UKON 2016: Great North Museum

These are my notes for Dan Gordon’s talk at the UK Ontology Network Meeting on 14 April, 2016.

Dan Gordon is the Keeper of Biology at the Great North Museum. He has about one million objects in his collection, ranging from taxidermy to microscope slides. One problem they face at the museum is that there are 52 million records in the museum, and classification of those objects is very challenging.

The Great North Museum
Source: https://twmuseums.org.uk/images/900/7ELR-4087-original.jpg 14 April 2016

In the Biology Collection, in some ways he starts off better than with the other collections, as there are already many classification systems available (e.g. taxonomic classification). Taxonomy is easier for larger animals, and harder for insects and plants which can be either (or both) small and highly diverse.

There are 40,000 plant specimens in his collection. When new research comes in, rather than re-classifying and moving all of the specimens, he leaves them in their existing system (there are loads of obsolete systems!). One example is a lichen, where you have two completely different organisms living symbiotically (algae and fungus) – here you have two completely different phylogenies, and the position in the system is constantly being revised. Therefore the best way for him to organize things is… Alphabetically!

Another example is dynamos. There are many in the collection, and often relate to different academic discipline, and therefore tend to get organized along those lines. In terms of trying to classify them, their historical use is very important. They store some un-ground lenses for lighthouse lamps, and these are very important for the history of lighthouses and industry in general. There is a system for classifying this kind of industrial object which isn’t univerally used, called the SHICS system, which works a bit like the Dewey decimal system.

There are SHIC numbers for wedding dresses, marriages etc. However they have a dress to store which was worn for a wedding during WWI. Therefore its primary importance is relating to WWI, so in theory you could assign many different SHIC numbers to note its different roles. However, many people tend to choose what they believe is the most important role and assign a number just for that. This tends towards an “incomplete” number of axes of importance.

What about the art collection? There’s Flat Art, 3D Art, etc. In the physical store, everything that’s framed is on racks, and unframed things are in drawers – that’s the primary classification 🙂 . After that, title and artist are important classifications. But what about things like pots, where there are designers, makers, and manufacturers? There are several layers to the cataloguing which are not obvious when you initially get starting classifying.

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. I may have made mistakes: these notes are not guaranteed to be correct. Unless explicitly stated, they represent neither my opinions nor the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can assume to be mine and not the speaker’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

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