Object Name Thesaurus

The Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus contains terms for indexing museum collection objects. The thesaurus provides a controlled vocabulary for searching for object names.

The Object Name Thesaurus was developed by the Powerhouse Museum (the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences) to standardise the terms used to describe its own collection. It was first published in 1995 as the Powerhouse Museum Collection Thesaurus. Since then, many new terms have been added to the thesaurus within the Powerhouse’s collection information and management system. The print version has long been popular with collecting institutions to assist in the documentation of their own collections. It has been out of print for a number of years, and the Powerhouse has continued to receive enquiries for it. It is now finally available for use online in the form of a downloadable PDF document.

View as PDF: Powerhouse Museum thesaurus Sept 2009

What is a thesaurus?

“A thesaurus is a structured and defined list of terms which standardises words used for indexing” (definition from the Australian Pictorial Thesaurus).

It can aid searching for objects across a database by ensuring the same term is used consistently to describe similar objects. It formally organises relationships between terms in a hierarchical structure so that the relationships are explicit.

One of the strengths of the thesaurus is its Australian focus. While it does include terminology from around the world, it specifically includes object name terms in common use in Australia.

Purpose of the Thesaurus

The purpose of the Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus is to provide object name terms within an Australian context, for indexing museum collections. It also provides a controlled vocabulary that facilitates easier searching of collection databases for specific object types.

A secondary purpose of a thesaurus can be to aid in the general understanding of a subject area. A thesaurus can provide a ‘semantic map’ by showing the inter-relationship between objects and help to provide definitions of terms. This is particularly true for the Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus which can provide a greater understanding of an object and the relationships between different types of objects.

The thesaurus has been developed specifically for our collection. The Powerhouse collection covers a wide variety of subject areas and many different types of objects are included. There are approximately 8,600 terms. But we do not claim to have a comprehensive list of all objects and we are actively seeking contributions to broaden the appeal of the thesaurus. We have recently added a number of new terms at the request of the National Museum of Australia, and we continue to work with them in developing the thesaurus. We are hopeful that with contributions from other institutions we can create an Australian standard for object name terminology.

Structure of the thesaurus

This object name thesaurus provides a standard terminology for naming objects. It does not claim to provide the correct name for an object.  It merely provides a name for use in museum cataloguing systems to enable accurate retrieval of information about objects.

The hierarchical structure of the thesaurus assists in searching. By organising object names, the relationships between objects can be made explicit.  Object names are organised according to their hierarchical, associative or equivalence relationships.  The object name thesaurus allows for more than one broader term for each object name. Any term is permitted to have multiple broader terms, for example ‘Bubble pipes’ has the broader terms of ‘Pipes’ and ‘Toys’. There is no single hierarchy in which an object name is located, enabling it to by found by searchers approaching with different concepts in mind.

All terms within the thesaurus are plural. This standard was determined when the thesaurus was first published.  The thesaurus attempts to place object names within an Australian context; we therefore commonly use the Macquarie Dictionary as a general guideline when deciding on the preferred or non-preferred spelling for a term.

List of Abbreviations
BT – Broader term: an object name at the next higher hierarchical level to the term in question. A broader term names a category of objects which are specifically named by narrower terms.

NT – Narrower term: an object name at the next lower hierarchical level to the term in question. Narrower terms name objects which are types of objects named by a broader term.

RT – Related term: an object name that is not in the hierarchy of the term in question, but is related in some way, such as by object use.

SN – Scope note: a note that defines the use of the term in the thesaurus. This is not a dictionary definition of the term, but a statement of how it is used in this thesaurus.

USE: indicates that the term in question is not a preferred term, and shows which preferred term should be used instead.

Report formats
The data in the Object Name Thesaurus has been extracted from EMu into a report. This gives all terms in alphabetical order. It gives broader terms, as well as any narrower terms or related terms. Non-preferred terms are included in alphabetical order, but can be easily identified as they are in grey italics.

How to use the object name thesaurus
It is a good idea to search widely and up and down the hierarchy before choosing your term, to ensure that the most appropriate term for your object has been selected.

‘Top terms” are rarely used to describe objects, as these terms are at the highest level of organisational structure of the thesaurus. The top term of the Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus is “Objects”. Always use the most specific term possible to describe an object.

Suggesting new terms
The Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus is constantly being updated and new terms are added regularly. This online version of the Thesaurus will be updated regularly, approximately every six months.  Suggestions for new terms or changes to the existing terms are very welcome. Please send your suggestions to

EMu installable version of the thesaurus
It is possible to obtain an electronic version of the thesaurus from our EMu database. In such cases a licence and service agreement for the use of the Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus will be negotiated on an individual basis. Please contact

Background of development

The Powerhouse published the Powerhouse Museum Collection Thesaurus, a paper version of its object name thesaurus in 1995. At that time there was no comprehensive listing of the wide variety of object names required to index the Powerhouse’s collection. There is still no other thesaurus for object names that recognises Australian usage and spelling.

The thesaurus was developed just at the time that the Powerhouse Museum was computerising its collection records. Since that first publication, the thesaurus has been an intrinsic part of the Powerhouse’s collection database, which has grown and developed significantly over the years. We have had three different electronic systems since it was first introduced. We currently use the EMu system by KE Software to manage our collection information. Terms are constantly added and organised and the thesaurus has become an important component of our collection information management practices.

Since the first edition of the Powerhouse Collection Thesaurus was published in 1995 there have been dramatic changes in the method and purpose of museum collection documentation. Most museums and galleries would now use some type of computerised CIMS (collection information management system). The purpose and use of the information contained in these systems has also become much more user focused, with museums giving significant attention to providing access to their information through activities such as putting collections online.  The Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus continues to be an important tool for museums to organise their collection information and facilitate easy access to their object information and knowledge.

The Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus is a ‘living document’, in that it is continually updated and therefore never static. It is a documentation tool used daily by Powerhouse staff. Terms are added by cataloguers in response to the need to index objects in our collection. Thus the thesaurus is constantly growing and reflects the nature of the Powerhouse Museum collection.

The level of specificity for object names varies amongst different collection areas. Some areas have more terms than others. This is because the thesaurus has developed as Powerhouse staff have documented objects within the collection database. Some areas such as social history and decorative arts are much better represented than other areas. Some areas, such as fine arts and natural history, have only minimal object name terms, as the Powerhouse does not actively collect in these areas.

Users need to understand that the thesaurus is constantly evolving. Errors and inconsistencies may occur over time, so please let us know if you find any terms that may need to be amended, or if there are terms you would like included.

View as PDF: Powerhouse Museum thesaurus Sept 2009

Contact details
If you would like further assistance or advice in the use of the Powerhouse Museum Object Name Thesaurus or for any other queries please contact

Australian Pictorial Thesaurus
State Records NSW
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) thesauri
ScOT Schools Online thesaurus
Coombes, J. (ed.) Powerhouse Museum Collection Thesaurus, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 1995.
Aitchison, J; Gilchrist, A; Bawden, D; Thesaurus Construction and Use: a Practical Manual, 4th edition, Europa Publications, London 2000.
Macquarie Dictionary Online