Event organiser Helen Mears and speaker Shelley Angelie Saggar report on the recent CDH event ‘Decolonising the Database

Decolonising the Database took place on 5 July 2021 at the University of Brighton. Its aim was to bring together researchers and practitioners working against the grain of the colonial and imperial knowledge frameworks embedded in museum documentation systems to develop more reflexive, multivocal and relational accounts.

The welcome was provided by Anjalie Dalal-Clayton and the event respondent was Kelly Foster. Invited speakers were Ananda Rutherford, Kathleen Lawther, Hannah Turner and Shelley Angelie Saggar. After the event, two of the speakers (Ananda Rutherford and Kathleen Lawther) uploaded their presentations onto their respective blogs, and the perspectives offered by Hannah Turner are partially represented in her recently-published book, Cataloguing Culture, Legacies of Colonialism in Museum Documentation.

Rather than providing a detailed account of the event, then, this post offers some reflections on the broader issues raised from the perspective of two participants: Shelley Angelie Saggar, a speaker at the event and doctoral student researching representations of the museum in Indigenous literature and film, as well as a researcher of culturally sensitive items at the Science Museum, and Helen Mears, one of the event organisers, a museum curator and researcher, previously Keeper of World Art at the Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust, currently Inclusive Collections Officer at Wellcome Collection.

Shelley Angelie Saggar

The call to ‘decolonise’ has reverberated around the world throughout the past few years, reaching a dizzying range of sectors from medicine to museums. As a result, the catch-up game now being played to redress historic wrongs and remedy contemporary elisions. In my research at the Science Museum, I have seen first-hand how museums, particularly science and medicine collections, are often unaware of their enmeshment within systems of knowledge production, legitimisation and power that directly stem from colonial-era ways of thinking. From the retention of ancestors to curatorial gatekeeping, our museums continue to be caught in prohibitive practices that devalue ways of knowing and being that depart from Eurocentric ‘norms’; norms which are themselves derived from racialist and ableist philosophies.

Catalogues and databases illustrate this set of inheritances aptly. The categorisation of beings and material into neatly-delineated boxes refuses more layered understandings of the items in our custody, preventing a fuller understanding. In my research, I have often felt somewhat embarrassed at being asked by others outside the institution to share data sets – conscious that the impression these give is of an overwhelming task of countering colonial inheritances. Although the task is structural in nature (and requires sustained institutional resources to address it), these first impressions sometimes obscure the work being done by many within the museum to address these very histories. But this sense of self brings me to my fundamental question when discussing ‘decolonisation’ efforts; namely, who is this work really for? Is it truly to create an inclusive space for source and descendant communities or is it more about sparing the museum’s blushes?

As demands to redress these historic wrongs only look set to grow in scale and scope, those of us who work in and alongside museums must develop practices of accountability in order to ensure care and rigour in tackling these issues. We can begin, as our respondent Kelly Foster urged, by opening ourselves to critical voices. By inviting ‘open and honest conversations’ we can both understand what our audiences’ priorities are as well as begin to see who is best placed to take these suggestions on and how we might go about it. However, in inviting those we have historically excluded into our spaces, we must ensure we are not inadvertently reproducing extractive practices. Our audiences should primarily use us and our collections, rather than the other way around.

Relatedly, as the language of ‘decolonisation’ finds its way into strategic plans, we must pay cautious attention to the possibility for co-option, depoliticization and faddish loss of interest. This work is necessarily long-term and not easily confined to project-based structures, as Ananda noted. Where does that leave it in terms of attracting funding and support from institutional leadership? The answers are not easy or straightforward, but by paying close attention to the legacy of others, as Kelly stressed, and situating our current questions in the longer tradition of anticolonial theorists and practitioners, we can firmly understand where we are coming from and, in turn, where we are going.

To finish, I’d like to turn to the more speculative work of (mostly) Black and Indigenous thinkers. Christina Sharpe, Joseph Bauerkemper, Daniel Heath Justice, LaTanya S. Autry and most recently, Lola Olufemi, have invoked the language of ‘imagining otherwise’ to conceive of a liberatory anti-colonial project that recovers the work of the imagination in intellectual and practice-based work. By heeding this call alongside the rising pressures to ‘decolonise’, those of us committed to this work can begin to envision our museums as truly open and inclusive spaces that emerge from the histories of violence we are complicit in.

Helen Mears

As a curator, my interest in this event connected to my growing awareness that, despite the changes happening in some areas of museum practice as a result of decolonising agendas, other areas remained silent and undisturbed; their purpose and logic unquestioned. One such example is the museum database which, as we know, is often structured around problematic classifications and hierarchies, scattered with outmoded and offensive terms and language, and riven with huge gaps and absences, as well as partialities, in the information recorded.

