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

The object as data carrier

An object may be defined as the smallest element of material culture which has a recognisable and recognised identity in itself. As museology is concerned with the preservation and use of a selected part of our material environment, a structured approach to the information value of objects is the cornerstone of a museological methodology.

A general frame of reference is provided by James Deetz' definition of material culture. Deetz defines material culture as 'that sector of our physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behavior' (Deetz 1977: 24-25). This interpretation of material culture does not limit itself to tangible, movable artefacts, but includes 'all artefacts, from the simplest, such as a common pin, to the most complex, such as an interplanetary space vehicle. But the physical environment includes more than what most definitions of material culture consider cuts of meat as material culture, since there are many ways to dress an animal; plowed fields; even the horse that pulls the plow, since scientific breeding of livestock involves the conscious modification of an animal's form according to culturally derived ideals. Our body itself is a part of our physical environment, so that such things as parades, dancing, and all aspects of kinesics - human motion - fit within our definition. Nor is the definition limited only to matter in the solid state. Fountains are liquid examples, as are lily ponds, and material that is partly gas includes hot-air balloons and neon-signs. (...) Even language is a part of material culture (...). Words after all, are air masses shaped by the speech apparatus according to culturally acquired rules'. The use of such a broad definition does justice to the current 'domain extension' which can be found in museology as well as in museum practice. This domain extension includes an increase in the types of artefacts concerned, but also an upwards pushing tendency in the scale in which elements of our material environment are preserved and communicated.

Categories of objects

Traditionally distinction is made between artefacts and naturalia, artefacts being '"superorganic" elements of material culture', and naturalia (also biofacts) being 'inorganic and organic elements of nature' (Burcaw 1975). The duality between naturalia and artificialia can be found in 17th century cabinets, for example in Olaf Worm's 'Museum Wormianum' (catalogue published in 1655) and in John Tradescant's 'Musaeum Tradescantianum' (catalogue published in 1656) (Balsinger 1970). It seems to go back to Samuel von Quiccheberg's famous Inscriptiones vel Tituli Theatri Amplissimi ... (Munich 1565), the first attempt to develop a methodological organisation for a collection. Naturalia were supposed to reflect the creative abilities of God, artificialia those of mankind.[ note 1]

The distinction between artefacts and naturalia, however, is not always clear. As taxidermy is a craft, a stuffed animal is an artefact. A piece of rock, collected by a geologist, is an artefact too: isolated from its original context and moulded to the scientists' wishes. As such, naturalia are included in Deetz' definition of material culture. Consequently naturalia will not be treated separately in the following chapters.

Next to artefacts another category of man-made objects is usually referred to as mentefacts (Stránský 1974) [note 2]. While the terms artefact and naturalia refer to concrete, perceivable things, the term mentefact refers to abstract data, without regarding their physical carrier, like texts, graphics, electronic databases, music, etc. An alternative distinction is suggested by Huchard (1986) and Russio (1986). They distinguish between 'objet culturel materiel' (Huchard)/'témoin materiel' (Russio) and 'objet social' (Huchard)/'témoin immateriel' (Russio), the former being artefacts, the latter referring to myths, language, dance, songs, music, rituals, etc. In a similar way Koch distinguishes 'Überreste' (objects) and 'Traditionen' (written materials) as two main categories of historic resources (Koch 1989: 137). This agrees (partly) with Taborsky's distinction between 'industrial syntax' and 'oral syntax' (see Chapter 11). In the following chapters the emphasis will be on artefacts, despite present tendencies to extend the concept of museum object.

In addition to the distinction between material and immaterial objects, artefacts can be divided into the categories movable and immovable (Feilden 1979). Movable cultural property includes all artefacts which are not in some way specifically connected to structures, architecture or sites. Historic sites and all works of architecture are encompassed under immovable. Mural paintings, mosaics, and architectural sculpture are considered as immovable property by Feilden, because - as he states - 'they should be preserved in relation to the surroundings and structures for which they were designed'. However, in practice architectural fragments may become isolated from their original context and be treated as movable cultural property.

