While some have a deep history (library classifications, for instance), controlled vocabularies of diverse sorts are relatively new and some play an increasingly important role in a range of domains relevant to my work. One vocabulary that I am especially appreciative of in the context of present work is the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN). In the preceding phase (2013-2016) of the joint project linking the China Folklore Society and American Folklore Society, the American participants in the museum-based sub-project visited a large number of rural communities in Southwest China. (We also hosted our Chinese colleagues in community visits in the United States.)
If one is visiting (being taken to) a lot of places quickly and one does not speak or read the local or national languages, it is easy to become unsure where you are and what communities you are visiting (or have visited). Sorting through this afterwards can be an added challenge if, after the fact, one realizes (as in rural China), there can be as many as ten or twenty villages or towns with the same name in the same province (hence the custom in Chinese contexts of referring to towns and their counties and/or in relationship to the administrative center of which it is a part). The Getty TGN helps by providing a unique identifier (a number) for places all around the world. Here is an example.
Shuanglang, a large village (now a town, really) on Erhai Lake, near Dali in Yunnan province is one of (at least) three Chinese places called Shuanglang appearing in the TGN. The other two are in Guangxi. It is 8471685. In addition to its ID number, the TGN provides latitude and longitude coordinates for it, the name in Chinese characters, its status in a place hierarchy from, the sources used and other useful information. The coordinates can be plugged into Google Maps and used in other ways.
The ID number can be used to tag or code images, such as the following photograph (Figure 1) taken when our group visited Shuanglang in December 2013 on a trip led by our hosts at the Yunnan Nationalities Museum.
(Figure 1: 8471685 [i.e. Shuanglang] has become popular with urban Chinese tourists. Local restaurants compete for their business by showing off their freshest produce on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant proper. Potential patrons can ask proprietors about ingredients and the dishes that might be fashioned from them. )
In Shuanglang, I purchased some Chinese baskets for the first time for the collections of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. The Getty TGN ID can be added to the catalogue records for these baskets as a way of conveying the location from which they were obtained with precision (Figure 2).
(Figure 2: These baskets were collected in 8471685 [i.e. Shuanglang]. The baskets on the left are now in the collection of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. The pack basket and bassinet on the right were collected by a fellow project participant.)
Improving the accuracy of important records and enhancing their discoverability—in this case, tagging photographs and strengthening museum catalogue records are two of the kinds of uses that vocabularies such as the TGN are designed to facilitate. I appreciate the work that the Getty Institute invests in building, maintaining, and improving the TGN on behalf of the cultural heritage community.
Speaking of controlled vocabularies, close readers of Museum Anthropology Review may have noticed that several years ago we began working with authors of full articles to associate relevant terms from the American Folklore Society Ethnographic Thesaurus (AFS ET). As noted on its website, “the AFS Ethnographic Thesaurus is a vocabulary that can be used to improve access to information about folklore, ethnomusicology, ethnology, and related fields. The American Folklore Society developed the AFS ET in cooperation with the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and supported by a generous grant from the Scholarly Communications Program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.” The AFS ET is accessible from the Linked Data Service at the Library of Congress: http://id.loc.gov/vocabulary/ethnographicTerms.html
Having linked my two example photographs to their TGN ID, I should go ahead an close with some AFS ET terms.