Developing Museum Practice by Adapting the Master’s Tools

This month I am starting a year long research and development project funded by the Arts Council England’s Developing Your Creative Practice grant scheme. I named my project ‘Collections Data: Adapting the Master’s Tools’ in reference to Audre Lorde’s essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’. The master’s house metaphor has been referenced in recent discussions of the need to decolonise museums, notably in Sumaya Kassim’s article The Museum is the Master’s House: An Open Letter to Tristram Hunt.

For my project I wanted to turn my attention from the master’s house to the ‘tools’ which we in museums use to record, catalogue and share information about our collections. I was inspired in part by Teju Cole’s article When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.) which details the colonial desire to capture and record, through photography, everything found ‘out there’ in colonised countries, for the benefit of those ‘back home’. The parallels with museums, both in the desire to collect and record, was obvious. I began to think about how cataloguing itself was part of the colonial act. If the museum is the Master’s House, the master’s tools are the camera, the label, the index cards, used to categorise and organise objects, peoples and stories to fit into the worldview of the collector and curator.

If the act of cataloguing is problematic, it doesn’t remove the need to manage information about our collections somehow. Long before I started thinking about the implications of documentation as an ideological tool, I was obsessed, and still am, with the fact that museums do not know where everything is. We do not know what everything is, or where we got it from. We are not in a fit state to answer questions about decolonisation and repatriation if we cannot answer these simple questions about what we have. This reality is reflected in a recent New York Times article on the state of museum collections in storage in Germany. While the picture painted in the article is bleak, it is at least refreshing to see high profile museums owning up to their problems. One of the most revealing passages details how German museums have fallen behind in ‘…innovations, like digital inventories, that museums in other countries embraced years ago…In interviews, curators at the Ethnological Museum said some collections still use card catalogs from the 1960s, or even handwritten 19th-century ledgers.’ I would add that while most UK museums have ’embraced’ digital inventories as a goal, many are still struggling to complete basic documentation of their collections. Faced with funding cuts they then abandon this less glamourous work in favour of flashy digital projects and pubic engagement outcomes, ignoring the fact that having access to an inventory of their collections would exponentially increase and invigorate what they can offer in terms of engagement.

As I see it, museums need to reflect on the tools they use to manage their collections, or rather how they deploy those tools. I am not coming at this problem from an academic point of view, nor from that of a digital expert. I am someone who works with objects, with collections databases, and with all the registers, labels, index cards, and scraps of paper in between. I am aware that museums are underfunded and understaffed. I am not in a position to change or fix all the tools we have to look after our collections, or create new ones. I am not in a position to dismantle the master’s house – I still think museums have potential to be a positive force if they can adapt. What I hope to achieve in the next 12 months is to find examples of museums who are tackling these problems at the heart of their collections, to learn from them and to build up resources to share, to demonstrate the value that considered, strategic and dynamic collections documentation work can have.