Making Up the Rules: New Documentation Standards for Canadian Museums

Museums are managing their collections documentation in an increasingly networked environment, and are facing ever-changing user expectations for information access and interaction. In this context, the role and importance of museum documentation standards has grown, as data standardization and sharing become key. There are many recent developments in documentation standards for museums, and Canadian museums and the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) have contributed extensively to the development of these standards. This paper provides an overview of the main museum documentation standards used in Canada, and describes some recent developments.

Originally published in French in the journal Documentation et Bibliothèques (58 : 3, July-September 2012), it has been published here with the editor’s authorization, the Association pour l’avancement des sciences et des techniques de la documentation (ASTED).

Museum Use of Standards

There are many commonalities between museum information standards and library standards; as memory institutions, they have similar requirements. However, the significant differences between museum and library collections, end users, access points, mandates and priorities have resulted in divergent knowledge organization practices and standards developments. Because of the nature of museums and their collections, and the comparative complexity of museum documentation, standards development for classification, content, and metadata within museums has generally been many decades behind the corresponding developments within libraries.Footnote 1

Museums require a much wider range of standards than is needed in library cataloguing; there are many more potential access points, and each of these access points often has a wide range of controlled vocabularies and/or classification standards, appropriate to museums of different disciplines, collection specificity, and access requirements. In museums, established standards are often used in conjunction with other less common standards, local standards (e.g. for local place names) and in-house vocabulary standards. In some cases in-house standards have been developed based on established authorities. Museums often report multiple vocabulary standards being used in single fields. For example, an institution may use multiple authority lists or thesauri to standardize the naming of objects, if the collection is diversified; it can use the Parks Canada Descriptive and Visual Dictionary of Objects, the Art & Architecture Thesaurus of the Getty Vocabulary Program and the British Museum Object Names Thesaurus.

It is encouraging that so many museums are using standards, and that they recognize the importance of controlled vocabulary and data entry standards. However, museums have much work to do in standards development and application.

Overview of Museum Standards

There are many types of standards used to manage museum collections information. Standards enable museum data to be efficiently and consistently indexed, sorted, retrieved, and shared, both in automated and paper-based systems. The main types of museum information standards include:

  • Metadata (Data Structure) Standards to define the units of information recorded about the collection
  • Vocabulary (Data Value) Standards to control the choice of terminology used to describe the collection
  • Cataloguing Rules (Data Content Standards) to provide rules for data entry

There is some overlap in these categories – some metadata standards contain cataloguing rules, for example.

Metadata Standards

Metadata Standards (also sometimes called data structure standards) are used to define the categories of data (or Elements, or Fields) that make up a record. Just as ISBD and MARC are often used by libraries to define the units of information recorded, a museum’s metadata standard determines what units of information museums will record about their collection. For example, what information elements does the museum record about the geographical locations associated with the object? Place of origin? Place of use? Place the object or specimen was collected? Place the object was created? A metadata standard will help a museum determine what information to record, define each unit of information, and keep it consistent. For many museums, the choice of fields is determined to a large extent by the commercial collections management system they choose, but most systems are customizable if the museum has a need to record additional information. For those museums that are not using a commercial system, they will have to determine on their own what units of information they require.

The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) Humanities Data Dictionary (available in French and English) is an example of a metadata standard that is used widely in Canada. It contains a sub-set of the 654 data fields or elements, structured in 28 groups that a museum might want to record about their collections. As an example, 41 data fields are grouped under the sub-set “Description”. Every element of the Humanities Data Dictionary includes information to guide the cataloger.

In addition to providing definitions for each of the units of information, the CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary also provides examples and data entry rules for the use of each element, differentiates this field from related fields, and suggests sources for controlled vocabularies to help with data entry in a particular field. The use of a metadata standard such as the CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary will help a museum to:

  • enhance information retrieval (particularly automated retrieval)
  • promote consistency within and between databases
  • ensure that important information is recorded
  • facilitate exchange of information between databases
  • facilitate the migration of data to new systems

According to a 2009 CHIN questionnaire answered by 25 of the medium-to-large institutions in Canada, 84% report that they use CHIN Data Dictionary, with adaptations. They are following the entry rules in the CHIN Data Dictionary, or using them to develop their own local data entry rules.

