What is a controlled term?

The collection database uses a system of controlled terms to index and categorise the British Museum collection. These range from object types such as print, sculpture or bowl, to the places associated with objects.

These controlled terms are arranged in thesauri and authority files, which allow our curators and other users of the database to categorise objects consistently. 

What are thesauri and authority files?

Authority files

In this context, an authority file is a list of terms which has been standardised to allow for variations in spelling and ensure consistency of use across the Museum.

The largest authority file is of names and contains personal and institutional names, many of which have brief biographies attached and can be retrieved by variants of the preferred name (e.g. Raffaello as well as Raphael, or Mao Tse Tung as well as Mao Zedong). Biographies are constantly being improved and new information added.


A thesaurus is a list of terms arranged in a hierarchy with variants and sometimes explanatory notes (Scope note). For example, France is the broader term for Paris, which in turn is the broader term for Montmartre.

The most developed of the thesauri are those for object names and materials. These have both been published by the Collections Trust (formerly MDA/ the Museum Documentation Association) and adopted by other museums around the world.

All authority files and thesauri are constantly being improved and extended.