Statement to the Commission of Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL

Earlier this year I was invited to meet with the Commission of Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL as someone who might be able to assist with the understanding of the relationship between Francis Galton and UCL. Below is a slightly edited version of the statement I made to the committee based on the three questions (which I tried to break down further for clarity) that they asked. This is a personal response based on the extensive research I carried out into the history, use and role of the Galton Collection which I undertook between 2014 and 2016.

1.    How did you become aware of the history of eugenics at UCL? What does this mean to you and did this knowledge change your perception of UCL?

There are three levels of answer to this first question for me. Firstly, I can’t really remember not knowing who Galton was, as an adult. I was at the Courtauld in the early 90s and had regular classes at UCL and lived in Bloomsbury, so the lecture theatre and the Pearson building have been on my radar in terms of the geography of UCL, as long as I can recall.

Secondly, as I have previously accounted for in a blog post for UCL museums in 2014, I attended a seminar that year, on a course I was auditing by Haidy Geismar (Professor of Anthropology here at UCL) in which Subhadra Das, (Curator of UCL’s Science Collections) was giving a talk on Galton and the Galton collection. Her starting point was to ask if anyone had heard of Galton and I was one of few that could claim they had. It was at this point that connections between the science I didn’t understand was made tangible and accessible through the historical artefacts and the horrific implications of Galton’s scientific theory were made manifest in the objects she showed the class. This dawning realisation of the significance of Galton’s work and the troubling nature of the objects in the collection, is the moment that I moved beyond awareness into engaging with the issues – including the relationship and role of UCL.

Lastly, I selected the Galton Collection as one of two case studies for my doctoral research. It is this period of research that makes up the third level of my understanding– by investigating in detail Galton’s original relationship with UCL through the history of the 100 odd years of the object collection and other Galton related holdings (library and archive), and the way in which the collection has been dealt with since the digitisation of the collection in 2005.

1.2  Did knowledge of this history change your perception of UCL?

Yes. It revealed that while numerous curatorial staff had engaged with the Collection and found it deeply problematic, very few resources had been allocated to addressing the issues.

What it means to me is that UCL has demonstrated a disappointing lack of institutional responsibility, transparency, and scrutiny in an academic organisation where investigation and critical thinking are surely at the core of what we do? The failure to engage at an institutional level in effect codifies prejudice. UCL was shoring up structural racism by failing to engage publicly and robustly with problems of its historic and continuing association with Francis Galton and his work.

2.    How do you think that UCL should address this going forward? Should action be taken in relation to the names of prizes, spaces and endowed professorships on campus, especially those named after persons who founded and zealously promoted eugenics?

In order to give context to the Galton Collection and its place in UCL’s cultural heritage I pursued a detailed history of the locations, staff and contents of the National Eugenics Lab as a way of navigating through the institutional, personal and professional relationships that connect Galton to UCL (some of my research was used in Subhadra’s Bricks and Mortals walking tour, which unpicks the significance of named buildings and the key players). I can also detail work done by each curator working with or adjacent to the Galton Collection – not least Debbie Challis’s projects around the 2011 centenary of Galton’s death.

In my thesis one of my principle contentions is that institutional neglect of aspects of collections and collections information is not simply a lack of time and resources, but a deliberate mothballing of things that an institution would rather not deal with, and this is clearly the case with the Galton Collection. Choices are made and funds invested in UCL Culture, but the closed Galton collection languishes. This can be evidenced most clearly by looking at the online catalogue for the collection.

Galton is deeply connected to UCL and his name enshrined in the very fabric of the buildings. He is also synonymous with eugenics (whatever else he did and of whatever social or scientific significance) and yet there has been a persistent ignoring of the collection, and an abnegation (until now?) of systematic engagement with his relationship with UCL. To do anything else is to continue to allow Galton to remain part of the infrastructures, to be ratified and tacitly approved on an official level.

I am proposing that at an organisational level UCL has failed to present a consistent, critical and transparent position on its historical relationship with Francis Galton and further by failing to reject. The changes are easy and obvious – clinging on to his name, and Pearson’s and Petrie’s, debating the issues but never acting, seems to be a strange and counter-intuitive project.