An elaborated typology of artefacts based upon content falls outside the scope of this publication. Useful classifications are provided by Chenhall (1978), and more recently by the Arts & Architecture Thesaurus (1990). The Arts & Architecture Thesaurus distinguishes between two main categories: artefacts with a primarily utilitarian purpose and communication artefacts created according to aesthetic, conceptual, or symbolic principles. The following chapters refer to the first category mainly, i.e. artefacts that had a primarily utilitarian purpose before their musealisation. As will be discussed later, these artefacts become communicative artefacts in the process of musealisation. Musealised objects are by definition communicative artefacts. However, for a better understanding of their information potential it is necessary to consider their pre-musealisation state of being. [note 3]

Museum objects

Next to the concept of object in general, a key position in museology is occupied by the concept of museum object. According to Razgon the first attempt to define museum objects is made in Soviet Russia in 1955 (Razgon in Grampp et al. 1988: 27). Definitions as given by Schreiner and Stránský go back to this first attempt. The term musealium for museum object was coined by Stránský in 1969. The term became soon widely used. In his contribution to the ICOFOM 1985 symposium (Zagreb) Stránský summarised his concept of musealium (Stránský 1985). He points out that objects and museum objects are ontologically coincident, but are different from a semantic point of view. Schreiner has a similar strict concept of museum object: musealia 'are materialised results of work in which human characteristic forces manifest themselves. These objects are selected, acquired from the social as well as natural environment by museum work, and then preserved, decoded and purposefully utilised' (Schreiner 1984). Museum objects are objects separated from their original (primary) context and transferred to a new, museum reality in order to document the reality from which they were separated. A museum object is not just an object in a museum. It is a collected (selected), classified, conserved, and documented object. As such it has become either a source for research or an exhibit when put on display (see Chapter 16).

In Schreiner's opinion, museology should restrict itself to artefacts in museums. A similar narrow approach is advocated by, for example, Gregorová. Like Stránský and Schreiner she considers a museum object as a document, documenting not only its own existence, but also a certain activity, phenomenon, or function in wider connections (Gregorová 1987). In this philosophical thought everything that exists could become a document. In fact, 'the entire Globe becomes a continuous museum'. However, Gregorová does not take this idea to the extreme, she rather concentrates on the part of our material environment which is formally preserved in museums. This duality is expressed by Schubertova's distinction between 'Musealie' and 'museale Sammlungsgegenstand' (Schubertova 1982: 128). The 'museale Sammlungsgegenstand' is the potential document which 'museality' is not yet realised (see Chapter 16). To some extend this agrees with the concept of primary and secondary selection (see Chapter 18). Maroevic, on the other hand, advocates a broader approach of the term musealia (Maroevic 1986). More emphatically than Gregorová, Maroevic wants a broadening of the scope of museums, including more sectors of our cultural and natural heritage, coming close to Deetz' definition of material culture. One step further is waiving the museum institute as frame of reference. In this connection the term museological object was introduced, preliminary defined as: 'any element belonging to the realm of nature and material culture that is considered worth being preserved, either in situ or ex situ, or by documentation' (Van Mensch 1984). This proposal was rejected by Schreiner being too wide a concept. In his opinion, museology should not deal with the complete cultural and natural heritage, '... that would end in a diluted general heritage-ology' (Schreiner 1983, not published comment). Despite Schreiner's criticism the 'heritology' approach is adopted by many participants to ICOFOM symposiums. In their contribution to the ICOFOM 1994 conference (Beijing) some authors proposed alternative terms for museological object: monument (Tkac) or museal document (Bezzeg) (see Schärer ed. 1994). Elswhere, Horta has proposed museofact (Horta 1987: 158).

All terms refer to the semantic dimension of objects rather than their ontological dimension. This semantic dimension is related to a special context, or 'system state'. Objects can be found in three 'system states' (see Chapter 15): in use (primary context), out of use (archaeological context) and preserved (museological context). The museum institute represents only a part of the museological context. Accordingly, objects in museum collections represent only part of the preserved heritage. In this respect it is useful to distinguish between museum objects and museological objects. The terminology presupposes a conception of museology which transcends the museum institute.

