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

The 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).

On Monday 5th July I spoke at an event organised by the Centre for Design History at Brighton University and organised by Helen Mears, called Decolonising the Database. (Helen and Shelley Anjalie Saggar will be writing an account of the event on the University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History blog and I will link to that when published). The edited version of my talk is below.

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.

Are you still reading?

Book lists, shelfies, reading groups were big news this time last year in response to widespread public (media?) acknowledgement of racism in the global north as overt, insidious, structural institutional and constant. But how many of the recommended texts were actually read and how many are still being read?

Two threads on Twitter this week, reminded me of the reading thing again, but both address themes that have been with me through the year. The first thread is here from @FINOkoye with all the swears of despair, expressing where I am often at too. How do you continue to push/strive for better as things get back to “normal” and life opens up again and the numerous navigations of being in the world start piling up and nothing has really changed?

The second thread is here from Edwin Coomasaru: Resource Portal on Anti-Racism and Decolonial Approaches to Art History and Visual Culture. Yes it’s another reading list, but crucially, a well organised (can I say curated?) one that picks out both key texts, histories, theory and subject specificity. One to keep coming back to as it grows and helps with the how, as in how do you continue to read broadly to understand lived experiences and knowledge beyond your own, your place in the world AND also read specifically to develop anti-racist and ethical practices in your work or research.

For me, there shouldn’t really be a separation, but I suspect for some people this reading feels like additional labour. As many have said before: it really is the least you can do, and if not now, then when?

Thought about as work, it moves from performative to onerous and constant, never-ending and then hopeless: nothing changes, I am just one person, not everything is about racism, I have to do and think about other stuff…. Only the last of these is really true, though.

So, if you have lapsed or never started, are moving on or getting further in, keeping going, going back or stuck these are my suggestions for now:

For life: Layla F. Saad‘s Me and White Supremacy (2018)

Book cover for Me and White Supremacy  - title text and author name

For understanding the complexities of empire and colonialism: Priyamvada Gopal‘s Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (2020)

Image of paperback book cover for Insurgent Empire

For history, context and peopling the past without falling into the trap of exceptionalism: Olivette Otele‘s African Europeans: An Untold History (2020)

Book cover of   African Europeans.  Title text over painted portrait detail of a black man

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. The full session can be viewed here : Doing the Work: Documenting Collections, 24 March 2021


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.

A bit of reflection

Last year around June (also the last time I posted on here), I think, Tehmina Goskar responded to an announcement about the project that I am currently working on (Provisional Semantics), with a little gentle probing and holding to account. I wrote back delighted to make contact, and since then there have been many interesting, funny, incisive and compassionate conversations, that quite frankly have kept my brain and my spirit going at various points. She persuaded me to do an interview with her, and her questions were so useful in creating a space for reflection that I was able to start writing for my research again. The interview came out on the blog her professional website, the Curatorial Research Centre, back in January and is here: Part 1 and Part 2. I guess it accounts for what I have been up to and thinking about in the last year, part position statement, part trying to do the work, part anguish. Just parking it here for now.

Performing Solidarity

Yesterday I watched the rush to perform solidarity from the UK GLAM sector stemming, in part, from the Museum Detox call for GLAM organisations to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and from a discussion with colleagues about how to do this. There is so much to address right now and arguably critiquing the social media accounts of big UK museums is not the place to start, but it is a tangible example of how wrong the sector gets things in relation to racism and social activism. 

It became very obvious that there is little in the way of coherent or properly engaged anti-racist response or embedded understanding from major mainstream arts organisations. Social media panic ensued and played out with a variety of public statements on Twitter and Instagram: denials, deletions, defensiveness, misjudged but all well meant, same old same old, really. Black square, hashtag, “we stand with you”, we aren’t racist, honest and a bit of “we must do better” as the day went on. 

You/we do have to do better and work harder. The you/we here is the predominantly white-run UK cultural heritage institutions, I am part of it and not, and like many, struggling with my own role within the sector, whiteness, the world.

Here are a few questions to ask before posting, both as individuals and as corporate bodies.  It has all been said before, repeatedly – but here we still are.Can you/we try to express solidarity without exploiting the few examples of black art and artists you/we have accepted as tokens of our wokeness? It’s the museum equivalent of saying “…but I have a black friend”. Look at the statistics  – what proportion of your collections, exhibitions, staff and events are black and black focussed? Not very impressive is it?

Can you/we avoid patting y/ourselves on the back for the inconsistent and infrequent work you/we have managed to do and admit that nothing much has really changed? Your exhibition three years ago and your community engagement session in 2018 were fine, ground-breaking even, but did they result in embedded social and institutional change in behaviour, attitudes or practice? The fact that you have done it once, or twelve times , is not an end point and does not give you absolution. Stop mentioning them for good-person points. I would bet that a large proportion of the staff of colour that created, contributed and pushed for these things to happen at all, are no longer in post. Your institutional exploitation of this work is performative and disingenuous if there is no demonstrable, consistent change within the institution.

