Peter van Mensch
Towards a methodology of museology
(PhD thesis, University of Zagreb 1992)

Museological terminology

One of the criteria to consider museology a genuine academic discipline is the existence of a specific language. In the 1970s museologists in different parts of Europe started to take stock of and to define museum related terms. Although an ICOFOM working group on terminology never get off the ground, individual members were involved in most of the national and international initiatives.


During the 1970s, i.e. the period of 'the emancipation of museography', several initiatives were taken to list museum related terminology. The first country to work out a dictionary on museum related terms was the German Democratic Republic, where in 1973 the first version was published of what in 1975 became the Small dictionary of the museum field ('Kleines Wörterbuch des Museumswesen'). In 1974 a Concise dictionary of museum terms ('Kratkij slovar muzejnych terminov') was published in Moscow and in 1978 a Czech dictionary, compiled by Benes, was published in Prague ('Muzeologicky slovnik'). In 1983 a dictionary of Dutch terms was published by Van Mensch ('Museologisch woordenboek') [note 1]. Schreiner published a German dictionary in 1982, followed by an updated version in 1989 ('Terminologisches Wörterbuch der Museologie'). In 1989 an English-French vocabulary was published in Canada ('Glossary of museology'). The problem of defining the scope of museology as opposed to the museum field (see Chapter 7) is illustrated by the number of terms. The GDR dictionary contains 300 entries, the Soviet dictionary 400, Schreiner's dictionary 500, Van Mensch' dictionary 600, and the Canadian glossary 2900.

On an international level the first important attempt to develop, or rather to list, museum and museological terminology is the Dictionarium Museologicum, published in 1986. This project was initiated by the 12th General Assembly of ICOM (Moscow 1977). The need of a dictionary was already expressed during the 7th General Conference (New York 1965) in connection with a strong urge to professionalise. Similar tendencies are found in the fields of archives and libraries. On the basis of a Lexicon of Archival Terminology (Amsterdam 1964) a working party of the International Council on Archives prepared a Dictionary of archival terminology (München 1984). In 1973 the first edition was published of Elsevier's Dictionary of Library Science, Information and Documentation (Amsterdam), compiled by W.E. Clason. The dictionary of archival terms contains 500 entries in seven languages, with definitions in English and French. The dictionary of library terms contains 5439 entries in six languages, with definitions of many (not all) terms in English and French. The Dictionarium Museologicum contains 1632 entries in twenty languages [note 2]. It does not give definitions.

The resolution adopted at the 12th General Assembly of ICOM asked for definitions and standardisation. In its present form the Dictionarium Museologicum is 'only' a vocabulary. This first step towards an unequivocal and internationally accepted terminology has been a difficult one. When the Dictionarium Museologicum was published in 1986, it had already lost momentum. The accelerating museum developments overtook the preparations, which were handicapped by the fact that the Editorial Board was mainly based in East Europe and hold to long on German as leading language. Some important problems which occurred in the working process might be mentioned here rather briefly.

Dictionarium Museologicum [note 3]

The dictionary of museum term was prepared by a working group of the ICOM International Committee on Documentation chaired by Istvan Eri (1979-1983) and Lucas Wüthrich (1989-1989). The secretariat was taken care of by Eri's National Centre of Museums at Budapest. Interestingly, the book was published by the Hungarian Esperanto Association, which took great interest in the project. As a consequence the museum field now has a complete Esperanto vocabulary at its disposal.

In the published version the Dictionarium Museologicum contains museum related terms from twenty different languages. The lists are presented in such a way that equivalence is suggested. The lack of a classification system and the lack of definitions, however, raises doubts about the equality of some terms. Terms that apparently did not have equivalents in other languages are listed apart and are given short definitions. Not by coincidence these lists concern German, Czech and Dutch terms. The terms and their definitions are taken from the existing national dictionaries and translated into English. Of the additional 107 Dutch terms only a few are typical Dutch in the sense that they are developed within the context of Dutch museum practice. Most of the terms do have English equivalents and belong to the common museum language, like, for example, 'doelgroep' (= target audience), 'droogvriezen' (= freeze drying), 'leskist' (= kit), 'stijlkamer' (= period room). In the so-called Dutch list even three English terms are given, which are not found in the basic DM list: author's gallery, poster session, site museum.

The selection of terms show the inevitable subjectivity of the selection process. This is, for example, also shown in comparison of the Dictionarium Museologicum with the more 'modern' Canadian Glossary of museology. The difference in number of terms in these vocabularies (1632 in the DM versus 2900 in the Canadian glossary) is caused by the more frequent use of compound terms in the Canadian vocabulary. Most of these compound terms relate to modern museum practice. For example, whereas the Dictionarium Museologicum gives nine terms with the component 'security', the Canadian vocabulary gives nineteen; in case of 'interpretation/interpretative' the difference is four versus twelve.

