Natural History Specimens and Nomenclature 4.0

by John Hart, Jr., Museum Registrar, Sullivan Museum and History Center, Norwich University on


When Nomenclature was first written it was designed to represent objects that are man-made. So, how do natural history collections fall into this lexicon? Well, the answer is up to your individual institution. The Nomenclature Task Force has had a lengthy discussion about natural history specimens and determined that, for the purposes of the current or forthcoming versions of Nomenclature, the terminology provided is sufficient for most museums. This is best explained by Heather Dunn, a member of the Task Force and representative of the Canadian Heritage Information Network:

Museums deal with this issue in various ways, depending on the number of these taxidermy/natural science items they are dealing with, and–as you say, whether the focus or reason for the collection is more “historic” or “scientific.”

If a history museum has only a few natural science objects (for example, less than 10% of the collection), and their focus is on the historic value (e.g. who owned it, where it came from, the history associated with it) rather than the scientific value, they may want to catalog it using Nomenclature, maintaining the logic of the classification scheme used for all the collections. Although Nomenclature was created to deal with human-made objects, it can be used as a framework for broadly classifying natural history specimens as well. It is common for human history museums and historical associations to collect small numbers of these specimens, and Nomenclature accommodates this by including a few broad object terms that describe natural history specimens within the context of human activity. Examples include:

1) “Biospecimen” and the narrower terms “Specimen, Animal” and “Specimen, Plant” under Biological T&E;

2) “Geospecimen” under Geological T&E; and

3) “Trophy, Game” under Achievement Symbols.

For most history museums, cataloging as one of those broad terms, “Specimen, Animal,” “Specimen, Plant,” “Trophy, Game”, or “Geospecimen” is sufficient–they don’t need to go any further with scientific classification.  Nomenclature 4.0 suggests that they may also cross-index with other terms from Nomenclature that apply; for example, “Mount, Taxidermy” from the Decorative Furnishings sub-class.

In these cases, where you are classifying specimens only at this broad level, we recommend that you could enter the specific name of the animal/plant etc. in a separate Subject field–not in the classification/naming fields. Nomenclature 4.0 also offers a second option of using more specific terminology within the object name field, organized under “Specimen, Animal”, “Specimen, Plant”, or “Geospecimen” as appropriate–but I would not recommend this in general!

If a history museum needs to classify a large number of natural science objects (for example, 50% of the collection), it will be difficult to catalog them keeping a focus on the historic value. They will need more specific terms for their specimens and it will require the use of naming conventions already established by the zoological, botanical, and geological sciences, using a lexicon authority for scientific specimens. In this case, it may be justified to maintain 2 different classification systems, one for the historical collections and the other designed to document and manage natural science collections.

For museums that have primarily natural science collections, they would likely not use Nomenclature at all, but would use the scientific classification system for their discipline.

For some museums this may involve adding terminology within their lexicon to make the system work best for them, others may find it easier to use the provided terms and catalog with specific search terms added for research. If you or your institution have any questions on this topic we invite you to reach out to AASLH and the Nomenclature Task Force.

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