Cataloguing Standards

Decolonising the Archive: Responsibilities for Researchers and Archive Professionals (Part II)

Write responsibly. Do not absorb the errors of the past but correct them.

Finally, as archivists and researchers it is important that our writing does not entrench the errors of the past but aims to correct them in order to make collections, and writing about them, more accessible and inclusive. I recently worked on an exhibition with a community partner and, during the initial object selection phase, spent a lot of time with a museum’s collections management system and library catalogue. Some of the things I saw shocked me. In records referring to prints and drawings that include people of African descent, the word ‘negro’ was still being used to describe people. One object’s description used the word ‘negro’ four times in one sentence. Initially I thought that the records might have been old, or that someone had directly typed what had earlier been on a card index. Unfortunately, the records dated from 2007 when a large amount of material connected to African Caribbean history had been accessioned. I was disturbed at what I had found, but was glad that it was me, and not the community partner from a West African heritage organisation, who had found these records.

A search for the word ‘negro’ in the description field of all records found 99 instances where it had been used in this way, not in the title (which could arguably have been copied from the original), but in the description written by the cataloguer. Words like this are not just words. They symbolise oppression and degradation for the very communities that heritage organisations are struggling to attract. Organisations need to do better at engaging with these audiences, and checking databases for the appropriate use of language can be done quickly. Edits may take time but are essential if we are to bring collections databases out of the colonial past. For guidance on potentially sensitive and offensive words, archivists can consult Words Matter, ‘an unfinished guide to word choices in the cultural sector’ compiled by the Netherland’s National Museum for World Cultures (Tropenmuseum, Afrikamuseum, Museum Volkenkunde). The guide can be used as a starting point to discuss words that may feature in your archives, and begin searching your databases to edit or contextualise them. You can also consider adding words that might be missing. In cases where these words are direct quotes from historical documents or titles, they should always be placed between inverted commas.

When working with colonial collections, particularly archival documents, it is easy to become over familiar with, and absorb the language they use. To counter this, add an extra step to your proof reading process. Just as you check for spelling mistakes, grammar, and repetition, check your word choice and use of language, and be very wary of unconscious bias. Are there sentences where your language implies the superiority of colonial authorities or western culture? For example, ‘the African soldiers were unable to speak English’ should be written as ‘the English and African soldiers did not share a common language’.


Archives can be decolonised if archive professionals and researchers work together to uncover evidence of colonialism and take steps to remedy it. Where colonialism has separated archives, they should be unified, at least digitally. Researchers have the responsibility to inform the archives that they are working with when they find corresponding material elsewhere. Archives should be shared with the communities to whom they are most relevant, especially when those communities do not have the funds or means to access the archive in its current state. In some cases, this could mean returning items to their source communities, but should at least mean working with those communities to re-define and re-purpose the materials. Archivists and researchers can collaborate to identify these communities and work with them to develop engagement projects. Finally, when writing catalogue entries, blogs, or articles, we must proof our work to pull out any colonial language that has crept in due to over familiarity with such words. Likewise, it is vital to check for unconscious bias, in case we have inadvertently reproduced the tones and assumptions of the colonial period when describing different groups of people, their languages, cultures, and customs.

Archives can be decolonised and made more attractive and accessible to all communities. Researchers and archivists must work together to achieve this.

<< back to part I of the article

Peers, L. and Brown, A. K. (2009), ‘“Just By Bringing These Photographs..”: On the Other Meanings of Anthropological Images’, in Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton (eds.), Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame (Farnham, Ashgate).

Decolonising the Archive: Responsibilities for Researchers and Archive Professionals (Part I)


Researchers and archivists working on colonial collections face a number of challenges arising from the historical contexts of these materials: where they came from, how they were brought together (or separated), and who has been their custodian. In these circumstances, it is important that contemporary professionals do not repeat or entrench the mistakes of the past. In today’s climate, where it is no longer possible to ignore or silence the debates around decolonising collections and the repatriation of objects, high-profile institutions are having to act, and researchers and archive professionals have a responsibility to respond to the missteps of past generations.

Firstly, we must share the archives we use or care for with the people to whom they relate, allowing them to access what was lost or in most cases taken from them. Secondly, we have a responsibility to re-connect archives that have been dispersed and disrupted by colonialism. Finally, we have to write responsibly: rather than absorbing the errors of the past, we need to correct them. Researchers and archivists need to work together to fulfil these responsibilities, and this article outlines some ways to do so, with examples from both my own research and the wider field.

