Behind the scenes: Naming objects

Alphabet discs, 1800. Museum no. E.1739-1954

Alphabet discs, 1800. Museum no. E.1739-1954

Recording and controlling the names given to objects is one of the responsibilities of the Records Section at the V&A.

Many objects can be called by several different names. For example, that nice warm top you put on when it is cold - is it a jumper, a pullover, a sweater or a jersey? What is the difference between them?

Sometimes objects are given different names because they are different styles of the same object, made in a different way or using different materials. Sometimes objects from a particular place may be given a specific name, for example Fair Isle sweaters or Guernseys. A Guernsey is still a sweater, just a sweater made in a particular style and in a particular place.

Other objects may have different names in different languages or at different periods of history, for example the loose, ankle length trousers worn by both men and women in India and Southeast Asia are called shalwar, as well as, variously, harem pants, balloon pants and turkish trousers.

At the V&A, staff try to always use the same name for the same objects. This makes relationships between objects in the collection clearer and also makes sharing information with other museums, scholars and the public easier. When an object has many possible names it is not always easy to know which one to use, however, and it can also be important to be aware of the alternate names. For example, in communicating with scholars in the country from which an object came, staff may be more likely to use a non English name, or a very precise, technical term, while in a label they may use a name that will be more generally familiar.

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