Vocabulary Standards

Just as libraries use authorities to control the references to names of authors, geographic locations, subjects, etc., vocabulary standards (including authority lists, thesauri, and classification systems) are used by museums to:

  • choose precisely the right term to describe an object, and apply the term consistently
  • ensure consistent categorization of museum objects
  • link a museum’s collections data with rich authoritative sources
  • provide context for terminology used in museum records (e.g. relationships to broader, narrower, or related terms)
  • make automated or manual retrieval of records more efficient.

There are hundreds of vocabulary standards in use by museums, varying in scope from the general to the very specific.

Classification Systems

A classification system is used to organize and group like objects together. In the case of history or ethnology museums, objects are usually classified by function. For fine art collections, works are typically classified by artistic discipline.

The Parks Canada Descriptive and Visual Dictionary of Objects, which is available on the CHIN Professional Exchange website in French and English, is an example of a museum classification system. It is updated yearly.

As with library classification systems such as the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classifications, museum classification systems provide ways to separate concepts into relatively broad topics – for example, “Furnishings”, or “Tools and Equipment for Science and Technology”, which can then be sub-divided in more precise concepts.

Object names often fit within a classification system – in fact, when using systems such as the Parks Canada Descriptive and Visual Dictionary of Objects, object names can be considered as the most specific level of classification. For example, as the object name “Chair” would fit within the “Furnishings > Furniture” class within the Parks Canada Classification System.

Other examples of well-known museum classification systems are:


Thesauri may be used by museum cataloguers to help them choose the right term to describe a collection, and they are also increasingly used behind-the-scenes in database search engines to help bring back relevant results, even if users have searched for a non-preferred term, or the term in another language.

A thesaurus usually provides synonyms, broader and narrower terms, and "preferred" terms for concepts. The Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus is commonly used by museums for controlling terminology in a wide variety of fields, including object names, materials, techniques, cultures, time periods, and more. The AAT Web interface and most AAT terms are available in English only, but French and other language terms are often included.

The AAT record for “armchairs” shows:

  • The preferred term
  • non-preferred terms (that might be used by searchers but avoided by cataloguers),
  • equivalencies in other languages, and also
  • broader (and possibly narrower) terms for this concept.

Some thesauri also include scope notes to advise cataloguers of the precise meaning and usage of particular concepts found in the thesaurus. CHIN has contributed French equivalents for common object names to the AAT, to ensure that French terms used by Canadian museums were included in this important resource.

Another example of a thesaurus heavily used by museums is the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN), a thesaurus which includes current and historical names and other information about places, both political entities (e.g. provinces) and physical features (e.g. lakes). The TGN interface and most fields within records are available in English only. However, French and other language versions of place names are often included.


As with library authorities, such as the Library of Congress Authorities, museums use authority lists to control the index terms or variants that are used within their collections documentation. They can disambiguate similar or identical terms (e.g. different artists or works with the same name), or to group terms that belong together (e.g. an artist’s name or work title in another language). A museum may use an authority list for artist names during data entry, in order to ensure that the name is spelled consistently, or to ensure that a certain version (such as married name) is consistently used. There may or may not be a "preferred" variant of the term, but all variants are linked in the authority list so that the term can be found. Some authorities include rich supplemental information (e.g. an artist name authority with information on the artist’s dates, technique, and biography).

Some of the most well-known museum authorities include:

  • Getty Cultural Objects Name Authority (CONA), an authority for titles of architectural works, paintings, sculpture, etc. The CONA interface and most fields within records are available in English only. However, French and other language versions of names will often be included.
  • Getty Union List of Artist Names (ULAN), an authority which includes proper names and biographical information about artists. The ULAN interface and most fields within records are available in English only. However, French and other language versions of names will often be included.
  • Artists in Canada, an authority available on the CHIN Professional Exchange website, includes proper names and biographical information about Canadian artists. Artists in Canada is available in English and French.