Professional developments, especially in the field of documentation, security and education, gave rise to new concepts and new terms at such a speed that it apparently was difficult to follow them in print, especially since they have not yet found their way in basic handbooks. A major handicap in preparing the dictionary could have been that the English speaking world has a leading role in technological innovation, while its contribution to the Dictionarium Museologicum has been minimal, especially during the first period [note 4].

One of the problems during the preparation of the Dictionarium Museologicum was the choice of the leading language. During the first years Hungarian was chosen as the source language. Stránský proposed to chose the language in which the creation of museum/museological terminology was the most advanced both from a historical and from a theoretical point of view. This language was, in his eyes, German. German was, indeed, taken as leading language in the third preliminary edition in 1980. For the final edition, however, English was chosen, being one of the official UNESCO and ICOM languages.

Another problem concerned the arrangement of terms. For the second edition a preliminary systematic classification was elaborated by adding numerical addresses to the terms. This approach, however, was rejected by the Editorial Board at its first meeting (in 1979). The main arguments were the better accessibility of terms in an alphabetical structure and the time consuming preparation of a hierarchical system. In the meantime, in cooperation with the Pedagogical Faculty at Nitra Stránský and Bruza compiled a Dictionary of literary museological communication, which came out in 1977. A tri-lingual version was published in 1981. The basic structure of this dictionary was based on the museological system and the terminology as developed by Stránský. Following this line, Stránský proposed a systematic rather than an alphabetical arrangement for the Dictionarium Museologicum as well, suggesting that only in this way terms would receive their proper relations and thus their proper meaning. An early attempt (in 1979) failed. An elaborated proposal for a systematic arrangement was published in 1984. The Editorial Board, however, gave preference to an alphabetical arrangement.

Modern thesauri

A systematic arrangement is a necessary step towards a thesaurus, which in its turn leads the way to standardisation. A thesaurus is the controlled vocabulary of an indexing system, arranged in a known order and structured so that synonymous, hierarchical, and associative relationships among terms are clearly displayed and identified by standardised relationship indicators. A preliminary museological thesaurus has been developed by the ICOM and ICOMOS Documentation Centres (Paris). On the basis of this work Leonard Will compiled in 1990 a draft thesaurus to be discussed by the CIDOC Working party on museum information centres. This draft does not contain a classification of terms, awaiting a discussion to what extent a pre-co-ordination of terms (as, for example, suggested by Stránský) is desirable.

There is a growing number of thesauri developed for parts of the museological field, ranging from a simple thesaurus for one object category to more ambitious undertakings like the Art and Architecture Thesaurus. From the 1980s onwards the English speaking countries (United Kingdom, United States) have taken the lead in developing a consisted museum specific (museological) terminology. It seems that the process of managing collections has provided the main strategic focus for terminological standardisation.

Art and Architecture Thesaurus

The AAT project was established in 1979 to develop a standardised vocabulary for the visual arts, including material culture at large, for use in bibliographic and visual databases as well as in the documentation of object collections. Initially the AAT was funded by the Council on Library Resources, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 1983 the AAT became an operating unit within the Art History Information Program of the J. Paul Getty Trust. The first edition was published in June 1990. It contains 47,000 entries, 15,000 main (preferred) terms and 25,000 so-called lead-in terms (non-preferred synonyms etc.). The AAT is in English, but the programme is extended with the so-called AAT Multi-lingual Project providing equivalents in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.


A key-role in the development of controlled terminology is played by the ICOM International Committee for Documentation (CIDOC) and the Museum Documentation Association. The latter organised in 1988 an international conference on terminology, which resulted in a big 'armoury show' of current developments (Roberts ed. 1990). There was a widespread recognition during the conference that the management or control of terminology will be a key issue for museums in the 1990s. The availability of and efficient use of terminology products will be a major concern, particularly in museums that have established an automated collections database which they need to exploit for collections management and information access purposes.

Standardisation is an inevitable element of terminology control. In this respect the Dictionarium Museologicum reflects a rather 'romantic' approach in a computer dominated age: 'To adhere slavishly to standardised terms that are awkward in a particular language would hamper the natural evolution of that language and its tendency to develop nuances; in a word, it would destroy its very beauty' (Eri 1983: 113). Nevertheless, modern computer technology might allow the use of 'natural language' instead of controlled artificial language: 'Any inconvenience for contemporary data managers using inadequate or obsolete technology is not a justification for the wholesale rewriting of history to conform with conventions established with the intention of allowing users to employ that technology' (Cannon-Brookes 1988).

A very ambitious project is undertaken by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). This organisation is responsible for developing international standards in all fields, including the professional aspects of the work of institutes like libraries, archives, and museums. Starting from the principle that there is an overall coherent information community with similar problems and the opportunity to benefit from each other's experiences, ISO established projects to develop standards concerning documentation operations. One of these projects focuses on the development of an extensive vocabulary for documentation. The initial structure of the intended standard was based on the distinction of different categories of documents. In the course of the project it was decided to pay more attention to museum work in general and in particular to museum objects as documents.

The intended standard is referred to as ISO 5127. It consists of 11 parts: (1) basic concepts, (2) traditional documents, (3) iconic documents, (4) archival documents, (5) identification, acquisition, processing of documents and data, (6) documentary languages, (7) retrieval and dissemination of information, (8) reprography of documents, (9) administration and organisation of archives, libraries, documentation centres and museums, (10) legal aspects of documentation and information, (11) audio-visual documents. Printed versions of parts 1, 3 and 4 are circulated in 1983, 1988 and 1983 respectively. Later it was decided to add more chapters, like (13) on three-dimensional objects ('museum objects') as documents, and (14) conservation of documents.

Apart from the general work on thesauri, some special projects have been initiated with regard to standardisation. Most of these projects concern the identification and description of objects. Some are of a more museological nature. An example is the proposal for entry-exit terminology, prepared by the MDA Terminology Working Group [note 5].

One may wonder, however, whether this bottom-top approach will eventually turn out to be more successful than the top-bottom approach of the Dictionarium Museologicum. The main problem will be the standardisation of more abstract concepts. In the short period of its development as (emerging) academic discipline, museology has already created an immensely rich tradition of idiosyncratic and regional nomenclature which reflect a wide range of philosophical concepts. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to develop an unequivocal international dictionary without reference to an unambiguous theoretical frame-work. In this respect the undertakings of Schreiner and Benes have been more successful than more ambitious international projects.



Cannon-Brookes, P. (1988) 'Editorial', The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship 7 (3): 229.

Eri, I. (1983) 'The Dictionarium Museologicum: building bridges of words', Museum 35 (2): 110-113.

Roberts, D.A. ed. (1990) Terminology for museums. Proceedings of an international conference held in Cambridge, England, 21-24 September 1988 (Cambridge).

Stránský, Z.Z. & O. Bruza (1984) Dictionarium museological. Proposition for the 5th version (Brno).

Stránský, Z.Z. & O. Bruza (1986) 'Zrod muzejni terminologie', Muzeologicke sesity (10): 137-172.



1. On the basis of this dictionary a concise glossaries were compiled in Arabic and Indonesian. On the basis of the same publication An Laishun prepared a first Chinese dictionary of museum terms (1993). >up<

2. English, French, Spanish, Russian, German, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Esperanto, Finnish, Hungarian, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Rumanian, Serbo-croatian, Slovak, and Swedish. Special attention was paid to regional differences within some languages, like English (United Kingdom vs. United States), Spanish (Spain vs. Latin America), German (Federal Republic of Germany vs. German Democratic Republic, Austria and Switzerland), Dutch (Netherlands vs. Belgium), and Portuguese (Portugal vs. Brazil). In 1989 E. Mizushima published a Japanese vocabulary on the basis of the Dictionarium Museologicum. >up<

3. The early history is given in Eri 1983. The reports of the meetings of the Editorial Board and other material concerning the development of the DM can be found in the Newsletter of Museological Terminology (1979-1986), edited by Eri and published by the National Centre of Museums at Budapest. A summary of the main problems is given by B. Vegh in Newsletter of Museological Terminology 5, 1984, (1-3). The main problems discussed by him concern definitions, equivalence and classification. >up<

4. The list of contributors published in the Newsletter of Museological Terminology in 1981 (vol. 2, no. 9) gives 39 names, of which 27 coming from East European countries, 9 from West Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark), and 3 from Latin America. The same pattern can be found concerning the meetings of the Editorial Board. For example, the 5th meeting (6-12 May, 1984) was attended by 32 persons of which 10 from West Europe, 20 from East Europe, one from Latin America and one from North America (Newsletter of Museological Terminology 5, 1984, (7-8)). >up<

5. Of the 40 main terms given in this publication only 10 are mentioned in the Dictionarium Museologicum. In general distinction should be made between technical terms used in every day operation and management of museum activities and the vocabulary entered in a computer system to record or document information (Fink in Roberts ed. 1990: 27). In this particular case, however, one may wonder why the DM is so incomplete. >up<