Share your archive with the people it relates to. Connect them with what they have lost/what has been taken from them.

The clearest and most radical way to connect audiences in former colonies with what they have lost is the repatriation and restitution of objects. Several institutions have begun to explore this. Recently the National Army Museum in London returned locks of hair belonging to Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia. Similarly, among a number of projects, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is engaged in an ongoing collaboration with the Maasai community, which has so far led not only to the repatriation of objects but also to a re-framing of how other objects are described and displayed.

Like museums, archives are also repositories of items such as documents, photographs, and letters. They too should work with researchers to determine how their collections may have created noticeable and unjust absences elsewhere. In some cases, it may be necessary to ‘return’ items or at least replicate and make them accessible to the communities from which they were (sometimes forcibly) removed. Archives may hold the letters of someone’s relatives, photographs of their ancestors, or documents that give otherwise lost insights into their family history, good or bad.

This was the case when Elizabeth Blackwood, an Oxford researcher, took referentially anthropometric photographs of the Kainai people of Alberta, Canada, back to that community during a visual repatriation project. The photographs allowed the Kainai people to tell stories of their past without using ‘the words of the white man’ which were the only previous physical records. Attaching their own stories to the photographs helped them to preserve their histories (Peers and Brown, 2009, p. 266). Many of the repatriated photographs are now used in genealogical histories and act as visual prompts for stories that were usually oral. Elizabeth Edwards writes that ‘visual repatriation is about finding a present for historical photographs’ and that working with photographs in this way also helps to democratise the use of collections, forcing institutions to reconsider whether they are the true owners of such items (Peers and Brown, 2009, p. 266).

Personally, as a researcher situated in what was once the centre of an empire, I have had privileged access both to material that is not available in its country of origin, and to a number of grants, travel bursaries, and other streams of funding that have allowed me to visit archives that are inaccessible to my peers based in former colonies. By building partnerships with archives and museums in the Caribbean, I have been able to connect my research with the communities to whom it was most relevant. Rather than waiting to share the final version of my thesis or academic papers, I shared information about photographs that I had found in other collections across the UK, USA, and Caribbean. As a result, the newly opened military museum at Newcastle in Jamaica was able to feature in their permanent displays photographs from an album that I had viewed in Yale’s Beinecke Library. It was important for the Jamaica Defence Force to access and own these images to better connect them to their own history. If I had waited until my thesis was published three years later, it would not have been possible for the images to be incorporated into the displays.

Re-connect archives that have been dispersed and disrupted by colonialism.

When working on disparate archives, it is common to find items that are replicated across a number of institutions. This is perhaps particularly true of photographs and printed materials of which numerous copies would have circulated throughout the British (or another European) Empire. In some cases, though, you may find parts of an archive in one institution and parts in another. As a researcher, it may be satisfying to find different pieces of the puzzle in different places, but how often do you inform those institutions of what you have found elsewhere? When carrying out research at the National Library of Jamaica, I came across an album compiled by Richard Glynn Vivian, who toured the Caribbean in the 1860s. The album contained three photographs of individual soldiers of the West India Regiment, one of which has been digitised and can be viewed online. After researching Glynn Vivian, I discovered that he was a prolific collector and that his entire collection was bequeathed to what is now the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea, Wales. When I contacted the gallery to ask about corresponding materials in their collection, it transpired that they were unaware that a Jamaica scrapbook existed. I was able to connect them with the relevant curator in Jamaica to find out more about the album, thereby improving their knowledge of Glynn Vivian’s time in the Caribbean.

The gallery had another three of his albums, but few other materials related to his Jamaica trip. However, they put me in touch with the institution that holds Glynn Vivian’s diaries. In them, he had recorded the exact moment when he had purchased these photographs. In a diary entry for 10 February 1869, Glynn Vivian writes ‘arrived at Barbados…Had a Glory of the Morning at Ice House. Bought photos of Black Soldiers’. Through the connections I made during my research I was able to bring together archivists with an ocean between them, enabling them to better understand their own collections and better tell the stories of those featured in them.

Academic researchers uncover links and correlations between collections all the time. However, this aspect of their work is rarely shared explicitly in any publications. Working together with archive professionals, they should raise awareness of these connections and share knowledge that could help others to better understand the colonial links between institutions and individuals that are often lying just beneath the surface.

>> proceed to part II of the article