As in the library context, it is especially important that museums use controlled vocabularies in key search fields. Museums will typically have many different controlled vocabularies, each for a specific field or unit of information. For example, some museums use the AAT for control of their materials and techniques fields, while they use Nomenclature for control of their object naming and classification fields, and ULAN for Artist Names.

It is sometimes also necessary to use more than one authority list in a single field – for example, many museums use both the Canadian Geographical Names Database and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names to control their place names, and both Artists in Canada and the ULAN in order to standardize artist names.

Cataloguing Rules

As with library cataloguing rules such as AACRII or RDA, museums use cataloguing rules to determine how data are entered in fields. Cataloguing rules dictate the order, syntax, and format the museum uses to record data – word order, punctuation, how to record vague or unknown data, diacritics, rules for recording titles, names of people, places, and organizations, capitalization, date formats, and many other directives that make for consistent documentation.

Examples of cataloguing rules used by museums include:

  • the cataloguing rules within the CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary
  • Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO), (available in English only) is the first comprehensive set of cataloguing rules for museums.

Standards Developments – Canadian Involvement

New standards become available from time to time and existing ones are evolving. Canadian museums and CHIN have been involved in several important standards developments recently. For example, there was a high level of Canadian involvement in the recent revision of Nomenclature 3.0 for Museum Cataloging. There have also been recent efforts to adapt Cataloging Cultural Objects to the needs of Canadian museums.

Nomenclature 3.0

Many Canadian museums (especially history museums) use older versions of the well-known Nomenclature standard. It was first published in 1978, and then revised in 1988. A new version, 3.0, was published in , by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).

Of the 80 museums and cultural institutions worldwide that contributed terminology and/or worked on the final review of the Nomenclature categories, an amazing 21 of them (26%) were Canadian. 18 of those 21 Canadian museums provided their input to Nomenclature through CHIN’s Standards Working Groups. These 18 museums alone submitted over 5000 terms for consideration by the Nomenclature Committee, and spent many hours revising and editing category definitions and term lists. The museums that contributed have helped to ensure that terms needed for cataloguing Canadian museum collections are included in this important standard.

Updates include:

  • New, Changed, and Moved Terms - over 5,000 new terms have been added, as well as terms that have changed, or moved to more suitable positions within the classification.
  • New Structure - includes three new hierarchical levels of terms (bringing the total to six levels) to more precisely define objects and their functions. Many sub-classes have been added, to simplify cataloguing and retrieval. In order to group like items together, the new Nomenclature has also introduced the notion that the object term should also be hierarchically organized (e.g. object terms have broad/narrow relationships relative to one another), rather than just listed alphabetically.
  • New Conventions - improved handling of multi-component and multi-functional objects
  • New Product - improvements to book design, collections management software vendors implementing electronic version in their products

The Nomenclature Committee (which now includes 3 Canadians – Heather Dunn from CHIN, and Rosemary Campbell and Jean-Luc Vincent from Parks Canada) will be coordinating changes and additions to the standard, to keep it up-to-date and relevant. There is also a new Website, the Nomenclature Community, where users can submit new terms and discuss classification issues with colleagues.

Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO)

Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) is the first comprehensive "data content standard" (or cataloguing rules) for museums. It provides rules for “describing, documenting, and cataloging cultural works and their visual surrogates”. CCO is intended to guide museums in the choice of terms, and to define the order, syntax, and form in which data should be entered. It is similar in purpose (and in its recommendations) to the "Cataloguing Rules" that are included within CHIN's Humanities Data Dictionary, but is more comprehensive for those fields that it covers.

