‘Decolonising the Archive’ workshop report: challenging ‘otherness’ and inherent hierarchies

By Mary Wills, Wilberforce Institute

Organised by the Antislavery Usable Past and funded under the auspices of the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward Through the Past’ theme, the ‘Archives into the Future’ seminar series has provided a forum for creative debate about the issues facing archives today. The final workshop in the series was held at Friends House in London on 26 March 2019. The theme for consideration and discussion was ‘Decolonising the Archive’.

possible antislavery delegation in london (small)
‘No Caption [anti-slavery delegation to London?]’, part of the Alice Seeley Harris collection, 1911-12, courtesy of Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

The issue of decolonising institutions has received increasing attention, with demands that universities, museums and other institutions interrogate assumptions and challenge frameworks that prioritise Eurocentric perspectives. The writing of history is a powerful tool, tied to issues of identity and representation – who writes it, who is included and who is excluded from the story invariably reflects the inequalities of the society within which that history is produced. The workshop considered these themes in relation to the production and use of archives. Archives care for the past, and bear testimony to what was. But they remain contested territory – how can they be utilised to confront history and assumed knowledge in new and challenging ways? How can they be used to write better, broader, fairer histories? Around sixty delegates exchanged ideas on themes associated with decolonisation in a varied programme that included short presentations from archivists, librarians, curators, community activists, academics, artists and educators.

What is an archive? What is considered a ‘valuable’ collection? These were questions raised early in conversations. Maxine Miller from Tate Library and Archive discussed the Panchayat Collection held by Tate, and the work towards, in her words, ‘archiving action, capturing activism’. Panchayat is an archive of ephemera – books, exhibition catalogues, reports, slides – and therefore not an archive in the traditional sense of the term. However, the collection is an invaluable previously undocumented history of marginalised groups, documenting the work of Black and Asian artists who have addressed issues of intersectionality around race, gender, sexuality, class and (dis)ability. The collection is regarded as an important link between modern art, activism and resistance, and has been utilised by the Women of Colour Index (WOCI) Reading Group, in their aim to improve the visibility of women of colour artists whilst using archival material to generate discussion and practice around current social and political concerns. WOCI’s work was introduced at the workshop by co-founder Samia Malik. Dr Emma Battell Lowman also addressed ideas about the meaning of an ‘archive’ in her presentation about what decolonisation signifies in the context of relationships within Indigenous Studies in North America. She called for shifts in perspectives, based on reciprocity and relationality as key principles of Indigenous research. Fundamentally, she argued, archives are ‘places’, webs of relationships developed through engagement with text and records.

These relationships – and especially questions of rights and ownership – were explored further in presentations which addressed the complex associations between institutions and the archives they hold. Jenny Shaw and Shelley Angelie Saggar discussed manuscripts and artwork held by Wellcome Collection produced in the course of empire and exploration, and explained how the institution is starting to address how to proactively confront the problematic legacies associated with such colonial collections. One important consideration they raised was: whose voices are directing the conversations we’re taking? Melissa Bennett from the Museum of London stressed the privileges granted to researchers studying at the administrative centre of an empire, and our responsibilities to share research and reach out to those whose stories are told through the records. Her presentation appealed for the unification of archives dispersed and disrupted by colonialism, as exemplified by the disparate visual archive of the West India Regiments. Melissa also discussed the need for institutions, and those who work for them, to catalogue papers responsibly, to challenge colonial stereotypes in their descriptions rather than reinforce them.

The Equiano Project was a collaborative project between The Equiano Society and Birmingham City Council in 2007 to highlight the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. The project features in the Remembering 1807 archive.

A key theme of the workshop was the need to give voice to silences in the archive. Jody Butterworth from the British Library introduced the work of the Endangered Archives Programme, which, working with local partners, acts to digitally preserve archives at risk around the world, ensuring they remain accessible to local populations. Through museum tours and publications, Miranda Lowe from the Natural History Museum has been working to excavate the stories of unknown people of colour whose important contributions to natural history and science have been neglected or overwritten. Graman Kwasi, for example, a Surinamese freedman, was an influential botanist. Miranda called for museums and heritage organisations to bring out more of these hidden stories. Arthur Torrington provided detail of his work with the Equiano Society to unearth the story of Olaudah Equiano, the leading African figure in the British movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century. The colonial context of the archive and its creator was explored by Tamsin Bookey of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives in her presentation ‘White saviours, Black archives’, which addressed problematic subjectivity in the papers of Edith Ramsay, the educationalist and community worker who served on the Colonial Office Advisory Committee in the post-war period. Tamsin gave examples of how manuscripts detailing Ramsay’s work to improve conditions for immigrants in Stepney’s “Coloured Quarter” are an under-utilised source for the study of Black experience in mid-century London; proving that while archive creators may be associated with colonialism, with careful research the subaltern voice can come to the fore.