Categories of museological objects

The group of objects referred to as 'preserved' agrees to what Tsuruta calls primary museum material, as opposed to secondary museum material which comprises models, copies, audio-visual materials, graphics, etc., and also guidebooks, postcards, posters, etc. (Tsuruta 1984). Usually the term 'secondary museum material' refers to exhibition material, i.e. material that supports the message of the exhibit (Schreiner: auxilliary material). As such secondary museum material is not a category of museum objects in a strict sense. It is not considered to have documentary value. Nevertheless, the importance of didactic materials as documents recording the development of scientific theories or the development of museum work should not be underestimated. This potential source-value extents to copies and reconstructions, documenting not only the original object, but also the history of perception and the social role of copies.

The term primary museum material should not be confused with the term primary document which is used by Stránský and others. As documents museum objects (in the sense of primary museum material) are direct (authentic) witnesses of cultural and natural phenomena. However, not everything can be fixed in the form of material memory through the collection of objects. Phenomena exist which do not project themselves directly into material reality. Such phenomena can only be indirectly documented. These documents have been called secondary documents, for example books and archive material, i.e. mentefacts or subjektive Dokumente (Rietschel 1989). In Stránský's opinion secondary documents should not be considered to belong to the sphere of museology (at least not as primary museum material), and as a consequence libraries and archives should not be considered as museological institutions. According to this view, secondary documents are just a 'vehicle of information', while objects are 'sources of information' (also Schubertova 1982) [note 4].

In the following chapters no distinction will be made between primary and secondary documents, neither between direct and indirect witnesses. Every object is considered to be a source of information, i.e. a document (see also Chapter 16). In the following chapters distinction will be made neither between categories of objects based on 'subject matter'. In practice, however, different traditions have been developed as to the maintenance and use of different categories of objects in the three 'system states'. The categories concerned are: artefacts (including naturalia), documents (archivalia), books, buildings, living organisms. The different approach towards each category is reflected in different specialised institutes (see Chapter 23): artefacts - museums, documents - archives, books - libraries, buildings - historic preservation, living organisms - botanical and zoological gardens. Relations between object category and institute are not exclusive. A museum may contain artefacts, documents, books and even historic buildings (open air museums). An archive may contain some books and artefacts. And a building may contain artefacts (historic houses).

Objects as data carriers

'The object as a witness can convey the knowledge it holds if we know how to question it', writes Jean Gabus. He quotes the Chinese philosopher Chang Fan Li (from the Sung Dynasty) saying: 'Any object has a logic of its own and that logic should be grasped by man's intelligence' (Gabus 1965). The logic has to do with the rhythm of things. As the Taoists say, the study of the logic and laws of this rhythm helps us on the road to wisdom.

In general museum practice, the 'logic' of objects is interpreted in the context of certain disciplines, in museum literature usually referred to as 'subject matter disciplines'. These disciplines, like art history, archaeology, anthropology, natural history, etc. have developed their own lines of approach as to the information content of objects. These approaches are usually directed to only one aspect, and might be described as 'closed'. In museology an 'open approach' should be developed. An essential concept in museology is the object as limitless source of information. In this respect, Sola uses the metaphor of the hologram: 'The objects have inscribed in themselves the genetic code of either nature, or of civilisation and culture. Every object is like the contains the character of the whole' (Sola 1984: 61). But he warns against reducing the object to its (physical) data: 'Numerous museum objects in museums today are known only as beautiful objects. They have lost all trace of the real, inherent, meaning they used to have due to their function, and to the intent and ambition that created them' (Sola 1985: 82).

In museum/museological literature some methodological approaches have been proposed, based on a structured analysis of the object as data carrier. Influential models originate from the field of material culture studies (for example Fleming 1974/reprinted in Schlereth ed. 1981, and Pearce 1986). Until recently, history, as an academic discipline, has paid little attention to developing a specialism of artefact study. The growth of the number of cultural history museums and the professionalisation of museum work has promoted the development of adequate methodologies. Especially in the United States material culture studies and museum work are strongly interwoven (see for a detailed survey Schlereth ed. 1981).

