Archives and Inclusivity: Respectful descriptions of marginalised groups.

Items within special collections can date back hundreds of years, so it’s no surprise that within these materials it is possible to find outdated or problematic attitudes and language. I am currently researching potential ways to manage this.

In May 2018 I attended ‘Protocols for describing and managing racially insensitive archives,’ a workshop facilitated by Arike Oke and Simon Demissie, from the Wellcome Library,  based on the Master’s Dissertation by Alicia Chilcott. This workshop explored the racial insensitivity in archival descriptions and potential solutions.

In June 2018 I attended ‘Museum Remix,’ a workshop facilitated by Museum Detox at the University of Cambridge. Here, we explored how the use of insensitive descriptions in record keeping can bleed into online catalogues and exhibitions. This spreads misinformation by misrepresenting marginalised groups: an injustice to the educational value of archives and the communities surrounding them.

This blog post will focus on how to tackle racially insensitive materials, with a follow-up post pondering the challenges of unearthing histories of previously erased communities (1)

Let’s jump in!

What is our aim?

Before we can decide on how to tackle this issue we must decide on our aim, both as an institution and as a collective of information professionals.

As a person of colour working in the cultural sector, I believe that combining the University’s drive for excellence and social impact with an examination of archival practices could result in fairer and fuller representations of Manchester’s communities.(2) In doing so, there would be a more vibrant and diverse range of stories to tell when these materials are used in exhibitions.

This information can then be shared with the rest of the information sector to contribute to creating a standardised practice for increasing sensitivity in archival descriptions.

I write this blog post with this in mind.

Examples of problematic labelling:  

Image one:


‘A female Hottentot, possibly Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman, with a disease (steatopygy), which results in a protuberance of the buttocks due to an abnormal accumulation of fat. Watercolour painting.’

(Emphasis mine, from Wellcome Museum online)

Image two:


‘Love-Letters of a Japanese, MS 49′

(Emphasis Mine, John Rylands Library)

Why are these problematic?

Image one: Hottentot has been considered an offensive term for the Khoikhoi peoples since the 20th century, and the words ‘disease’ and ‘abnormal’ are othering in this context as it was usual for the Khoikhoi men and women to have figures such as this. 

Image two: Using the ethnicity to describe a person reduces their character to the colour of their skin.

How can we change it?

Alicia Chilcott suggests a good, better and best practice approach.


  • Present offensive racial term taken directly from the record and put in quotation marks
  • Include an explanatory passage on the catalogue homepage, outlining why offensive terms appear in records and why archivists repeat these in catalogue descriptions.


  • Implement good practice recommendations
  • Provide user guidance documents for researching racial minorities, including suggested catalogue search terms, a list of relevant records and series, and an explanation of how terms have become offensive over time.


  • Implement the Good and Better recommendations
  • Adopt the participatory methods of user-generated tagging of catalogue entries and community consultation on cataloguing methods
  • Underpin practice with professional ethics based on the principles of representation and radical empathy. (4)

What does this look like in practice?

By applying the good practice, the main page of the Wellcome Museum and John Rylands image archive would read:

‘Some of these descriptions have been amended due to insensitive/offensive descriptions. The original description will be available underneath.’

 A female Khoikhoi, possibly Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman, with a protuberance of the buttocks.’ Watercolour painting.

Originally read: A female Hottentot, possibly Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman, with a disease (steatopygy), which results in a protuberance of the buttocks due to an abnormal accumulation of fat. Watercolour painting.

The problematic language has not been completely removed, but included in the history of the object. Removing the language completely would deny the subject their history by ‘whitewashing’ the narrative, removing any indication of insensitivity/marginalisation. (4)

Mary Stopes Collection MS 49: Love-Letters between Kenrio Watanabe and Mertyl Meredith

Originally catalogued as: Love-Letters of a Japanese.

In this case the name of the book cannot be changed  but in amending the references used in the library catalogue it can be made clear society has changed its view on racial descriptions.

I  researched the names of the letter writers and used the manuscript shelf mark to hypothetically re-label the item.

In both cases the all key words and references are still available for online searches and reading room requests.

Are there any problems with this approach?

Approaching archival description in this manner creates some challenges:

Are we changing history by re-labelling materials without original names?

I would argue that giving archivists the support to use their skills and knowledge to catalogue the item with an amended name, whilst retaining the old one, ensures that we view the item through a progressive lens without erasing past mistakes. This in turn empowers exhibition teams, educators and the public alike.

Do you expect me to re-catalogue all materials? Where will the money and time come from?

The aim is not re-catalogue all old items with immediate affect, but to start a larger conversation regarding approaches to changing language to reflect society and fair representation. We can then move onto ideas around training, potential funding and how to slowly enact change.

How do we know what is acceptable to say?

This is a fair point as language is constantly changing and as a society we are becoming more aware of the terminology to use to reduce the risk of marginalisation.

I would argue that an index and training created in collaboration with communities, groups and other information and recordkeeping professionals would result in an accurate, reliable reference document when describing archive items. The index and training would be regularly reviewed to keep up to date with changes in language.

How will this conversation affect representation of other marginalised groups?

In the next blog post I will discuss how, by changing archival descriptions and collaborating with all marginalised communities, cultural institutions can and empower them through exhibitions and events.

References: (Because I’m a nerd)

  1. Intersectional women’s voices, LGBTQ+ communities, People of colour, First People and working class communities.
  2.  University of Manchester strategic plan 2020,
  3. Radical empathy means actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others, to fundamentally change perspectives from judgemental to accepting in an attempt to more authentically connect with ourselves and others.
  4. In this case we use this term to mean: to gloss over or cover up vices, crimes or scandals or to exonerate by means of changing history through education.

Published by Jass Thethi

I am a Library and Museum professional. I am passionate about fair representation and diversity arts and heritage. I created theconcept of Empowered Collaboration, which describes how to increase diversity by respectful coproduction with under-served groups. I discuss real life experiences of being a minority in arts and heritage and potential ways to diversify collections through my blog and twitter account. All views in this blog are my own and not that of my employer.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: