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But it’s a Urinal! Naming art objects that might not look like art

by Sarah Kapellusch, The Wisconsin Veterans Museum on

Naming artwork can be challenging and many of the questions I get from users of Nomenclature 3.0 pertain to objects that serve the function of art but look like everyday household items.

Before cataloging and naming artifacts, take a step back from the object and ask yourself what is its provenance and history. What function was it created to serve and what function(s) did it serve during life before entering your museum? With art especially, try not to think about what it looks like, and think about how it was used.

As an example, let’s take one of my favorite pieces of artwork, Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” The urinal is an example of what Duchamp would refer to as a “readymade.” A slap in the face to the somewhat stodgy art world at the time, the “Fountain” is an ordinary urinal, signed by Duchamp as R. Mutt, which was transformed into a famous piece of artwork when it was included in an exhibition in 1917. How do we determine an object name using Nomenclature 3.0 for an artifact as strange as Duchamp’s “Fountain?”

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You know that the urinal was purchased by Duchamp from a plumbers’ merchant and you are also very well aware of the intended function of a urinal. Using this information, look up the term Urinal in your lexicon. You will find it listed in the category Building Components under the classification Plumbing & Drainage Elements. The term Urinal is very clearly listed as a secondary term under the primary object term Fixture, Plumbing.

While this is sort of an okay term to describe the object since the urinal was originally manufactured to be a plumbing and drainage element, it is disappointing because the term does not identify the urinal’s more significant function as a piece of art.

Next, turn to the classification Art in your lexicon, which falls under the category of Communication Artifacts. Unfortunately, the term urinal is nowhere to be seen listed under art. Now what?

Nomenclature 3.0 includes the generic term Artwork which can be used for naming objects that cannot otherwise be described with any other term falling under the art classification. The term Artwork is an acceptable object name for pieces that clearly serve the function of art but might be a little harder to recognize such as a bowl, a lamp, or even a urinal.

For cross-indexing purposes, you may want to assign the term Urinal, under Plumbing & Drainage Elements as an additional object name describing the manufactured function of the urinal.

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