Can you/we try not to use the hashtags of anti-racism and black solidarity as a marketing moment? This is not the time to promote brands and products. And listen when people ask you not to occupy their digital space.

Can you/we accept the valid and angry criticism that comes in response to our empty public avowals and reflect on why? Yes, you/we must show solidarity, but at the same time we have to listen when the response is overwhelmingly accusations of hypocrisy, lateness, mealy mouthed opportunism – because these charges are true. Our only position must be humility and transparency – we have to own that we are complicit, and museums, more than that, are perpetrators of colonialism and white cultural hegemony.

Can we put the white fragility aside and step up without centring ourselves? Yes, people will respond angrily, yes you/we will take mis-steps and make mistakes and yes you/we have to keep changing and learning – anti-racism is not a single action, but a continuous process of educating and challenging ourselves.

Can you/we commit to doing the work and move towards anti-racism as the starting point for all the things you/we do, every time? Not as an afterthought, an add on, an audience grabber, or to whitewash y/our guilty consciences? Is there an anti-racism position statement in your policies? Do you/we publicly own your complicity, history and whiteness?

The arguments I hear are of the “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” variety – but we are damned and responsible and the responses are late and misjudged and pretty pointless. The fear of saying the wrong thing and staying silent isn’t good enough either. To stay silent is to condone racism and white supremacy and that is not option. There is no getting it “right”, but there is a great deal of getting it wrong.

Do the work.
——
The two toolkits/documents that I think are very useful when considering organisational change at the moment are these (both US, but I am not seeing any equivalents in UK atm).

The Empathetic Museum http://empatheticmuseum.weebly.com/ and their maturity model here: http://empatheticmuseum.weebly.com/resources.html

and 

MASS action project https://www.museumaction.org/
Readiness assessment here: https://museumdatalaundry.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/b4272-massactionreadinessassessment_oct1728129.pdf
and Toolkit here: https://museumdatalaundry.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/9236f-toolkit_10_2017.pdf

Erasure of the curatorial voice…

This is the text (without the not v. interesting images) of a short paper I gave at the Defining Curatorial Voice workshop in February 2019, which was part of James Baker and Andrew Salway’s excellent Curatorial Voice: legacy descriptions of art objects and their contemporary uses project at the Sussex Humanities Lab.

Has the digitisation of museum collections erased the curatorial voice?

Introduction

My question is obviously a provocation. Perhaps what I want to address is better expressed as: why is the curatorial voice largely absent in digitised museum collections, specifically those published online? Further, why does the promise of the vast project of digitised and online collections – perhaps one of the areas of largest investment of curatorial resources over the last 10 to 20 years – repeatedly fail to represent the curatorial voice, much less amplify it, and what are the implications of that absence? Despite the promise of the digital, the practices of museum documentation, collections digitisation, and subsequent online publication has perpetuated and compounded the absence of curatorial input/output, inadvertently rendering online collections a digital performance of what we have, rather than what we know, why we know it and why that might be interesting.

My current research looks at how online museum collections, catalogues and databases work, and why their impact is limited, considering the numbers involved. I’m not focusing on institutions on the national scale where they are able to maintain a variety of publication streams from the scholarly catalogue, catalogue raisonné and online exhibition, as well as being able to experiment with technological advances (BM, V&A, Tate, Metropolitan NY, Chicago IA), but on the many other museums, galleries and collections, where an online database may be their only published collections output for reasons of finance, expertise, or inclination.

A recurring theme for me has been what is missing from the records, practices, technology and content, that makes online museum collections underused, poorly evaluated and largely unexplored in most legitimated forms of discourse. What’s missing ranges from the prosaic: information accuracy – that is mis-information, out of date info, lack of image, IPR; to the evidential: use, reuse, engagement, and impact; to what might be termed the ethical: that is transparency about authorship, authority, bias.

However, the absence from the online records that is most striking is that of people. There have of course, been numerous endeavours to re-insert diverse human experience and voices into museum collections information, and to exploit the affordances of digital technology to achieve this. Perhaps the most obvious efforts being tagging, crowdsourcing and folksonomies in attempts to make the museum and its collections relevant. But these initiatives have been almost exclusively outward looking. My suggestion here is that there is space, and a need, for the curatorial voice to speak through the records and to make this available online; not in order to reassert authority or traditional, western cultural hegemony through the performance of expertise, but the imaginative and transparent articulation of experience, reflexive practice and discursive accounts. And that there may be benefits to this shift in focus.