CCO is designed for museum collections, visual resource collections, archives, and libraries. It covers collections of functional objects, artworks, architecture, and other visual media. It is available in print from the American Library Association, and also available for download. CCO is the product of a collaborative effort by the cataloging and art and cultural heritage communities. It was written by experts in the field of cultural heritage documentation, and reviewed by an international panel of their colleagues, including CHIN. It is administered by the Visual Resources Association Foundation, Cataloging Cultural Objects Committee, and funded by the Getty Foundation, the Digital Library Federation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

CHIN acted as a reviewer of CCO while it was in development, making suggestions to ensure that CCO took into account the ‘best practices’ that had been adopted by Canadian museums, and that a wide variety of collection types were represented, not just art collections. After publication of the first draft of CCO, a CHIN Standards Working Group was formed expressly to assess the CCO standard and test its use in Canadian collections. CHIN’s CCO Working Group was made up of approximately 40 museum professionals from across Canada as well as CHIN representatives. This group:

  • produced a report containing a detailed comparison of three sections of the new standard with the CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary (the sections were Object Type and Title, Class, and Measurements);
  • conducted a survey of working group members on specific recommendations of the CCO, how the recommendations matched current practice within Canadian museums, and how significant the divergences;
  • investigated the implications of using CCO within their own institutions and within Artefacts Canada;
  • completed a validation project within a museum (the University of Alberta Archaeology Collection).

CHIN's CCO Working Group concluded that the CCO is very valuable for guiding the selection, organization, and formatting (order, syntax, and form) of data in museum collections records. In general, the CCO does not differ greatly from current Canadian practice in general. The CHIN Data Dictionary rules are not contradicted by CCO, and CCO supplements the existing entry rules. Although there were a few points of disagreement within the Working Group over specific CCO rules, in general the CCO represents the 'best practice' for museum data entry. The CCO rules can be viewed as the goal to work toward, even if museums may be unable to follow all the rules at an institutional level. CHIN's CCO Working Group recommended CCO for use by Canadian museums cataloguing humanities collections.

Because the CCO is available only in English, in order to make the rules accessible bilingually, and in a format to which Canadian museums were accustomed, the Working Group has prepared a revision to the CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary, launched in 2010, incorporating the CCO rules. It is hoped that these rules will be gradually adopted by the Canadian museum community, bringing us closer in line with developing international standards, and making it easier for exchange and repurposing of information on heritage collections.

The initial work of harmonizing CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary and Artefacts Canada Data Dictionaries with CCO rules focused only on “required and recommended" fields within Artefacts Canada. The edited data dictionary entries include 49 records, out of 132 possible fields that can be contributed to our national database, Artefacts Canada.

The CHIN Standards Working Groups are now making progress on harmonizing the remaining fields – the current project is to update the Geographic fields. The initial harmonization project included only primary (Country and Province of Origin and Use) geographic fields, but the group is now working on 11 additional fields for geographic locations.

Standards Resources

Standards Guides

Several bilingual museum standards resources have been published on the CHIN website:

  • Core Standards for Canadian Museums - Information on the standards most commonly used by Canadian museums and recommended by CHIN. Includes metadata standards, vocabulary and classification standards, and cataloguing rules.
  • CHIN Guide to Museum Standards - This guide contains basic information on why museum documentation standards are important, describes the main types of data standards and how they are used in Canadian museums, and provides users with access to the standards.

Introduction to Documentation of Heritage Collections

The bilingual online “Introduction to Documentation of Heritage Collections” course, available in CHIN Professional Exchange, follows a module-based approach for self-directed, progressive and ongoing learning. This course covers the fundamental issues relating to documenting heritage collections. It is intended for heritage institution professionals and volunteers who wish to learn about or improve their knowledge of collection documentation, from project planning to implementation.

Documentation of Media Art

A series of bilingual resources developed to assist museums with documentation of media art are also available. CHIN was a major partner in the DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage) Project, a 5-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded research alliance in the Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) program, spearheaded by the Daniel Langlois Foundation. DOCAM brought together experts from museums and universities, studying issues relating to the documentation and preservation of media art collections. Many museums have examples of media art in their collections, but until recently there have not been many resources available to help museums document these works. DOCAM conducted a number of case studies on works that feature technological components and that belong to the collections of CHIN member museums associated with the Alliance.

