Core Theoretical Concepts and General Definitions

Gain knowledge of theoretical concepts and general definitions associated with the documentation of heritage collections.
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The core theoretical concepts and principles pertaining to the documentation of heritage collections come from various disciplines.

Organizations have developed its own methods specific to their area of expertise, and especially specific to their type of collections. We are therefore faced with differences in the type and quantity of information depending on whether we are dealing with fine arts, archaeology, architecture, ethnography, history, technology, or natural science collections.

The approach to documenting museum and heritage collections is similar to those of archives and information science. They all have their own unique characteristics.

This observation brings us, for the same reasons, to variations in terminology according to discipline, country, and language.

Here, then, are the definitions for some terms that we will be using in this course. They are not provided to break down, but rather to create a frame of reference.

Heritage Collection:
In the UNESCO convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (in PDF) (92 KB) | About the freeware (PDF) heritage is defined as the following:
  • Cultural heritage, monuments: architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science; groups of buildings: groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science; sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and of man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological points of view.
  • Natural heritage, natural features consisting of physical and biological formations or groups of such formations, which are of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view; geological and physiographical formations and precisely delineated areas which constitute the habitat of threatened species of animals and plants of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation; natural sites or precisely delineated natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty.
Collection Object:
There are so many names and definitions that apply, such as "material evidence", or "cultural property", or "archaeological artefact". More recently, particular attention has been given to intangible heritage and creative digital activities. We simply agree on the fact that it is the nature of collection objects to vary greatly. It can be a work of real or virtual art, a historical object or recording of an event or a specific culture; a natural science specimen, dead or alive; an archaeological site, a monument, or a building. For the purposes of our task, we will assume that it is an object (in the broad sense), which was legally acquired, integrated, and recorded as part of a heritage organization's collection.
Documentation System:
A collections documentation system is the logical, ordered, and rigorous organization of all elements that make up a collection.
An inventory is a systematic record of all the elements that make up a collection.
Documentation Standardization:
Above all, standardization is about using shared and approved standards to describe collections in order to facilitate understanding, retrieval, and dissemination as well as information exchange. We usually recognize four types of standards: data structure standards, cataloguing or content standards, value standards and interchange standards.
Classification System:
A hierarchical way of grouping objects and displaying information in separate classes, which facilitates organization and retrieval. Elements included in a class share common characteristics, and classes are generally mutually exclusive.
Controlled Vocabulary:
Collection of reference works used to control morphology, syntax, and semantics, which provides and maintains the integrity and coherence of a database. "Vocabulary control implies reducing natural language, clarification of the meaning of terms, and the building of a network of associations among terms." (Hudon, 1999-2000)

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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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