Curatorial voice

What do I mean by the curatorial voice? (Possibly we should also unpick what we mean by curate, a word which gets bandied about all over the place as you can now curate coffee pods, savings vouchers and lunch [1])

I would take curatorial voice to mean the expression not only of knowledge, but the relating of the intimate physical experience of working with artefacts and the practices that surround handling, preserving and managing them, a different type of knowing. This is not the shadowy, and privilege-laden, skill of connoisseurship, but a specific type of historical method that arises from direct experience of material culture. It encompasses awareness of materials, surfaces, and weight, as well as the relationship to the body, in addition to understandings of transaction, commerce, emotional attachment, and the social life of things. Additionally, it involves an acknowledgement and account of the work that goes into the keeping of artefacts. Curatorial expression of this has traditionally been through the exhibition and the exhibition catalogue. But exhibitions are the big prize and catalogues written by curators are increasingly the expensive exception rather than rule.

What does curatorial knowledge consist of? Where and how is it voiced? What happens in cataloguing and what do we get to see online? My thinking is informed by Linda Sandino’s work recording oral histories from curators of the V&A, which reveals the potential of moving outside the official, institutional narratives of object and collection that are codified in the online record, (and incidentally the value of oral history as a mode of transmission).

The interviews document aspects of everyday museum work that are usually not told in official histories, possibly because they are seen as dull: accounts about working practices such as cataloguing, the introduction of computers, exhibition planning, acquisitions, attitudes to de-accessioning, the minutiae of museum bureaucracy [2] .(Sandino, 2012)

Below I have listed the main areas that I think capture what curators think about and do.

  1. Descriptive, factual – data/information

Records, analogue >> databases and db records >> versions published online. The science of classification and categorisation made manifest.

What happens online? This ‘tombstone’ data is the most common presentation. It looks uncannily like the labels in a modernist gallery space – white walls and minimal information. The object record is rarely authored; and changes to the field content from spelling corrections, or changes to dates, to major shifts in attribution are often not acknowledged as having been changed.


2. Historical/cultural/socio-political context – scholarly knowledge

Relatively little space or time is given over to this in the record in smaller institutions. Research often tends to exist outside of the online record – physically in files or in other publications and institutions, and be referenced or cited in the record, if you are lucky. Often the scholarly writing is done not by the by the curator responsible for the objects, but by visiting experts/academics and required to be “more academic” and published elsewhere.

What happens online? the perception was that long-form text is not suitable in digital form – be it databases or online records. When “voice” is inserted it’s the voice of an external “expert”.


3. Experiential/interaction/physical/practical interaction – praxis

Internally the recording of the processes and practices of collections management is done regularly and systematically. The static nature of paper records wasn’t great for this – multiple changes to location, condition etc required a great deal of annotation and amendment. However, databases are really good at this, repeating fields, automatic dating and attribution, and the systematic articulations of key processes, work flow, recording risk, damage, loss etc – the data of management and accountability have transformed the management and care of collections behind the scenes. The articulation work[AR3]  of curating goes a long way to revealing the life of objects in museums and the human interventions and interactions with the objects and collections. This information captures the relationships between display and use and the material reality of the artefacts. Further, as Sandino describes from her oral histories

Passages that describe duties and responsibilities are intermingled with reflections on how personal values are embedded in the curatorial project and the meaning of the institution. (Sandino, 2012)

What happens online?: Very little of this information is ever made public, for fear of exposure or perhaps being dull?


4. Diverse/discursive/contested accounts: opinion and representation

The traditional, normative record organisation, data structure and cataloguing practice, which is then selectively replicated in online publication of museum records, has only really begun to address the structural racism, sexism and effectively the writing out of diverse and marginalised groups in the past decade. However, progress has largely been in the form of insertion or overlay of new categories, alternative ontologies, and missing data within the existing software, documentation, and digital infrastructures.

What happens online? While this type of issue is often dealt with in display, labels and exhibitions, it does not seem to fundamentally shift in cataloguing practice, and thus a supposedly neutral, objective object record is presented online and the ‘facts’ codified in publication and the record structure itself combined with the institutional authority of the museum and the ubiquity of the internet as source.


5. Imaginative/creative/emotional/narrative

Lastly there is the poetic experience, the romance of curating (nobody does it for the money) – the love of the objects, materials, of stuff – the relationship that develops through caring from something, from concern for its future as well as its past. Creative writing about museums, objects and curators often focuses on the intimacy of the relationship with things (Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears for example). There is also the associative power of objects – nostalgia and memory which is incorporated into a great deal of museum outreach work, but is also part of curatorial practice. (The most beautiful expression in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn).