The following points seem crucial to genuinely addressing UCL’s relationship with eugenics, Galton and Pearson (remembering that my focus is on presentation of information about artefacts and the digital catalogue of the Galton collection was the focus of my study):

  1. Understanding the true nature of Galton’s relationship with UCL, the role and agenda of Karl Pearson and the history/status and nature of the Galton Laboratory over time. [Joe Cain’s recent excellent and continuing work on this is pertinent here]
  2. Understanding the bequest: work needs to be done on the nature and detail of the Galton bequest and even whether UCL still wants to uphold those terms (and if they have to legally). The bequest was messy and disputed, changed or was manipulated and not fully documented, as far as I could determine. Does it actually pay for anything? (There is also precedent in Museums — the terms of gift cannot be absolute clarified.)
  3. Understanding what the Collection consists of, how it was formed and how it has been dealt with at UCL in the last 100 years.
  4. Acknowledging the research and engagement that curatorial staff have undertaken as custodians of the material since 2000.
  5. Acknowledging that despite digitisation of the collection which appears to allow access and openness, the absence of data, information and context, as well as accurate scientific understanding of the items actually reveals more problems than it addresses.
  6. Reassessing in the light of the previous points, the value of calling the holdings ‘the Galton Collection’, based on how historically accurate the name is and whether the Collection forms a coherent whole.

I would advocate fully cataloguing and properly publishing the collection as a matter of urgency and fully connecting and referencing it to the library and archive material that it relates to (beyond Galton). I would also suggest that, like Bentham, who features in every tour of UCL for prospective students to tourists, that there is a permanent site and display that uses the objects to tell this history and can act as a touch-point for how UCL understands and addresses it’s difficult legacies.

Some of the most engaging material that moves us towards understanding Galton is in the Collection. Where there are barriers to engagement (for me the scientific theories) the artefacts provide a visceral, poignant and human way in to understanding. They complexify the man, they are connectors, representing relationships and interactions, they are historical evidence and social agents. Artefacts can also be short cuts, through the reams of letters and volumes of biography. They connect Galton to UCL and beyond UCL, and the path to genocide is explicit through the objects. The oddness of the man is clear in his counting glove. They are relatable, often recognisable, disconcerting, shocking and immediate and full of stories that can explain the past and the science.

A clear public statement on the difficult histories of UCL’s past seems crucial in order to begin to unpick structural and institutional racism. This information is dealt with when it arises, department by department or buried in the website, but a clear, critical account of issues with empire, race, discrimination, money and corruption that stands alongside all intro material and prospectuses is required, drawing together all strands – socio-historical, scientific, institutional, financial and public.

The persistent institutional attachment to UCL’s association with Galton and his work, through institutionally sanctioned naming practices, is both inappropriate and damaging. Additionally, doing this without a clear, transparent statement about UCL’s formation and past, that is, how these choices were made, compounds and even amplifies through symbolic significance – it implies that UCL says Galton is okay.

I would like to point out that names change all the time as circumstances, power relations and fashions change. I think I counted 8 to10 changes to the departmental name of what is now GEE, some of these are likely in part to do with a desire by some faculty to disassociate themselves with Galton and Eugenics (though the Galton Lab remained in name at least until the move to the Darwin building in 199X), others represent the subject specialism of the staff of the time and yet others are indicators of being current and using the language of day.

In terms of renaming  – I genuinely don’t understand why you would do anything else. And there are reasons beyond the specifics of Galton, Pearson and Petrie and eugenics, though absolute honesty about UCL’s role in legitimising Galton’s work through Karl Pearson’s constant and persistent negotiations and needs to be clearly stated.

We can choose who we celebrate and we are no longer tied to a set of values that were dominant a hundred years ago, but are largely rejected now. We do not need always to preserve the symbolism of representing privileged white men, when their significance is not an absolute or a given, but a contestable, historically inflected, partial version of reality that sought to actively erase a multitude of voices, experiences and stories, and lives. Simply choose someone or something else, and in the future our choices will inevitably be reassessed and possibly rejected. Rebalancing, re-presenting and critical revaluation are not erasure, but persistent visibility, while failure to address or change the status quo is passive promotion.

