Decolonising the Database event, Centre for Design History, University of Brighton, July 5th 2021

On Monday 5th July, 2021 I spoke at an event organised by the Centre for Design History at Brighton University and organised by Helen Mears, called Decolonising the Database. Shelley Angelie Saggar has written a report on the event on the University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History blog. The edited version of my talk is below.

Interest in this event was surprisingly (?) high and at around 200+ attendees certainly the largest audience I have ever attempted to speak to. While “decolonising” has its culture-wars-click-bait appeal right now in the heritage sector, “database” appended to anything, tends to be a buzz-kill (not for me, but it’s not like putting #loveisland up there in the title).

The real pleasure of the event though, was to be amongst such great company and to hear their serious, heartfelt, intelligent analysis around the notion of decolonisation as applied to museums, heritage and documentation practices and histories. This is one of very few sessions I have attended in the year of webinars that was 2020/21, where we were having a discussion that moved beyond the hand-wringing and anxiety and “what to do”, though as rightly observed by Kelly Foster – even the use of “decolonisation” in this context is deeply problematic and requires more robust challenge.

On the list of participants was Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, my awesome colleague, who introduced the event and rightly referenced the significant findings on the Black Artists and Modernism Project, which really does still set the standard for focused and detailed scrutiny of the “representation” and presence of racialised and minoritised artists in UK collections. I was so impressed and excited to hear Shelley Anjalie Saggar’s subtle and erudite presentation on care, reparations, and complex understandings of decolonisation work (she is the person behind the indispensable Decolonial Dictionary). The always excellent Kathleen Lawther gave a whistle-stop, but essential tour through the history of cataloguing, moving away from a focus on tools to practice, who shaped cataloguing and who is doing it now (no spoilers, but we could call her piece “From Sideburns to Cardigans” part one of her presentation is on her blog here). Hannah Turner drew on the research from her really important book, Cataloguing Culture which unpacks the process of knowledge production in cultural heritage institutions and the harms and histories that are created and perpetuated.  She also referenced her latest research on the Amagugu Ethu project with its emphasis on ethical engagement and shared knowledge. And in a feat of rapid response thinking, in which she managed to process all four presentations, plus audience questions and panel discussion, Kelly Foster critiqued both the premise of the session, the approach of the sector and the structural and institutional racism that frames this work. I could listen to Kelly all day.

I sound cheerful and confident as I write this up, perhaps because it was a joy to be in the presence of such hard thinking and intelligent women, but I don’t really feel jolly, I feel despair. The subject of the event is both serious and troubled and we don’t have answers without significant and concerted efforts to change and stop being complicit in maintaining the status quo. I am not clear that the western, euro-centric museum project is relevant or appropriate or even tenable within any idea of a progressive, anti-racist, equitable, global society and I don’t know how to reconcile that with a career in this sector.

Anyway, in this auspicious company and in spite of MS Team’s best efforts to ping me into oblivion with notifications, and at the same time prevent anyone from actually getting into the event (life-lesson, note-to-self, personal ambition: NEVER use Teams for anything more than three people in-house meetings on your local organisational network), I presented the following thoughts – attempting to address the idea of decolonising the database with my current research for the Provisional Semantics Project.

Notes for a 10 minute talk around the idea of decolonising the database :

I am currently the Research Associate on a project called Provisional Semantics: Addressing the challenges of representing multiple perspectives within an evolving digitised national collection which is part of the Towards a National Collection funding stream of the AHRC. I am going to try and say a bit about the project and at the same time attempt to look at how the work we are doing fits with this notion of “decolonizing the database”. I am taking “database” as a shorthand for the whole gamut of museum collections documentation and digitisation, which is a bit of a cheat, but I only have 10 minutes to cover a fair amount of ground.

The initial concept of the project is to address a fundamental challenge facing the Towards a National Collection programme (TaNC): how to develop ethical, equitable and transparent readings of the objects in a digitised national collection. I’m not actually sure that this is the initial concept, but it is basically what we are now attempting to do.

We could talk about that project title for a whole session; how it represents yet another theoretical positioning for the research treadmill, with museums collections as data, with the lives and experience of racialised and minoritized people, reduced to content for analysis.

We can also think about how is it funded – TaNC is an initative within the AHRC to fund research into what a digital, national collection might be. Again, we could problematise this, unpack the idea of “national”, the implications and promise of the digital, the fact that this is the largest chunk of money put into museums and the digital in a while, and what that means at this particular moment in time.

Or I could talk about the fact that the original idea came from Tate’s Head Librarian, Maxine Miller, to improve the language of cataloguing in the Tate Library collections, which was then worked up as bid for this project.

There other versions and concerns, but this illustrates very neatly the idea of multiple perspectives and the way narratives are constructed.

The project’s specific focus is “an interrogation of how long-standing problematic, or racist, hierarchies/binaries/ narratives/perspectives are produced and reinforced in catalogue entries, object descriptions and interpretative material.”

And this is perhaps where the project fits with the idea of “decolonizing the database”: the combination of the digital or digitised National Collection using/mobilizing/facilitating existing object description and catalogue records, which are deeply flawed in the version of history that they present or, in fact, do not present, and the language, information organisation and practices that are used to construct them.

Case Studies:

The project has three case studies and we are looking at objects, object descriptions and histories in each collection:

Photographic Collections, Imperial War Museum

IWM holds a collection of photographs of the recruitment of Indian soldiers to the British army in 1942. We are looking at how to do object description better. The original focus was on problematic language, but actually the work, once we have engaged with the subject and content of the photographs has moved to surfacing histories that are known but not often told or privileged in narratives about WW2.

