Looking at, describing and identifying objects
Looking at, describing and identifying objects

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Looking at, describing and identifying objects

Ask an expert

Obviously enough, our mystery object doesn’t look like an everyday object you might find at home or at work. So another approach to identifying the object could be to take it to a museum and ask an expert curator to identify it.

In the twenty-first century we can also use the internet to help identify objects. However, using a search engine would be even less helpful than wandering around a large museum hoping to spot something similar (searching Google for ‘ivory object’ images yields hundreds of thousands of results). A more academic approach is to search the collections of a museum that are available online: these can be used like reference works.

Activity 5

Timing: You should allow about 30 minutes to complete the next three activities.

For this activity, you will need to look at the online database of the collections of the British Museum. You can do this by following the link below. Tip: as you need to access the database again for Activities 6 and 7, hold Ctrl and click the link to open it in a new tab.

British Museum collections database [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Once you are on the British Museum website, you should search the collections database by typing ‘ivory elephant’ into the search box. Click on the option for ‘images only’ and start the search. Then examine the first page of results. Are there any objects similar to our mystery object?


At the time of writing this search produced more than 200 objects. The first page of results included an image resembling our object. It is only generally similar – a roughly carved and somewhat hairy elephant, described as a ‘toy; gaming-piece; figure’ from the Roman period. This description could conceivably apply to our object, but it is not very precise. We need a better search to find a more similar object.

Activity 6

Now return to the online database of the collections of the British Museum and this time type ‘ivory elephant men’ into the search box. Click on the option for ‘images only’ and, again, start the search.

Examine the first page of results. Are there any images similar to our mystery object? This page should include a small picture of a familiar item. Click on the image and you will be shown all of the information the museum keeps on record about the object.


At the time of writing, under the heading ‘Description’ I found this: ‘Netsuke. Blind men climbing over an elephant. Made of ivory.’ This is a description written by the museum staff. It is very brief – especially when compared with the detail that we have been discussing. It also does not appear to be an account that is based purely on observation. Is it possible to identify the men in the object as ‘blind’? Also, what does ‘netsuke’ mean?

This sort of description is an identification. Now you know what this object is called, you could use the identification to go on and search for more information. A netsuke (pronounced ‘netski’) is a small toggle used to attach a cord to the belt of a Japanese kimono. Items such as boxes or pouches could then be suspended from the cord.

Activity 7

Go back to the information about our netsuke on the British Museum collections database. Look at the categories of information presented about the netsuke and decide whether they are based on observation or on prior knowledge. If the information is based on prior knowledge, think about how this might have been acquired.

Jot down your findings in the form of a table like Table 1 below. On the left, list each category of information; in the middle, note whethaller you think observation or prior knowledge (or both) is involved here; on the right, note the probable source of the information (if this applies).

Table 1 Categories of information for the British Museum’s netsuke

CategoryObservation or prior knowledgeProbable source


Table 2 sets out my thoughts on what is presented on the web page of the museum’s database.

Table 2 Categories of information for the British Museum’s netsuke

CategoryObservation or prior knowledgeProbable source
Object typesPrior knowledgeLearning or reading about Japanese objects
Museum numberObservation and prior knowledgeIt is written on the base
DescriptionObservation and prior knowledgeThere is some observation, but ‘blind’ and ‘netsuke’ are prior knowledge
DatePrior knowledgeLearning or reading or possibly scientific techniques such as radiocarbon dating
Production placePrior knowledgeDon’t know; perhaps they are commonly found or still manufactured in Japan. Perhaps their specialised use on a kimono is relevant only in Japan
TechniqueObservationAlthough some knowledge is also required. (Technique is a term used in museums to mean ‘which techniques were used in the manufacture of the object’)
Inscription typeObservation and prior knowledgeNeed to have learned to read Japanese
Inscription transliterationObservation and prior knowledgeNeed to have learned to read the Japanese alphabet
Exhibition historyPrior knowledgeMuseum records of exhibitions
ConservationPrior knowledgeMuseum records of conservation treatments
Acquisition namePrior knowledgeRecords will have been kept about the object when it was acquired by the museum
Acquisition dateObservation and prior knowledgeThe date of acquisition has been written in ink on the bottom of the netsuke and records will have been kept about the object when it was acquired by the museum
Acquisition notesPrior knowledgeInformation provided by previous owners
DepartmentPrior knowledge
Registration numberObservation and prior knowledge

Some of my ideas about the sources of prior knowledge are guesswork, but the museum will no doubt have more detailed information that is not made public and some of the curators may have witnessed the object’s arrival in the museum.

An identification

From your work on the collections database of the British Museum, you will have correctly identified the object. Further research in the museum and elsewhere could doubtless reveal more information.


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