Documentation and Decolonisation

This is the text of a talk I gave as part of the Doing the Work Programme, an online workshop series co-produced by Dr Ilaria Puri Purini at the Contemporary Art Society and Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton at the Decolonising Arts Institute (University of the Arts London). Kathleen Lawther chaired with incisive good judgement and care and Marenka Thompson-Odlum spoke with her usual informed, informal authority.


Today, we are talking about knowledge production and information management and how to do it better.

The following quotation from Safiya Umoja Nobel, gets to the heart of the matter:

“Knowledge management reflects the same social biases that exist in society, because human beings are at the epicenter of information curation. These practices of the past are part of the present, and only committed and protracted investments in repairing knowledge stores to reflect and recenter all communities can cause a shift toward equality and inclusion in the future.  This includes reconciling our brutal past rather than obscuring or minimizing it. In this way, we have yet to fully confront our histories and reconstitute libraries and museums toward reconciliation and reparation.”

Safiya Umoja Nobel. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.

My question is:

What approaches can be employed to engage critically with museum documentation and object records, in order to tackle structural bias and the hegemony of traditional western, colonial, heteronormative, ableist norms of knowledge production and practice?

I don’t have definitive answers. What I do have is more questions for you. My hope is that if we start from a position of understanding better how we work the way we do, what the issues are and how they manifest in our records, where the information ends up and what effect it has, we can move towards a better anti-racist and critically reflective practice – recognising how we got here and that our traditional practices are part of the problem.

What does decolonisation of documentation actually mean? I get asked a lot “how do you decolonise a (collections)database?”. The really short answer is you can’t. The other short answer is: this is the wrong question.

I think it’s worth unpicking what we are actually asking here and why; who is this work for and who does it benefit? What is the work of decolonising in this context – is it data cleaning, reputation saving, brand management, erasure, inventory, audit, cataloguing, updates, assuaging conscience? Do you want a quick fix now because of the current climate/trend or to make sustainable change?

A better question might be: how do we move towards a critically engaged, ethical and anti-racist way of working?

I have three main starting points for thinking about this. Firstly, we need to name, and own the problem. Secondly we need to consider how and why we are where we are (in UK GLAM and academia). And lastly  we need to properly understand documentation and cataloguing – how it works and what we do.

Basically  – we have to take a few steps back to try and understand what’s going on before we plough ahead and “make everything better”.

1. Naming the problem

  • The problem in the world – white supremacy, colonialism, racism
  • The problem on the internet – the (digital) cultural record (Risam, 2019) repeating socio-political ideas and issues
  • The problem for us – museums, GLAM, cultural heritage, memory institutions, the art world etc
  • The problem IS us  – the majority white museum sector
  • The problem is what “we” do: who and what we include and who and what we exclude
  • The problem is the words we used to name the problem – diversity, inclusion, engagement, decolonisation – rendered meaningless from overuse and misappropriation and misunderstanding.

2. How did we get here?

We tend to proceed within a set of myths that are taken as immutable truths and this is a trick of colonialism and racism:

  • The myths of race, supported by science (this is not to deny that racism exists, but that it has no basis in scientific research and the classifications of humans by skin colour are spurious)
  • The myth of neutrality/objectivity
  • The myth of immutable classification and categorisation systems
  • The myth of value
  • The myth of nice white people

All of these things can be challenged and changed

3. The specifics of documentation and cataloguing

  • What is cataloguing? How do we do it? What is for?
  •  What is the point of it? Is it knowledge production, organization or collections management?
  • Are our standards and guidance fit for purpose?
  • Do the tools we have help or hinder?
  • Do our methods and practices shape ways of knowing and limit them?

How do we identify the issues?

How do we describe how these issues are manifest in our work and what are the solutions?  Issues around documenting and cataloguing works tend to fall into three main groups:

  • Language – the words we use and how we write
  • Subject/Content –what and who we chose to write about
  • Practice and systems – the way we organise and frame things

1. Language

This is the most often articulated and easily recognised issue. And usually described as: offensive, inappropriate, abusive and harmful words

People get hung up on words (and rightly so), but language is much broader than that. In some ways, I think this is one of the most straightforward issues to address, but it is still shockingly, casually prevalent. There is more to addressing language in decolonial and anti-racist terms than spotting the bad words:

  • Tone – (pseudo) objectivity/ performative neutrality – from a position of authority and therefore control and power.
  • Tone policing – what do you edit out and clean-up to sound ‘proper’, formal or professional to meet the expectations of the point above.
  • Veiled slurs and cliches, disguised racisms, ignorance and insensitivities, objectification and dehumanisation, erasure.
  • Controlled vocabularies, terms and authorities (also tags, keywords and image descriptions) – who gets to define and apply these words? Who gets to impose order?
  • Naming conventions, spellings, transliterations and preferred terms
  • Racialised and minoritised languages/language difference – eg. African American Vernacular English, colloquialisms and change/fluidity in semantics (classification is in play here too, but distinctions between a language and a dialect, is actually a construction too and not necessarily agreed on)
  • Understanding the geographical and temporal situatedness of language and how to represent and address that

2. Subject/Content

Sometimes, what is more difficult to unpack is subject and subject matter. But when you chose to work on something and find out about it, more information and new knowledge is generated. It makes artefacts more visible, people (artists, makers) and histories better known. It makes things easier to find. It also confers value (museum value, intellectual worth, financial value, cultural capital…)

  • Who and what is chosen as representative of the institution, or of a movement, or of an idea or a cultural moment?
  • Who and what is not chosen to document, to catalogue, to digitise, to exhibit and promote?
  • Which works have time, money and resources invested in them – why?
  • Which works languish and are ignored?
  • Who is published? Who is not published?
  • Who do you cite? Who do you allocate as authoritative or the definitive voice or expert? Why?
  • Who or what is instrumentalised to connect with racialised and marginalised communities?
  • Which artefacts or people are considered “difficult”? Why and by whom?
  • Where is research missing? And where is there too much research focus?