Powis Castle, National Trust

With the National Trust we are focusing on the collections of Powis Castle’s museum where the agency, history and beauty of the artefacts is often overshadowed by the colonial activities of Robert Clive.

The Panchayat Collection at Tate

And lastly, the third case study is the Panchayat Collection, which is a significant archive of Asian and Afro-Caribbean artists working in the 1980s. It has been with the Tate since 2015, but neither catalogued not digitised. It represents the work of a movement of artists and curators who are at best only partially recognised or even acknowledged in the traditional narratives and collections of the history of British Art.

All three case studies are stories of erasure and institutional choices and forgetting: people, objects, collections, and records organised and described within a framework that perpetuates colonial thinking. But observing this is not enough, and we have had to address the issues of where the project sits, what does it do, how does it affect change and avoid becoming complicit in performative and appropriative so-called “decolonisation”?

How are we still here? Questions raised, barriers to change and (putative) findings

Parallel to the case studies, I have been attempting to put together a review document to look at what work has been done and is being done in relation to cataloguing content, cataloguing practices and knowledge generation in cultural heritage in the UK in roughly the last twenty years, in order to try and examine why the same “colonial contexts, attitudes and modes of perception”, racist language and an abject underrepresentation of the work, histories and practices of racialised and minoritized people continues in UK arts and cultural heritage.

If the central premise of the Provisional Semantics project is how to address “the challenges of representing multiple perspectives within an evolving digitised national collection” it’s hardly a new proposition. Yet the question is still far from being ethically or equitably resolved. Problems of sustained and embedded change, or in the current terminology, “how to decolonise the database” perhaps more broadly, “how to decolonise the digital cultural record”, persist.

I am cautious about claiming any new or substantive findings about object description and cataloguing practice yet. Most findings throughout my survey and the project are actually about how we work and why change doesn’t stick.

The main observation so far, is that we have been here before. This current version of the so called decolonial turn, is neither new, nor more profoundly substantive, despite the world finally acknowledging structural and institutional racism, and the inequities it enshrines. But in spite of the rush of arts and heritage institutions to show a black square, promises to change, perform allyship, and the momentary instrumentalization of black artists and their work in 2020, there has also been the nationalist backlash, government chastisement, censorship and financial threat and orchestrated media campaigns. So, it is hard to believe that much change has actually been made.

My research also reveals that the euphemistic nature of the ways racism is and has been talked about in the public sector are indicative of the unwillingness to deal with it directly – inclusion, representation, diversity, and decolonisation etc etc. All of these things mean different things, but in arts and heritage they are a way of naming and thus containing “the problem” which is the structural racism that pervades society. At the same time the words become overused to the point of meaninglessness. People commonly use decolonisation as synonymous with anti-racism, and don’t properly understand or interrogate the colonialism it relates to.

Additionally, and already clearly described in the work of Bernadette Lynch it seems that projects are a deeply flawed and problematic way of doing research and effecting change. There is lots of observation and theorising, looking like doing, but projects are temporally circumscribed and essentially resource-limited, emphemeral, and difficult to move into policy and practice. Sustainability and legacy are not often adequately addressed or even written into outcomes and impact statements.

For example, the wealth of work and research done around the 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery Act is rich and full of recommendations, good sense, advocacy and observation. Additionally there is a great deal of subsequent analysis of what was done and not done, recommendations and methodologies. So much of the work raised exactly the same questions that we are asking now, 14 years on. But how often is it referenced or even read in the development of policy and practice for the generation and presentation and digitisation of collections information for the cultural heritage sector?

This further suggests that museums, as supposed “memory institutions” are actually terrible at recording and remembering their own histories and work done. Project after project “engages” with “communities”, attempts to involve “hard-to-reach audiences”, tries to address “diversity”, but I have struggled to find a direct link between project findings and changes to practices in cataloguing.

This institutional forgetting is profoundly damaging when the process of awareness and promising change, cycles round multiple times within a life-time or career. At the same time, the sector claims progress (not least through the digital) but it is glacially slow and “a bit better” has to be enough.

How do you decolonise a database?

While my account of the current state of play may feel bleak, I want to end with and to return to documentation, digitisation and decolonisation, and the implicit questions in hand for today: how do we do things better? Can we decolonise the database? What approaches can be employed to tackle structural bias and the hegemony of traditional western, colonial, heteronormative, ableist norms of knowledge production and practice?

For both the project and specifically for thinking about this question, we identified five overlapping and contiguous areas of focus in order to frame the research, to try and work better or differently, which I hope you might find useful:

  1. Language – the words we use and how we write, how we deal with harm and offence without denying the use of racist words. Language addresses more than offensive words – tone, professionalism, authority and accessibility
  2. Subject and Content – what, and who we chose to write about – Subject and content looks at what topics are privileged in terms of publication, expertise and resources and used as representative of the collection
  3. Knowledge – Knowledge creation and production considers, who is involved, who is listened to, who can get access to information, objects and archives and who is allowed to use the material and who participates in knowledge generation
  4. Cataloguing practice and systems – the tools we use, how we organise information tools,  how we organise and structure data, what we privilege in analogue and digital systems, data structures, publication and editing practices
  5. Context and history – institutional biographies, institutional infrastructure, social and political agendas, hierarchies of value, worth and deficit thinking, personal positions that we inevitably work within

If you only read one thing:

To end, I want to recommend the work of Temi Odumosu and especially her essay The Crying Child: On Colonial Archives, Digitization, and Ethics of Care in the Cultural Commons(Current Anthropology, vol. 61, no. S22, 2020, pp. 289–302) who says all of this so much better and with an excoriating clarity and honesty.