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 In cases where these words are direct quotes from historical documents or titles, they should always be placed between inverted commas.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).

Archive in Practice: An imagined exhibition

 Part one: Archive in Practice

One dimension of photography is that it is concerned with the staging of a struggle against the loss of memory – an attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good.[1] Gerhard Richter

These reflections by artist Gerhard Richter, encapsulate the very reason why I was lured into working with the medium. “An attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good”… Photography frames subjective experience in time. The act of taking a photograph is a highly romantic gesture – it captures a frame in time, which then becomes a fragment, isolated from its whole.

(Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

3.2 The View. 2006 [2011]. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 77 x 46cm. Edition of 3 + 2 AP. (Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

Every single photograph that I have ever taken contributes to an organically growing archive of irretrievable past defined in pictorial representation. This archive is the foundation of my art practice whereby the images within it become subject to constant reinterpretation and reconfiguration.

Acts of Recall, [sort excerpt], 2015, 16:9, colour, 14 min, 36 seconds, video still

By continually retrieving earlier photographs and combining them with more recent pictures, I explore new sets of formal connections and narrative relationships, which then surfaces other imagery or elements. In this way, my work reflects upon the transitory nature of meaning and memory, thereby amplifying the paradox of photography.

Drifting Down, [The Dome], 2012. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnem Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 100x100cm. Edition of 5 + 2 Ap

I am working with an acutely active archive, one that is constantly expanding physically as I continue to take pictures using analogue film in combination with digital printing processes. However, it is the emotional impact of each of these pictures that cause my archive to function and how they evoke and interact with my own memory. The enduring questions are:

How does one preserve content in an archive that is driven by “the felt”, the narrative and the poetic?

 How does one organise and manage the content in an archive that is continually changing in meaning and has endless manifestations, inter-relationships and formal and narrative connections?

All The Gardens I Could Find – Installation View
Blindside, Melbourne, 2016.

 I explore these themes through projects and exhibitions. Through the use of installation strategies I create pictorial and spatial structures that often function as a visual and temporal representation of the archival process and the concept of the catalogue as a completed physical item.

I playfully present photographs from my archive as a composite experience across a gallery space, thematically arranged, described and in constant dialogue with one another. This is realized through using colour, components of text and careful placement of the works in relation to the architecture of the gallery space. I usually include mechanisms for storing, reimaging or archiving like boxes, tables, folders, envelopes, and frames as a way of suggesting that the order is not fixed, and that the material is always in a state of being sorted through and processed – meaning is always in a constant state of flux.

Series 5: Overlaps – Garden Green and Sky Blue. Installation View Detail. Blindside, Melbourne 2016.

  For When All the Leaves Will Fall (Chiang Mai, Thailand) 2016 (2015)
  Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 54x37cm.
  Edition of 5 + 2 Ap.

Through working in collection institutions like the State Library of Victoria and the British Library as my day job, I have been exposed to institutional workflows and archival tools and processes used to manage and preserve collection material and to make it accessible and discoverable for users. I have been inspired by the principles of archival arrangement and description and systems used to store, display and handle collections. This day-to-day engagement has undoubtedly woven into my own methodology.

The second half of this article for Archivoz, takes on the form of an imagined exhibition where archival tools and principles are employed to organize and display the works, as well as to amplify readings concerned with the fragmentary. The concept of the archive is also used as a metaphor for representation of the inner workings of the mind.

The Course of Leaving [Of course I will be Leaving]. 2010.
Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta. 60x40cm


Part two: An Imagined Exhibition

A single table is positioned across the centre of the gallery, causing the room to be split into two parts. The dimension of this table permits only just enough space for the viewer to move around it and access the other half of the gallery.

The table’s surface acts as a carrier of meaning. Upon this surface, lay fragments of images – unmounted, unframed and resting in piles, that seem to be assembled into groupings according to colour, pictorial content and geometric forms. The surface layer of pictorial content is presented to the viewer, while the photographs embedded underneath are concealed by the nature of the pile. These deeper layers suggest a personal content that is not accessible.

For Proust, the deepest most profound memories really need to have been “lost” by being gradually covered over by other memories…[2]…. Embedded underneath the surface layers of the pile are ‘the true emotional tone of the past

The viewer enters the space through the whiteness and emptiness, being lured toward the zone of the table by the fragments of deep and vivid colors revealed between sheets of creamy white paper and manila folders that evoke the sense of residue that has accumulated over the years. In this structure, the pile is a metaphor for The Ruin and one of the beauties of a Ruin is its ability to be re-constructed.

The space in the back half of the gallery (behind the table) is roused by activity – large scale photographs, evocative and contemplative are assembled onto the whiteness of the walls – activating them with colour, light and image.

“Archives are seen as rows and rows of boxes on shelves, impenetrable without the codex which unlocks their arrangement and location”[3]. In this pictorial structure, it is as though the contents of the archive have emerged from their boxes and folders in storage and are undergoing a process of renewal, construction and re-construction.

A code of access is provided for the viewer, through the visual dialogue that operates between the piles of information laid out on the table and the photographs on the walls. Memory is used here as a device: through the use of installation strategies like repetition, groupings, rhythms, contrasts in scale – the viewers’ own memory can be evoked.

As the viewer passes through the area around the table to access the back half of the gallery, they will encounter a Finding Aid, which invites them to go deeper into uncovering further layers of content, through the descriptive information listed at item level.

The archive presented here is fluid, flowing, and its content discoverable through the act of slowing down and paying attention to the subtle codes revealed visually through the careful placement of works throughout the space.

 A Room for Ordering Memory. 2012. Installation View. Counihan Gallery, Melbourne.

For futher information: 

[1] Gerhard R. (2010). Between Translation and Invention: The Photograph in Deconstruction. In Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[2] Gross, D. (2000). Lost Time – On Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.

 [3] Breakwell, S. (Spring 2008). Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive. In Tate Papers 9. Retrieved from