3. Systems, structures and practices

Here I mean both the paper and digital systems and data structures of documentation, cataloguing and research, AND the infrastructure of the organisation.

  • Which data, information, fields are privileged/used most and why?
  • How do you deal with systems of meaning, ontologies and epistemologies that do not “fit” the traditional western Eurocentric, patriarchal norms for understanding the world
  • What tools, standards and guidance do you use (Spectrum, AAT etc) – are they fit for purpose? Or do they replicate racist and colonial practices?
  • What does your local data manual or cataloguing guide say? What examples does it give? Is it fit for purpose? Or does it replicate racist and colonial practices?
  • Do you know who does what and why in relation to records and documentation?
  • Who signs off, edits and corrects? What is their agenda in all of this?
  • When do you change or query things?
  • What do you file and what do you digitise?
  • What do you allow access to and what do you restrict? How does this affect the way in which the narrative around the object is constructed?

What can you do now?

  • Identify, assess and audit
  • Use your audit data to advocate and inform policy and practice
  • Understand context: past and future
  • Read

1. Identify, assess and audit

Find the evidence and know your collection. You can audit against anything, you can add a question to your location audit:

  • What works and artefacts have thin to no records (beyond inventory) – which records have no object history?
  • Which artists do you have little biographical information about?
  • Which works don’t fit the current agenda of your institution?
  • Which records are contain explicit or veiled racist language, or lack preferred terms in people, place or material descriptions?
  • Which objects have colonial connections and contexts?
  • Which records focus on donors and patrons rather than artists and communities of origin?

Know your collection, know where documenting and cataloguing is replicating racist tropes and bias.

2. Use your audit data to advocate and inform policy and practice

If information is power, you can demonstrate the issues with numbers and advocate with evidence.

  • Describe what you are looking at or for and why.
  • Propose how issues will be addressed: 
    • identifying and citing sources for preferred terms
    • where will legacy data be kept and how will it be dealt with in terms access or online? (deleting is not an option, flagging, context, not publishing are)
  • Set a timescale for audit, regular review and long term objectives

The quantification of this work really helps with advocacy, funding and addressing institutional barriers so that you CAN:

  • Change practice
  • Encourage transparency and contextualisation
  • Aim for authorship, accountability and openness
  • Admit that some things are contested or uncertain, admit that you don’t know, that there are questions and problems.
  • Say why one version of events is now considered inappropriate.
  • Build this into your way of writing.

3. Understand context: Past and Future

  • Do you know the institutional history of your collection and organisation? How it was set up, how its remit and agenda may have changed? Where does the power lie? Who are the key actors?
  • Can you relate this to the documentation? Can you trace this history in your documentation?
  • Do you understand and can you describe the current documentation systems in use, and can you describe the relationship with previous and legacy systems?
  • Do you know who did what, when and why?
  • Do you understand why things in your collection have been catalogued as they have and why?
  • Where are you in all of this? Why are you documenting this piece? Under what authority?
  • What do you think you know? What do you need to know? Do you sign and author your contributions?

4. Read

  • Situate yourself and your work: think about positionality. Where do you sit within all of these debates? What do you believe? How do you understand racism? Do you experience racism? How do you understand other people’s experience of racism, prejudice and inequity?
  • Read about racism, read about structural racism, read about anti-racism, read about colonialism and decolonisation. Reading is doing the work: passively listening to webinars isn’t.
  • Where does your institution sit? What does it do, what racisms does it enact?
  • Think about the historical method and historiography.
  • Think about how to apply your reading and thinking to your work.

To end with, I have two quotations for you to think about. One is about how colonial knowledge and logic functions. Firstly, a useful account from South African philosopher Veli Mitova  and one from anthropologist, Haidy Geismar, who describes the relationship between the way we work and the digital:

“We live in an epistemically colonial world; that’s no secret. Although the Global North physically left as colonial ‘master’ long ago, it still gets to tell the Global South what counts as genuine knowledge, rational thought, and real science.

After all, as this epistemic master has vouched, his ideas about knowledge and other epistemically good things are objective and universal…The call to epistemic decolonisation is, in the first instance, a call to dismantle this way of thinking and its self-arrogated hegemonic authority”

Veli Mitova. 2020. “Decolonising Knowledge Here and Now.” Philosophical Papers 49 (2). You can watch her giving a talk on this topic here: Epistemic Decolonisation: what, why, how? (15 Jan 2021)

“…digital systems often become analogues of their non-digital counterparts – mapping, and replicating, older representational frameworks, overwriting the capacity of the digital for radical transformation, connectivity, and multiplicity with the representation of singular, teleological, narratives.”

Haidy Geismar. 2018. Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age. London: UCL Press.

Because I always forget, and definititions help:

*epistemic – relating to knowledge or the study of knowledge

**arrogate – take or claim (something) without justification

*** teleological – relating to or involving the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.