What happens online? Professionally this is rarely captured, acknowledged or published and there is certainly little room for it within the structured data of the official object record.


Erasure / absence / never present?

What we begin to see is that the process of creating digital versions of object records is not set up or perhaps never intended for expression of the curatorial voice. The standards of recording, tools, process, and professional expectation require distance and a quasi-scientific approach to museum cataloguing practice, all in the name of a kind of pseudo-objectivity. This goes directly against the principles of openness, redressing structural privileges of ownership and power, and the democratisation of access that the intersection of digital and cultural heritage is meant to provide. In the manner of their publication and presentation online collections effectively replicate the space of the Modernist notion of the white cube gallery, with little interpretation and only tombstone labels.

A great deal of this comes out of the nature of collections digitisation work and the need for expediency. Certain areas of record information are systematically privileged over others – the ‘facts’, the structured, controlled data – who / what / where / when, and of course the supremacy of the image. But in this way, digitisation and digital collections have effectively reduced digital collections work to metrics – how many records, how many images. Is more better, or simply more?

In the metrics and accounting approaches that digitisation has instigated for collections access, there is less time to catalogue, to voice or consider voicing dissent.


Solution? Notes not fields, text not data.

Forays into re-using museum digital object records have been oddly disappointing, despite the huge wealth of material available. Public and scholarly engagement has also been somewhat underwhelming. Why is this?

While cataloguing creates an order, it does not allow for deviation from a predetermined scheme, but much of what is interesting about objects and people simply doesn’t fit [4] . Cataloguing is historically specific, socially inflected and necessarily reductive. People are messy, argumentative, and often wrong. Additionally, databases are not great for presenting narratives and argument, alternatives (they can barely deal with fuzziness around dates). We lose the current, recent annotations, marginalia, para-text and messing around in the digital record – meaning that the human interaction is harder to see [5] .

In continuing to replicate the traditional classifications of the nineteenth-century, in record structures of the twentieth, within the design presentation of the modern, and in digital systems of the twenty-first, the online catalogue is oddly retrogressive and unrepresentative of the objects and their rich interactions, relationships and agency in a human context – both for audience and practitioners.

I think there are some relatively simple things to address this online and in cataloguing practice (even using existing systems) for curators and cataloguers:

  1. Be transparent – say what you are doing and why
  2. Write in the notes fields not the controlled fields and don’t be afraid to publish it
  3. Own what you write – author it: be earnest and honestly subjective
  4. Describe practice and process and relationships with things and publish these as intrinsic parts of the records.
  5. Write critically
  6. Don’t depend on the image to allow an object to “speak for itself”
  7. Record response – public and professional
  8. Abandon neutrality, though NOT material reality, and be straightforwardly partisan. Describe the arguments and the evidence, make the case – quote, reference, respond.
  9. Work on digital systems that embrace messiness rather than attempt to write the world into structured ontologies with limited variables.
  10. Be brave and publish what you have, not just the “cleaned’ and truncated selection of what is safe or uncontroversial.

To answer my initial question: the systematic erasure of the expression of curatorial experience from the object record through traditional documentation practices, encoded in databases, and then redacted and reduced for online consumption has rendered the records’ online publication an inadequate source or stimulus in the digital humanities – it’s proved pretty useless for data visualisation, remains unreferenced in scholarly research and lacking in the rich content that literary texts provide, as well as failing to engage audiences. But, there is value to curatorial voice as mediator through experience, and curatorial writing as a resource and basis for the computational analysis of text.


[1] Has “curationism” led to its own demise…? David Balz, 2015 Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else

 [2]Sandino, L. (2012) ‘For the Record: [un]official voices at the V&A’, Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, 10(1), pp. 54–58. Available at: http://www.jcms-journal.com/article/view/jcms.1011208/49.

 [3]I want to extend the notion of articulation work as defined by W Kaltenbrunner to encompass the labour involved in collaborative digital scholarship, to the work of curatorship which is always collaborative and analogous to the digital literary studies work he describes.

Kaltenbrunner, W. (2014). Scholarly Labour and Digital Collaboration in Literary Studies. Social Epistemology, 29(2), 207–233. https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2014.907834

 [4]Joanna Drucker on ‘capta’ in 2011 – Drucker, J. (2011) ‘Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, 5(1). Available at: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/001/2/index.html (Accessed: 25 April 2014)

 And more recently on her thinking about 3D data visualisation for the humanities – in which a creative or poetic element is also potentially enriching to data viz…

 [AR5]Fyfe, P. (2016) ‘An Archaeology of Victorian Newspapers’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 49(4), pp. 546–577. doi: 10.1353/vpr.2016.0039. And Mak, B. (2004) ‘Archaeology of a Digitisation’, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. doi: 10.1002/asi.