Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC)

The Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC)1 is a subject classification for museum collections of social history and industrial objects, produced by the SHIC Working Party. The second edition was published by the Museum Documentation Association in 1993, and revised in June 1996.


The Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) was created in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s to meet the need for a subject classification for social history- and industry-related material for museums, as opposed to the library sector, for which most of the existing general classifications had been created.1

It had its origins in the classification developed by the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) in Reading, which in turn had been based upon work done at the Welsh Folk Museum; however, this inevitably had an agricultural focus, which was insufficient for many broader collections. As a result, many other organisations developed their own terminologies for social history and industrial collections, notably the North of England Open Air Museum at Beamish, whose vocabulary was gradually adopted by other museums. A meeting was held in 1978 to discuss the possibility of creating a single unified vocabulary which could replace these many local ones. This led to the creation of the SHIC Working Group, which in turn drew up the first version of the SHIC, published in 1983.2

The SHIC was adopted quickly, and soon being used by over 70 museums; this intensive use revealed a need for further refinements. Eventually, a small working party was convened in 1991, leading to the publication of the second edition of the standard in 1993.3


In addition to the MERL and Beamish vocabularies upon which it was based (see above), SHIC included material from the Central Statistical Office’s Standard Industrial Classification - Revised 1980, and the ICOM Costume Committee’s Vocabulary of Basic Terms for the Cataloguing of Costume.4


SHIC is arranged hierarchically as a thesaurus (albeit without synonyms), further refined by combining classification terms, and, in certain of those hierarchies, activity subdivisions which can be used to qualify the terms. As is common in thesauruses developed before the widespread computerisation of museums, individual concepts are also represented by numerical codes.5

SHIC is intended to classify objects and related material (e.g. archival material, audio-visual material, information files) according to the activities to which they are related, rather than by generic types of object.6

The terms are arranged under four main headings (‘sections’):
  1. Community Life: “material relating to the community rather than individuals or families.”
  2. Domestic and Family Life: “all aspects of domestic and family life including the house itself and any activity within or related to it.”
  3. Personal Life: “used only for items belonging to, used by, or related exclusively to one person, and normally carried or kept privately by that person, rather than forming part of the domestic scene.”
  4. Working Life: “any working activity usually undertaken for commercial reasons, whether in a factory (or other specialised working environment) or at home. It includes trades, crafts, professions, industries, services and transport, and any ancillary activities directly associated with them.”7
Lower levels are called, in descending order, divisions, classes, groups, and subgroups.8

Activity subdivisions can be used in the Working Life section and in certain places in the Community Life section. They are separated from the main classification by a full point.9

For example, a carpenter’s hammer used in a cabinet-making factory would be categorised as:
4. Working life
4.5 Manufacturing industries not elsewhere specified
4.56 Timber and wooden furniture industries
4.565 Wooden and upholstered furniture and shop and office fittings
4.654 Wooden cabinet work and components for furniture10

SHIC is intended to allow classification at the most specific identifiable level, but objects with multiple uses might be classified at a higher level that encompasses all their more specific uses. Equally, some museums might find that the nature of their collections means that they only need to use the higher levels of the classification. Any level below a section starts with a ‘general’ heading, with number 0, which can also be used to categorise items with broad uses.11

The complex ways in which objects may have been used, and the potential for archival and audio-visual material to be related to multiple activities, means that any one item may be given more than one SHIC classification. So, the carpenter’s hammer classified above might first have been used in a railway locomotive factory to make packing cases for parts, and so be classified under 4.4721.55 (working life → extraction of metallic ores; manufacture of metals and metal goods; engineering industries → transport engineering → railway and tramway vehicles → locomotives and parts activity subdivision production-related operations → packaging). After use in the cabinet-making factory, it may have found its way into a DIY toolkit at home, thereby falling under 2.58 (domestic and family life → household management → maintenance and decorating), before being used as a murder weapon, placing it under 1.354 (community life → regulation and control → law enforcement → law breaking). The hammer should be classified using each of these headings.12

Publication history

  1. First edition: 1983, published by the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language at the University of Sheffield. ISSN 0309-9229.
  2. Second edition: 1993, published by the Museum Documentation Association. ISBN 0 905963 91 1
    1. Second edition, revision 2.1: June 1996, published by the Museum Documentation Association. ISBN 0 905963 91 1



1 SHIC, p. v.
2 SHIC, p. v.
3 SHIC, p. iv.
4 SHIC, p. ii.
5 SHIC, p. vi.
6 SHIC, p. vi.
7 SHIC, p. vi.
8 SHIC, p. vii.
9 SHIC, p. ix.
10 SHIC, p. viii.
11 SHIC, p. ix.
12 SHIC, pp. ix-x and under the relevant classifications.


  •  1. SHIC Working Party, Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC): A Subject Classification for Museum Collections, version 2.1 (Cambridge: Museum Documentation Association, 1996) ISBN: 0 905963 91 1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources?isbn=0+905963+91+1+

See also


  • SHIC Working Party, Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC): A Subject Classification for Museum Collections, 2nd edn (Museum Documentation Association: Cambridge, 1993), revision 2.1 (June 1996) ISBN: 0 905963 91 1


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