3. How do you think UCL should approach its historical role in the teaching and research of eugenics in the future?

I think it is taught in GEE and has been for many years, I believe its addressed in STS courses and in Anthropology, Psychology and through the Collection – many courses in the humanities and social sciences are able to engage with the history, science and problems (Subhadra works with teaching staff across the institution).

However, at an organisational or administrative level these efforts – thoughtful, critical as they are – need to be properly acknowledged, understood, and encouraged (and scrutinised). The institutional position needs to be clear, consistent, and challengeable.

UCL needs to engage with the symbolism and socio-political circumstances that saw Galton accepted, promoted and then codified into its institutional history in the first place.

“You have to know the past to understand the present.” – Carl Sagan. He didn’t say you have to keep the statues of the past up indefinitely and privilege their presence over understandings of the present.

In all these discussions and the parallel ones at Oxford with Rhodes Must Fall, the devastating protests in Charlottesville over the confederate statues of Robert E. Lee, and here with Galton, Pearson and Petrie — it is evident that hanging on to this symbolism as a representative history codifies prejudice, and shapes corporate, institutional identity.

Does the current manifestation of UCL truly want to be defined by the preservation of the legacy and association with Galton? And if it does, why does it? What does preserving the symbolism of these deeply problematic, often wrong, and on balance less significant than this investigation warrants, men? They are some among many.

Why should their names be privileged and memorialised over all others? What are the terms for significance and commemoration in perpetuity now? In every era, reign, periodization of trends, administration or governance symbols and representative agents have come in and out of favour. It need not be erasure, total or even rejection, but simply a rebalancing. It is our duty to preserve the history, to analyse the legacy and unpick the symbolism and its significance in each era it exists and to do so critically – but we do not need to replicate a partial version of history.


Current access to Galton Collection here: via Science Collection pages here: which also highlights a page on the Quincunx here: and the box of hair samples here:

UCL Galton Collection’ Online Catalogue – Search Form  – (accessed via Google – currently can’t locate it within UCL Culture pages)

 >> For the objects I mentioned type eyes, hair or eugenics into the search form.

2015 Galton collections pages from UCL website are available here, via the UCL Life Study web pages

2011 Library exhibition here:

The Typecast materials (videos and presentations) from 2011 by Debbie Challis remain the best capture, to date, of the issues around UCL’s relationship with Galton and Eugenics

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?


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:

 [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.

 [4]Joanna Drucker on ‘capta’ in 2011 – Drucker, J. (2011) ‘Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, 5(1). Available at: (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.

Links and Legacy: Galton Collection at UCL

This is a link to a timeline charting the departmental, staff and location changes in the history of Francis Galton’s association and subsequent legacy at UCL. As such, it is partial, selective and far from complete; it is not intended to be a comprehensive account of Galton’s life or work, for example biographical, scientific and publication details are largely missing.

The purpose is to visualise and explore the relationship between Galton, the various manifestations of the Laboratory and the material that now forms the Galton Collection at UCL, as part of a case study for my doctoral research. All media is linked back to the original source.


B&M Image

BRICKS + MORTALS: A history of eugenics told through buildings  Hear the story of UCL’s pioneering eugenicists through the landmark buildings and spaces named after them. Bricks+Mortals turns the buildings of the Bloomsbury campus into an exhibition, uncovering a history hidden in plain sight.

I was very happy to be able to put some of my (slightly excessive) research to good use and help a bit with this excellent project. So many thanks to curator and colleague Subhadra Das for the fulsome credits!

Project page here:

Full podcast for the walking tour here:  – it’s well worth a listen.