These stories concern national identity but also local identity: Arthur Torrington, for example, stressed how important Equiano’s story is for local African-Caribbean communities, in the recording and interpretation of their own stories. Muhammad Ahmedullah from Brick Lane Circle explained how his organisation aims to transform the intellectual landscape of the Bangladeshi community in the UK. Engagement with, in his words, ‘the powers of history’ is considered a necessity, as such groups have in the past been subjected to marginalisation, the recipients of outsiders’ interpretations rather than the recorders of their own stories. One Brick Lane Circle project saw young Londoners exploring the hidden histories associated with the East India Company. Jennifer Vickers and Hannah Niblett introduced the community-led collecting work of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust in Manchester. In collaboration and co-production with community groups, the power of the archive is ‘decentred’, as groups select and frame their own narratives, and as a result, diverse stories are collected that often aren’t documented anywhere else. Trust is key, in that communities must not feel excluded once the first funding process is over.

Mr Harris with Stanley's Camera (1)
‘Mr. Harris with Stanley’s camera’, part of the Alice Seeley Harris collection, 1911-12, courtesy of Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

The final session of the day discussed ‘Congo Antislavery Visual Culture’, a new digital collection launched on the Antislavery Usable Past website. As introduced by Dr Katie Donington, one strand of this project has digitised and interpreted the collection of late-nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs produced by Alice Seeley Harris, a British missionary working in the Congo Free State when under the personal ownership of King Leopold II of Belgium. The photographs are currently held by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. A community-based partnership with Yole!Africa, an arts-based education organistion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has led to new interpretations of the visual archive by young people in Goma and Lubumbashi, through the creation of a photographic exhibition and learning resources. The historical images were produced to raise awareness of colonial atrocities, but racial discourses are implicit; the project is therefore framed by a critical engagement with issues of agency, representation and identity. As Yole!Africa Directors Dr Chérie Rivers Ndaliko and Petna Ndaliko contended, the project is about reasserting control over who gets to decide the meaning of the past. Another strand of the ‘Congo Antislavery Visual Culture’ collection features photographs of Kongolese individuals and families by photographer Letitia Kamayi. Letitia explained how her desire to learn more about her past through images of her ancestors evolved into a broader exploration of the Congolese narrative in the UK, through the creation of a visual, inclusive archive, which aims to counterbalance other colonial images of Congolese identity.

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One of a series of photographs produced by young people in Goma and Lubumbashi in response to the original archive of Alice Seeley Harris images. These images formed part of an exhibition which took place at the Congo International Film Festival which was held at Yole!Africa in Goma in July 2018.

One overriding issue throughout discussions was the lack of resources afforded to institutions and organisations to address calls for decolonisation, both in terms of funding for acquisition of collections and human resources. Decolonisation is still considered ‘optional’; while institutions claim diverse and inclusive practice, there are still budgetary constraints on thorough and active explorations of the issues. There was also a demand for a change to recruitment practices to address underemployment of BAME professionals in the heritage sector. Investment is required to give people of colour space for training, upskilling and equitable representation, and for institutions to develop ethnically diverse audiences. Museum Detox is an excellent example of the campaigning work being done in this area, and several members of the network were in attendance.

The workshop offered a timely reminder that ‘history’ is not just an academic discipline but offers a way to understand the world. Archives are a vital part of our cultural heritage, providing users with a sense of identity, connection, locality and pride. However, the archive by its nature is not neutral: the existence, preservation, and availability of archives, documents and records are historically determined by the powerful, and many groups have found themselves excluded or ignored from the official narrative. Participants called for new approaches to archival concepts and practices – including accountability, diversity, community and user participation – in recognition of these concerns. Indeed, an appeal from several participants was that the workshop needed a franker, more critical and challenging discussion about the legacies and impact of white supremacy, racism and imperialism, and how archives can play a part in agency and resistance. This workshop, therefore, enabled conversations about how archives must continue to illuminate diverse histories; how they are essential to preservation and the persistence of memory but must also be celebrated as agents of transformation and change.

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