Collections, part two - Museums Association

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Collections, part two

Cataloguing collections

Recognise and challenge the limits of documentation systems. Museum inventories and databases tend to reproduce the outmoded, inaccurate labelling and descriptions of the past. Review, revise and update terminology when cataloguing – see the Language and Terminology section for more information on this.

– Take time to train staff undertaking updates of terminology, and collections tagging and bring in more expertise if needed. Proactively address the risk of reinforcing current outmoded and inaccurate terms, for example tagging collections items as ‘BAME’.

BAME: A decolonial perspective

Racialised people in the UK are frequently labelled BAME, an abbreviation for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. Sometimes it is used as a noun, Bame, like it’s a word with meaning, which it is not. Who exactly is the ‘Bame Community’? Readily adopted by the media, Government, local government and museums, BAME is a catch-all term for anyone who is not White British.

Its use suggests that White British people don’t have ethnicity while Black, brown, mixed race and ‘others’ do. In the pages of equality, diversity and inclusion action plans and policies, many museums and galleries have readily adopted BAME to refer to large swathes of people past and present. The abbreviation has seen exponentially increased use since the summer of 2020 as the UK’s racial reckoning gathered pace following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The indiscriminate use of this term is inaccurate and obliterates cultural experiences and understanding. How can the majority diversity of most of the planet be reduced to four letters? It is othering, pejorative and polarising, and perpetuates white-centredness.

Its use signals a lack of interest or ability to engage with the huge multiplicity of experience of people of colour, whether British or not. The National Portrait Gallery uses BAME as a ‘tag’ for their online collections, resulting in nearly 1,300 portraits of people as diverse as Diane Abbott, the first Black woman elected to the UK Parliament, and Abdul Aziz, the 19th-century Sultan of Turkey. The public-facing keyword is now ‘Diversity’. Neither are particularly helpful for research or interpretation. If cultural background or ethnicity is important, spell it out, learn the words used by those cultures and incorporate those into your documentation and policies.

By Tehmina Goskar, Curatorial Research Centre

Further resources: Following their #BAMEOver Campaign, Inc Arts created a statement for the UK with preferred terms of reference for people.

– Develop collections management systems which can record diverse perspectives in non-hierarchical ways. Explore options for including audio and video content to include oral histories in multiple forms and languages.

– Question how documentation is enabling or preventing people from engaging with collections. Consider how collections systems function for users and how easy these systems are to search.

– Take steps to embed research, display text and other findings into collections management system. Use this as a way to keep new work in the institution’s memory.

– Put collections data where people can genuinely find and use it, and encourage people to use it through marketing and promotion. Explore options for open access data.

– When starting digitisation work, consider ways to prioritise, considering collections related to marginalised identities and items from outside the UK. Contribute to initiatives like the International Inventories Programme.

– The following blog post from Ananda Rutherford offers more insight on this work: Documentation and Decolonisation.

Language, terminology and labelling

Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.

Toni Morrison, 1993 vocality and nuance in how history is told

Reviewing language to ensure that it is accurate, inclusive and up-to-date helps to avoid reproducing a vocabulary that excludes and discriminates. This applies equally to text used in exhibitions, displays and cataloguing, and often involves working across departments within a museum, as well as in consultation with external stakeholders.

The following questions are a starting point to help reappraise or create a text:

  • Does the text treat the coloniser version of history as the only perspective?
  • Does the text recognise the humanity of individuals, groups and communities?
  • Has the text been informed by biases and stereotypes? Does the text use any offensive terms?
  • What other sources of information or narratives could help to provide more context? Who could you work with to develop the text?
  • Are you using clear explanations? Can you avoid using jargon and academic language? Use plain English and clearly explain what you mean and why it matters.
  • Does the text acknowledge how an item or collection was acquired by the museum?
Further resources

There are a number of useful resources which can help you to further identify specific words and language that may require changing in your museum:

– The TropenMuseum in the Netherlands has published a pamphlet called Words Matter which provides a substantial discussion of the issues of language in museums, in addition to a useful glossary of words that the museum is choosing to change within its collections and interpretation.