The practical work carried out as part of the case studies produced five tools and guides accessible to all on the DOCAM project Website and references to the tools are available on the CHIN Professional Exchange :

  • A Cataloguing Guide for New Media Collections
  • A Conservation Guide for Technology-Based Artworks
  • A Technological Timeline, which includes both media artworks and technological components.
  • A Documentary Model adapted to media arts
  • The DOCAM Glossaurus, a bilingual terminological tool

As a supplement to the tools developed by the DOCAM Research Alliance, CHIN has worked with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, one of the DOCAM partners, to publish an introduction to Media Art - Media Art and Museums – Guidelines and Case Studies. Designed for museum professionals, it aims to raise awareness to the challenges posed by these works, with recommendations that will ensure adequate documentation and effective preservation of works featuring technological components.

Another module on Media Art was developed by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as part of this project.


Since its origins as the National Inventory Program in 1972, CHIN has supported museums in the documentation of their collections, and worked with them in the development of documentation standards. CHIN has long promoted established standards such as the Parks Canada and Nomenclature Classification Systems, the Getty Vocabularies, and Artists in Canada, and has guided museums in their use. CHIN and Canadian museums are continuing their active collaboration with the international standards community to adapt and create standards and standards tools, such as CCO, Nomenclature 3.0, and the DOCAM resources. In recent years, the role and importance of museum documentation standards has grown; the demands of an increasingly networked environment and changing user expectations have increased pressure on museums to standardize and share their data at a national or global level. Canadian museums are responding by increasing their use of international standards and influencing their development.


All URLs have been consulted on the web in January 2014.

Baca, Murtha. 2004. Fear of authority? Authority Control and Thesaurus Building for Art and Material Culture Information. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 38.3/4: 143-151.

Baca, Murtha, Patricia Harpring, Elisa Lanzi, Linda McRae, and Ann Whiteside. 2006. Cataloging Cultural Objects: A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images. Visual Resources Association. Chicago: American Library Association.

Bourcier, Paul, Ruby Rogers, and the Nomenclature Committee. 2009. Nomenclature 3.0 for Museum Cataloging: Third Edition of Robert G. Chenhall's System for Classifying Man-Made Objects. American Association for State and Local History. Altamira Press.

British Museum. 1999. Object Names Thesaurus

Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). Artists in Canada.

Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). Artefacts Canada - Humanities Data Dictionary.

Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). CHIN Guide to Museum Standards.

Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary.

Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). Core Standards for Canadian Museums.

Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). Standards News. (no longer available)

DOCAM : Documentation et conservation du patrimoine des arts médiatiques / Documentation and conservation of the media arts heritage. 2010.

Doerr, Martin. 2008. Integrated Information Management and Access - new chances for museums, archives and libraries.

Dunn, Heather and Corina MacDonald. 2009. Cultural Heritage Information in the Networked Environment: Comparing Information standards and Knowledge Organization in Libraries and Museums / Information culturelle patrimoniale dans un environnement réseauté : comparaison des normes et de l’organisation des connaissances dans les bibliothèques et les musées. Published in French in Documentation et Bibliothèques (October-December 2009) : 159-169.

LeBoeuf, Patrick. 2010. From FRBR to FRBRoo through CIDOC CRM, A Common ontology for cultural heritage information. International Symposium on the Future of Information Organization Research, October 4-5, 2010, National Taiwan University.

Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). 2008. Terminology Services.

Parks Canada. Parks Canada Descriptive and Visual Dictionary of Objects.

Parry, Ross. 2007. Recoding the Museum: Digital Heritage and the Technologies of Change. Oxford: Routledge.

Simon, Nina. 2008. The Future of Authority: Platform Power. Museum 2.0 weblog, October 8, 2008.

The Getty Research Institute. 1988. Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT). Getty Vocabulary Program. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust,

The Getty Research Institute. 2012. Cultural Objects Name Authority (CONA) Getty Vocabulary Program. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust.

The Getty Research Institute. 2006. Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN). Getty Vocabulary Program. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust,

The Getty Research Institute. 1997. Union List of Artist Names (ULAN). Getty Vocabulary Program. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust,

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). 2010. Media Art and Museums: Guidelines and Case Studies.

Contact information for this web page

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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