Like colleagues, I used the database to record object moves, document new acquisitions and send data exports to researchers. But, like others working with colonial-era collections, I was embarrassed to reveal our dirty ‘data laundry’ (to use Ananda’s evocative term) to others. As regional museum service employees, we arguably lacked capacity to properly address the database’s failures, which included the uncritical reproduction of object information from the late 19th century, but how had we got to this position? Were there not opportunities to have critically interrogated this information in the previous decades? As Shelley and Kelly emphasised, these are not new debates, and decolonial theory has been an important strand of intellectual work for many years.

As we have seen over the last year, the museum sector has been slow to respond to change, arguably not doing so until its hand was forced by activists and pressure groups. Much of the initial response was in the visible fields of public statements and programmes. Hidden from public view, the database often escapes critical interrogation. As a tool intended for internal use, as Kathleen pointed out, its weaknesses reflect not only the colonial contexts in which collections were formed, but also the narrow perspectives of the museum workforce. That the database typically centres a white, elite, cis-gendered, ableist perspective is not always apparent to collections staff who have been, for the most part, white, elite, cis-gendered and able-bodied. As Kathleen argued, it is not just about whose perspective is not reflected in museum knowledge systems, but whose is over-privileged.

As Ananda discussed, perhaps the sector’s greatest failing is its inability to remember, document and be changed by those occasions when it tried to do something differently. Ananda gave the example of the sector’s response to the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade. At the time, I worked on a V&A gallery trail which highlighted the connections between decorative art objects and colonial commodities produced by enslaved people. In retrospect, the trail’s title – Traces of the Trade – seems bitterly ironic given how quickly those traces disappeared again. Project work, as Ananda demonstrated, has proven to be an unreliable vehicle for driving organisational change. Often highly ambitious, projects’ short timeframes and temporary appointments makes them ill-suited to deliver legacy. Moreover, as Kelly emphasised, funding regimes come with their own limitations including who is eligible to apply.

Since the event, I’ve been reflecting on what these issues mean for my own work. Decolonial practice often feels too huge and too radical for small players in big institutions. But we have to start from where we are and be prepared to have the ‘open and honest conversations’ Kelly urged. At Wellcome Collection, we recognise that there is important work ahead in opening up historic documentation to support provenance research and in taking a more proactive approach to issues around the ownership of cultural property. Collections management systems and collections research will play central roles in these endeavours. Here are some of my starting thoughts, informed by the event discussion:

  • We need to ensure that previous collections research is documented; not just the findings but who undertook the research and why; what the outcomes were and how findings were documented and shared.
  • We need to identify ways to more strongly connect object-level data with contextual data, including that associated with the object’s historic use, ownership, production and contemporary significance, the contexts which informed its acquisition and the institutional history of the collecting organisation.
  • We also need to make stronger linkages between the (traditionally inward-facing) work of documenting and researching the collections and (traditionally outward-facing) programmes of public engagement and identify opportunities for more people, including people who embody different forms of expertise, to set the terms of this activity.
  • Collections research to date has often been responsive or opportunistic. Provenance research should be long-term and strategic, as well as grounded in an understanding of what is known and what is not known about the collections and directed by the priorities of collections stakeholders.

This work represents a huge undertaking and, while I heed Kathleen’s reminder that ‘The poor workman always blames his tools’, I remain sceptical of the extent to which existing collections management systems can meet these needs. Can these object-centred documentation tools really manage the multivocality, offer shifting and divergent perspectives, and provide the fuller historic accounts and contexts required by a decolonial praxis, and, if so, can they also make visible, as Kelly asked, the silences and refusals? Or, like certain collections, should museums consider closing their databases, treating them simply as historic relics, artefacts of their time? How much can existing systems be reimagined to provide the ethics of care and reparative justice demanded by decoloniality and how much do we need to devise new tools on which to build new relationships?

The event raised more questions than it answered but demonstrated the appetite for a thoughtful and sustained engagement with these issues. The final discussion closed with a reminder from Kelly of the possibilities generated by self-organising. My own hope is that a community of practice will emerge from this event who can continue to offer guidance, as well as provocation, on how the sector might move towards the decolonising of the database.

Thanks to event speakers and contributors: Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, Ananda Rutherford, Kathleen Lawther, Hannah Turner, Shelley Angelie Saggar and Kelly Foster; to event planners and supporters: Kajal Meghani, Georgina Le Breuilly and Claire Wintle, and also to Claire for helpful comments on an earlier version of this post.


Autry, LaTanya, ‘A Black Curator Imagines Otherwise’, Hyperallergic, 2021 <https://hyperallergic.com/639570/a-black-curator-imagines-otherwise-latanya-autry/>

Bauerkemper, Joseph, ‘Indigenous Trans/Nationalism and the Ethics of Theory in Native Literary Studies’, in The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 395–408

Justice, Daniel Heath, ‘Daniel Heath Justice’ <https://danielheathjustice.com/> [accessed 11 December 2020]

Olufemi, Lola, Experiments in Imagining Otherwise (London: Hajar Press, 2021)

Sharpe, Christina Elizabeth, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)

Image credit:

Stuart Caie, licensed for use under creative commons