– The Tate is leading a project called Provisional Semantics which will publish further research on how museums can adapt their language in the context of a digitised national collection.

The Decolonial Dictionary is an ongoing resource that provides an in depth examination of specific terms relating to decolonisation.

– Inc Arts have produced a statement on why arts organisations should cease to use the acronym BAME.

– Alicia Chilcott provides a useful academic discussion of offensive language in archives in her article “Towards protocols for describing racially offensive language in UK public archives”.

Talking about and sharing collections

– Listen first, talk second. Engage in new conversations with communities and build relationships. Front of house colleagues are often well placed and can draw on wide-ranging experience, as shown in our Charter for Change work, to play a leading part in these conversations.

– Think about approaches to collection enquiries and how to make sure these interactions are based on mutual learning and knowledge sharing.

– Work in collaboration to better understand collections, in a process of mutual learning. Amplify, acknowledge and credit marginalised perspectives.

– Reinterpret, review, revise. Find ways to write and talk about collections with people who don’t often get the opportunity to do so. Keep in mind the suggestions from the Collaboration section to support work here.

– Enable collections mobility, including loans to and from a wide range of venues, and between institutions in the Global North and Global South. Be prepared to take risks with collections so as to ensure the widest possible access.

– Prioritise resources to support museums in other countries to receive loans and, where appropriate, to build and share skills and capacity.

Case study: The Making African Connections project

Delivered as a collaboration between a range of partners in the Global North and South, the Making African Connections project researched historic African collections held in Sussex and Kent museums. The project adopted a critical, participatory, practice-based mode of research to build new African connections through digital and co-curation strategies.

The first stage of the project involved researching and digitising 600 items from three specific Africa colonial-era collections, with items from Botswana, Sudan and the Namibia/Angola borderlands. You can find out more about the project and explore the digital archive here.

MAC partners examine the Botswana collection at Royal Pavilion Museums Trust, Brighton [RPMT]
MAC partners examine the Botswana collection at Royal Pavilion Museums Trust, Brighton [RPMT]. (From left Tshepo Skwambane, RPMT, Winani Thebele, National Museum of Botswana and Scobie Lekhutile, Khama III Memorial Museum Serowe)

Developing and caring for collections

– Consider who controls collecting decisions and how these decisions are made.

– Ensure that your collections development policy enables your museum to actively collect underrepresented stories in order to build equitable relationships, and rebalance marginalised narratives.

– Consider carefully whether to collect items that celebrate colonialism, including items that have been removed from the public realm such as statues or plaques. Your response should take into consideration your own
collections development policy, the Code of Ethics, and local community consultation.

– When carrying out fieldwork and developing scientific collections, consider the ethics of fieldwork and how we credit and recognise Indigenous communities.

– Consider who has a stake in disposal processes, especially for material with colonial connections.

– Consider how you can balance current access needs with responsibilities for long-term collections care.

Case study: The Object Journeys programme

The Object Journeys programme aimed to embed more collaborative approaches of creating community-led displays and interpretation. Participating museums across the UK worked with community partners to collaboratively research collections, produce displays and lead events.

One of the Object Journeys projects included a partnership between the British Museum and members of the London Somali community, leading to the development and design of a new display ‘Objects of Survival: the beauty of Somali craftwork’ which remains on display in the museum’s Wellcome Gallery.

Fashioning Africa was the third national Object Journeys partnership project, led by Brighton Museum and Gallery and two community curators, Edith Ojo and Tshepo Skwambane. Forming part of the larger Fashioning Africa project, it worked to address the lack of post-1960’s African fashion and textiles in many museum collections. Find out more about the object journeys projects here.

Project partners Hinda Ibrahim and Hiba Haid conduct an object handling sessions with visitors during Somali Family Day, November 2016
Project partners Hinda Ibrahim and Hiba Haid conduct an object handling sessions with visitors during Somali Family Day, November 2016. Image courtesy of British Museum