Artefact analysis in an integrated methodology

In museology the subject-matter approach should be abandoned in view of the multi-faceted use of objects in the museological context. This multifaceted use boils down to a two-fold approach: the object as source and the object as medium [note 5]. The data embodied in objects and their contextual relationships are almost infinite (Hofmann 1979; Jelinek 170; Maroevic 1983; Schubertova 1982; Stránský 1966). In conservation and documentation the full information potential of objects should be optimised. This is not another way 'to play the cosmic exile' (Quine, quoted in Thompson 1979: 77). We cannot perceive the 'raw' (conceived) object as neutral extra-terrestrial observers. The perceived object is always the socially processed object. Nevertheless, in museological practice the conceived object often forms the point of reference for conservation/restoration and exhibiting. This asks for what in the archival world is called 'use-independent retrieval', or what in textual criticism is called 'internal criticism'. In order to obtain this, it is necessary to develop a model of the information structure of objects, rather than a model of research procedures. A critical analysis of the sources is a preliminary. The work of the researchers proper only bears fruit when they understand the complexity of the content of their materials.

The model is based on the distinction of three 'levels' of data, i.e. three properties:

The three levels refer to the object in a certain stage of development. The term identity is used here to denote a state of being [note 6]. It is a theoretical construct, serving to mark the different aspects of the object 'synchronically'.

Structural properties are discussed in Chapter 14. They imply the physical characteristics of the object. Common usage of the term 'object' refers to this level of information. It includes material, construction and design. Material involves what the object is made of. Construction has to do with the way parts are organised to bring about the object's function. Design includes the structure, form, style, ornament, and iconography of the object. Functional properties refer to the use (potential or realised) of the object, i.e. its utility. It is seen as aspect of the significance, which is the general term used here to denote the meaning and value of the object. In this respect Huchard distinguishes between the 'objet culturel materiel', i.e. the physical object, and the 'objet materiel socialisé', i.e. the object together with the social activities connected with it (Huchard 1986). This aspect will be treated in Chapter 16. Context refers to the physical and conceptual environment of the object. This aspect will be discussed in Chapter 15. In these chapters the emphasis is on the information potential (as seen from a museological perspective) rather than the actual use in the museological context. The use and treatment of objects in the museological context is discussed in Chapters 18-22.

This set of three aspects is to be completed with a 'diachronic' set of characteristics which reflect the successive processes of information gain and loss. The information value of an object is the result of a historical process. The schematised sequence of stages and processes is: invention - conceptual identity - realisation - factual identity - use - actual identity.

Conceptual identity

The life history of an artefact starts with an idea. In the model the idea of the maker is referred to as conceptual identity (= conceptual object, nucleus, mental conception). This idea is related to the conceptual context of the maker, i.e. his/her culture, or, in other words, human intelligence, sensitivity, imagination and creativity (Arpin 1992), and, on a higher abstraction level, the world of ideas in Platonic sense. 'Collecting objects is not only "material ethnography", in the narrow sense of the term - history, records or references. It is also an advance towards complete incorporation in that eternal place, that "high abode" as Plato has it, which is the theatre of humankind. It is a universe in which there is no longer any separation between living and inanimate things' (Gabus 1965: 15).

This conceptual identity is, in fact, the potential object. By choosing the material (matter) and the technological process this potential object is realised (genesis). The concept (conceptual identity) thus expresses itself in form (structural identity) and function (functional identity). Arnheim speaks about mental conception and 'its realisation in the perceivable medium'. Referring to art he points at the fact that the material object 'is not so much replica of the mental concetto as a continuation of the shaping and inventing that began in the artist's mind' (Arnheim 1983). In this respect Fuchs states that museums of modern art tend to emphasise art as (unfinished) invention, whereas Old Master paintings are regarded as finished and stable products (Fuchs 1989). The antithesis between conceptual and factual identity is a construction from the second half of the 1960s, the period in which the artistic avant-garde decided to keep their works of art out of the talons of the 'object fetishists' (Blok 1994).

Factual identity

The factual identity refers to the realised object with its structural, functional and contextual aspects. It is the sum total of the characteristics of the object as it was intended (and not-intended) by the maker, and exists at the moment the production process has been completed. Factual identity presupposes the existence of a 'finished object'. It is not always easy to establish when an artefact completed its genesis. In many cases the factual identity of a given object is a hypothetical construct. It involves a decision of the maker. But how to deal with the situation when the maker is not satisfied afterwards and wants to make changes? Such problems arise in particular when the maker is also the user and improves or adapts the object during use. It is a known fact, for example, that the painter Mondrian used to repaint paintings after their return from exhibitions when their surface had become dirty. Other complications arise when an object is left unfinished, or finished by somebody else at a later date. As the factual identity is an important point of reference in conservation and restoration it is necessary to develop a more precise terminology.

