Classification Schemes

It is accepted that good standardization entails structuring the information coherently so that it can be read, sorted, indexed and exchanged more easily.

The adoption of a descriptive system is the first step in establishing the overall structure of the collections information system. This first level of standardization is not enough to guarantee the information's systematic organization.

After dividing the information and organizing it into logical groups, it is possible to establish another level of information and collections organization in order to standardize the information's structure as a whole by adopting a classification system.

A classification system, also known as a classification scheme, is a system that is used to group the objects together into categories. A classification scheme can be based on logic and various characteristics, such as function, social context and shape.

A collections classification system provides an overview of the collections and helps us to identify strengths and weaknesses. It is the link that exists between all of the collection's objects. Adopting a classification system ensures that the information is coherent and homogenous.

Why use a classification system?

  • To organize objects and group them together
  • To establish a link between the objects
  • To provide an overview and maximize understanding
  • To highlight similarities and differences
  • To draw attention to the grouping and contrasting of objects
  • To encourage reflection on what direction collections should take

A classification system consists of information that is often presented in a hierarchical fashion, with the aim of facilitating access to this information.

How do you select the appropriate classification system?

There is often conflict between the international standard that fosters understanding between systems and the "local" needs that facilitate the expression of each region's unique character and the specific nature of particular collections. A compromise must be found.

Often, consulting with colleagues from nearby institutions or surveying which systems are used by museums that have similar collections can help make the most suitable choice.

For the natural sciences collection, the Latin taxonomy already provides a universally accepted scientific method for classifying specimens. Latin taxonomy allows for great precision in identifying objects owing to the use of eight divisions (kingdom, division/phylum, class, order, family, genus, species and variety).

The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) is a database put together by a group of international organizations and taxonomy specialists. It provides information on the names of species and their classification. It is comprised of taxonomic data collected on flora and fauna for both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. For each scientific name, the ITIS states the authority information (author and date), the taxonomic hierarchy, synonyms and common names, a unique taxonomic number, data on sources (publications, experts, etc.) as well as data quality indicators.

This natural sciences classification scheme provides the same twofold advantage: a common language for everyone and internationally accepted use. This is not the case in the field of humanities.

In Canada, the most frequently used classification system for historical collections is Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging.

To know more about classification schemes, consult the Vocabulary section of the CHIN Guide to Museum Standards.

Finally, we must remember the importance of the classification system. It makes it possible to create logical links between objects, highlight similarities and differences, and group and contrast objects within the collection itself. It also provides a unique perspective on the collection, generates a deeper understanding of the content and stimulates reflection on which direction the collections should take, which research avenues should be followed and which dissemination methods should be given priority.

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This resource was published by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). For comments or questions regarding this content, please contact CHIN directly. To find other online resources for museum professionals, visit the CHIN homepage or the Museology and conservation topic page on

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