A Curator’s Adventures in Documentation Land

Some first thoughts on museum documentation at the Galton Collection at UCL. Reposted from the UCL’s Museums and Collections Blog , February 2016 A Curator’s Adventures in Documentation Land

One of the most controversial collections at UCL is, of course, the Galton Collection. Francis Galton, with his notorious interest in improving humans by selective breeding, or eugenics – the term he coined – is a problematic figure, and preserving a collection of artifacts associated with him for posterity and within the context of the modern university, is troubling. Every element of the way in which he and his collection are presented requires careful consideration.

Over the past year I have been working on the documentation of the collection with the curator, Subhadra Das. I selected the Galton Collection online catalogue as the focus of a case study for my doctoral research. Subhadra and I have been carrying out various practical tasks to improve the collection’s documentation – or filing as it is also known – and any number of other post-it based displacement activities under the guise of “creating order”. Luckily, we are both in agreement that stationery is the cornerstone of all great intellectual inquiry.

The working title of my research topic has been “What’s missing (from museum object records)?” but inevitably the question has shifted and multiplied – why is information missing, what information about objects do we expect to see, what do museum documentation professionals record and why, if they know other things why don’t they reference them?

For many, first contact with museum objects is through the online catalogue and I had been directed towards the Galton Collection for a class I was auditing. Online I had immediate access to the information about each object, a nice clear image and an authoritative source. A quick click through the various entries, a close look at the terms and advanced search features and I was done, with the feeling that there wasn’t much to see here. The information was dry and brief, the objects seemed not to have much aesthetic merit, and science and the personal and professional debris of dead white men isn’t really my thing. On to the next bit of pre-seminar preparation.

In the class itself the contrast was striking. Subhadra had brought along a selection of objects to present and discuss the ethical issues that collecting, keeping and preserving them raised. She did her thing; explaining what was known about the objects and relating them to Galton’s life and work, his relationship to UCL and to the history of eugenics, moving from the relatively uncontroversial (the prototype weather map) to the deeply disturbing box of hair samples with its visual hierarchy of genetic indicators of race (or rather a measuring tool for racism). And so the collections came alive, the objects causing reaction and debate – they are contentious, difficult, the implications of their use horrific. But how do we understand or communicate what is going on with an object using its online record?

What appears to be a yawning chasm between the content and presentation of online object records and the enormity of what was signified by the objects in the collection, might prove a useful space for my examination of what’s missing from records and why. For the Galton collection, would more information simply elevate the objects to an iconic status – their awfulness and awful banality in some cases, becoming titillating rather than salutary? Are they best left alone with a description and measurements – leaving us to research and put the context back together ourselves or to let them languish without comment?


This particular record was deemed suitable for public consumption, maybe not the final, but certainly an acceptable account of the artifact. Is it acceptable? Where is the difficult stuff? And where is the science, the methods, results and conclusions that make clear the function of much of the equipment? All this information exists, just not here in the record.

To a large degree the answer lies in resources. When is there the time to catalogue and re-catalogue and re-catalogue again, to truly, carefully, sensitively explain, reflect on and reframe these objects, indeed is an object record the best place for that to happen? As Subhadra has said, approaching the complexity of these objects and their significance, the implications of their use and the terrible oppressions and social control that they facilitate, requires time and consideration. In concentrating on the records I feel dislocated not only from the objects (I am, surprisingly, yet to get near to handling an actual artifact in the collection), but from the racist context of many of the objects and of Galton’s work; it is only ever implicit in the records and then, only understood with prior knowledge.

Is the collection better dealt with in a book or exhibition? Debbie Challis, formerly Curator of the Galton Collection, and her team worked on this during the 2011 Galton Centenary at UCL, with the Typecast exhibition and subsequently her book, The Archeology of Race. Her counsel that transparency is the way forward seems right. I would extend this to transparency not just about the collection, but about the processes of record keeping, the choices about what information to present, who authored the records, how have they changed and why.

Publication online has seemingly made the records easily accessible; therefore the objects and the ideas and histories they represent, by extension, must surely be accessible too. But are they? More access online has undoubtedly led to more exhibitions, research, discussion and engagement (there is a demonstrable rise in loan requests from 2005 onwards when the records were made available online) – but the records still sin by omission.

The files are nice and orderly though.