Decolonising the Database

Decolonising the Database

Part 2: A Poor Curator Blames Her Tools

This second post summarising the presentation I gave at Decolonising the Database looks at future work. You can read part one on the history of documentation practice here.

The second element of my DYCP project was exploring the potential of new technologies to help us to tackle our collections documentation challenges. With the previous histories covered in the previous post in mind, how can digital advances help us to break away from the past?  

Museums tend to get excited about potential innovations such as:

  • Crowd-sourcing
  • Linked open data
  • AI

As with historical practices, thinking about who is creating and using these tools is important. Crowd-sourcing projects tend to attract a tiny audience of a very narrow demographic (surprise! its a often a few older, white men). Linked open data has the potential to create meaningful connections across museum collections. However the data we have in our systems is lacking at best, as I will explain. Similarly with AI, tools will be influenced by the people developing them and the data they are training on. 

It’s also worth noting that projects using these tools are frequently the work of Digital Humanities scholars who are interested in the possibilities of collections data for further scholarship, rather than people who are trying to do the work of managing a collection. 

So what’s so bad about the data in our systems? 

Racial slurs and dehumanising images

During the last few months while thinking about how museums are dealing with problematic terms in their databases, I have searched publicly available collections and found examples of racial slurs. I have decided not to reproduce examples here or in the presentation I gave. It is enough to know that these are not obscure antiquated words that we are not familiar with, but words that everyone knows to be harmful and offensive.  Sometimes these are reproduced with no warning and no context. They are not inscribed on the object, but just casually there as part of the historic description because that’s how normalised racist language was at the time. That it was written in the first place doesn’t shock me. But that someone transcribed it into the database and then cleared it for web publication is a concern.

The other thing I have seen, again on public collections databases, is extremely dehumanising images of people in ethnographic collections. Women who have clearly been made to undress for the camera because their skirts are visible around their ankles. We should ask ourselves would these images be so freely reproduced if they were white European women? What would the public reaction be?

Museums are the guardians of some extremely sensitive material. Of course there is an argument that we should not have it, and in an ideal world it would never have been produced, but in the current reality we have been tasked with caring for it and need to do so with the utmost consideration to minimising harm. Temi Odumosu’s article The Crying Child On Colonial Archives, Digitization, and Ethics of Care in the Cultural Commons which Ananda Rutherford referred to in her presentation, is essential reading on the ethics around such collections.

Poor information

Sometimes information is not harmful, it is just wrong. We have been taught that the research done, and the knowledge held by historic curators is trustworthy, and that they were specialists and learned experts in their fields. Of course they, like us, are fallible. In many cases where they were experts, they were trained within white supremacist systems. They did not have any meaningful knowledge or experience of the cultures which they were curating.

Today we know that museum staff are a homogenous bunch. We are not diverse and therefore we do not have a diverse breadth of cultural reference points. 

In 2020 a journalist spotted that the British Museum had a listing for what they called the largest producer of postcards in Turkey. In fact it is a Turkish phrase meaning ‘all rights reserved’

I don’t know when this person record was created, or who did it, and I am not suggesting that everyone who catalogues should be fluent in every language they encounter. But critical thinking and doing one more google could have saved embarrassment here. 

Unexamined Bias

As I have tried to illustrate in my short history of documentation, what’s in our databases is the sum of all of the curators and collections managers who have worked in our museums before.  They had biases and agendas, they were recording information about collections which helped them to tell the story they wanted to tell. 

As well as thinking about which perspectives are missing, we need to think about which are overrepresented, and what that has done to our datasets. 

As these contemporary stock images of curators show,  the stereotypical curator has now changed from an older man with mutton chops to a younger white woman. 

On the subject of white women, I wanted to talk briefly about how I named my project ‘Collections data: adapting the master’s tools’ after Audre Lorde. I wanted to focus on the idea of tools, but what Lorde means is more nuanced and is about systems. In the essay she is talking about the way white feminists can repeat the behaviours of patriarchal systems in continuing to exclude women of colour and other marginalised people.

Slide showing a quotation from Audre Lorde: What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable...For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Having said that, we need to talk about actual tools. 

Slide showing the phrase 'a poor workman blames his tools'

I do think museums as a sector tend to blame the tools and templates that we are working within, as an excuse for inaction and slow change. Databases can be reconfigured, the way fields are used can be adapted, procedures can be changed if there is the will to change.

Slide that says: In other words, There are systems that need decolonising, but they are not the computer systems. We need to understand and unpick museum systems

If we stop blaming the tools, what can we change?

Who is given access to the tools

It is not the literal tools that are the problem, it is who is wielding them, and who has done so since the beginning of museums. Our staff remain overwhelmingly white, middle class, following the same path from BA to MA to volunteering to curatorial work. We do need to diversify the workforce. But in the meantime, if you are working in museums and fit the profile above, you can take action to increase your cultural competence. You can read more, listen to people, pay attention to perspectives that are outside of your comfort zone. You can create space for voices from outside the museum to be treated with the same respect as the traditional curatorial voice.

Within your institution, whose voice gets recorded in the database? How are you gatekeeping who gets to contribute?

How we are trained to use them

Documentation professionals work within the Spectrum standards and can blame Spectrum for our lack of progress. Waiting for specific guidance on decolonial cataloguing to come from the Collections Trust or other authority is another delay tactic. Spectrum is not prescriptive – the scope is there to change the way we work within these standards.

Documentation is still treated like a data entry task, except with less rigour than was expected of me when I used to type the information required to change 35 bank customers’ statement dates an hour. Data entry work does require skill, and attention to detail, but collections documentation should also require critical thinking (and self-awareness of our own knowledge gaps – see above).

Change your approach to training colleagues in documentation. Everyone who works with collections should know how to use the CMS (properly!). But new colleagues should also be taught about the history of the collections in their museum. You cannot decolonise a museum if you do not understand the colonial contexts that created it. You need to understand the bias of the past if you are going to work to rectify it. 

How we maintain them

We do not place value on the information we hold about collections. Basic documentation has been neglected and this has prevented us from moving forward with more progressive practice.

The only remedy to this is for museums to prioritise and resource documentation work.

The problem is not the database, its what we put in it

We have treated the database as a tool to store objective facts about collections – measurements, locations, practicalities, and information that is accepted as objective, because someone described as an expert said it. We have neglected to record information that does not fit this mould – narratives in exhibition text, viewpoints from outside the dry curatorial voice. 

We can reimagine the database. This is not new, multiple perspectives and nuanced narratives around collections have already been imagined, but we have to do the work to document them with the same respect we have documented the ‘expert’ opinions of the curators of the past.

My final call to action is actually a call to slow down – Museums, please don’t rush into digital projects without working critically on your records. You may be perpetuating harm.