recorded. Police officers, for example, are not "art trained" and tend to place a strong emphasis on photographs and on "non-expert" information that can be gained by a physical inspection of the object (e.g., Type of Object, Materials & Techniques, Measurements, Inscriptions & Markings, and Distinguishing Features). While subject is important, they tend to describe it in terms of what is depicted rather than its esoteric icongraphic meaning, e.g., man with bull’s head rather than Minotaur (See Subject). The art trade, on the other hand, describes the object with language designed to demonstrate a knowledge of the object and to appeal to a potential buyer, while cultural heritage organizations are interested in describing the object in terms of its historical significance and cultural meaning.

These differences of approach often mean that the various communities record the same basic information, but in ways that are not mutually acceptable. For example, police find scholarly descriptions unhelpful to non-expert officers, while museums and the art trade do not wish to use what can be regarded as overly simple terms. This publication seeks to bridge this gap by providing advice derived from a study of the needs and current practices of all the communities mentioned above. It offers suggestions on ways of describing objects to make them more identifiable by both experts and non-experts alike, and seeks to strike a balance between technical and scholarly ways of describing objects and more widely understandable non-specialist language. However, the advice given will not conform in all cases to the current practices of a particular community. It is left to individual organizations to determine to what extent they feel able to follow the guidance provided.

The Object ID checklist is purposefully short and simple. Indeed, it represents a far smaller sampling than the documentation standards developed by cultural heritage organizations. Even so, it will not always be feasible or even desirable for organizations or individuals to provide all the Object ID categories of information for every object in their collections. The Object ID checklist indicates the categories of information that can be used to help identify an object, but the discretion of the individual or organization must determine which categories to record in a particular case and to what level of detail.

Object ID is not an alternative to existing standards. Rather, it is a core standard created for a very specific purpose — that of describing cultural objects to identify them. As such, it can nest within existing retrieval systems, information standards, and codes of practice.

Because Object ID is intended to be used by a number of communities and by specialists and non-specialists alike, it identifies broad concepts rather than specific fields and uses simple, non-technical language. Similarly, this publication suggests ways of recording information in order to identify objects, whether in the form of handwritten descriptions or computerized records — rather than to implement the standard in automated systems. When implemented in a computerized system, Object ID categories may equate to a single field, or be broken into several fields. For example, the Object ID category Materials & Techniques in some systems comprises two fields, and the categories Measurements and Date or Period may break into three or more fields. Nevertheless, the discussion of the Object ID categories in this publication are intended to be of value to those developing computerized databases, as well as to those who make records of art, antiques, and antiquities.

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