Actual identity

During its life history the object changes. In general its information content will grow, although quite often an erosion of information occurs. The result of the accumulation of information, on all levels, constitutes the actual identity, i.e. the object as it appears to us now. 'Documentation' is the form in which information about former stages of development is available ('extrinsic information'). [note 7]

Actual identity refers to the object as it appears to us now, as sum total of the primary data and the effects of use, deterioration, etc. (secondary data). The actual identity is a dynamic concept. It is a random indication of the object's continuous development as data carrier . Essential is the notion that the object in phase 1 (factual identity) is not the same object in phase n. It might be the same painting, church, car, etc. but it is not the same sum total of chemical and physical characteristics, function and meaning, and context. But even if the whole chemical and physical structure is changed, it still could be the same painting, church, etc. on the basis of spatio-temporal continuity. The object as continuant can be considered a succession of different phase-sortals (Wiggins 1971: 29).

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic information

The unlimited source of information - the object's indeterminacy (Maroevic 1983) - concerns intrinsic information, i.e. the information content of the object itself. Another part is handed down through tradition or through documentation. This has been called non-intrinsic information, extrinsic information (de Angelis d'Ossat 1982), or simply documentation.

The historical process includes where, when and how the object was made, by whom and for whom and why, and successive changes in ownership, condition, and function. In this respect Kopytoff speaks of 'the cultural biography of things' (Kopytoff 1986). The museological approach as advocated here is related to Kopytoff's 'biographical approach'. This approach is described as 'the study of the range of biographical possibilities that the society in question offers and the manner in which these possibilities are realised in the life stories of various categories of objects' (op.cit.: 66).

Intentional vs. non-intentional information

As to intention a distinction can be made between intentional information and non-intentional information. Intentional information refers to properties that are the result of the intentional intervention of the maker or user(s). Non-intentional information refers to all properties that are included in the object due to the material used, the technology applied, and the results of deterioration.



Angelis d'Ossat

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1 In Alessandro Benedetti's Historia corporis humani sive Anatomia (Venice 1501) the term spiritualia is used for organs preserved in alcohol (Balsinger 1970: 594). >back<

2 Tkac (1986: 43) uses the term mentheauthenticum. Kovac (1982: 114) speaks in this respect of Metafakt. Ennenbach (1983: 87) gives a more structured subdivision:

1 Physiofakten (Naturkörper)
1.1 Anorganische Körper (z.B. Mineralien)
1.2 Organismen (Tiere, Pflanzen)
2 Antropofakten (Erzeugnisse des Menschen)
2.1 Artefakten (Erzeugnisse des Handwerks, der Industrie, der bildenden Künste)
2.2 Mentefakten (Schrift-, Bild-, Ton- u.a. Träger)

3 In Chapter 13 a detailed typology will be given of special categories of objects based upon object-object relationships. >back<

4 In his contribution to the ICOFOM 1994 symposium Tkac speaks in this respect of authentic versus non-authentic documents (see Tkac in Schärer ed. 1994). Russio holds an opposite view. She speaks of 'témoins materiels directs' and 'témoins materiels indirects' (Russio 1986). Indirect witnesses are in fact what elsewhere has been described as primary documents. Russio gives the example of a vase used in ritual. The vase only documents a part of this ritual and concomitantly only communicates indirectly the traditions connected with this ritual. To Russio direct witnesses are photographs and films. >back<

5 These approaches are described by Jahn as 'Erkenntnisermittlung' and 'Erkenntnisvermittlung' (Jahn 1980: 78). >back<

6 Gluzinski also uses the terms structural and functional identity (Gluzinski 1985: 44). However, in his paper the term identity refers to correspondance. Suler defines the identity of an object as 'the optimal place (actually existing in its history) in the system of historical, social and economic bonds' (Suler 1985: 144), in other words, the object's relationship with the material and conceptual dimensions of its primary context (see Chapter 15). The use of the term identity in the present chapter agrees with the way it is used by Maroevic, Pishchulin and Swiecimski in their contributions to the ICOFOM 1986 symposium (Buenos Aires). >back<

7 A similar model was published by Nicole Ex who speaks about 'authenticity' instead of 'identity' (Ex 1993). >back<