Archives and Inclusivity: Unearthing Erased Communities

In the last blog post I discussed the importance of creating racially sensitive archival descriptions. In this blog post I will discuss the importance of tactfully highlighting the histories of erased communities within archives through labelling. The following post will have practical suggestions on how this relabelling can be used to increase representation in exhibitions.

What is an erased community?

An erased community is a group who have been repeatedly marginalised during recorded history and therefore have little or no easily accessible written social history to represent them in archives.

Who are included in erased and underserved groups?

Here are some examples*:

  • First peoples
  • Neuro-divergent
  • Disabled
  • Women of Colour
  • Working class

How can we re-discover these lost histories?

Empowered collaboration! 

All underserved and erased groups need, and deserve, bespoke best practice outlines to faithfully unearth their histories; the key to achieving this is collaboration. Empowering underserved communities with the co-management of archives through research, outreach, and co-curation puts value on their status of expert by lived experience.* As a result these materials can receive additional labelling to link the items to unearth the erased histories and become more accessible to staff and the public alike.

What is the impact?

Representation Matters:

‘For the majority population to effectively understand other groups, they need to see accurate depictions of these groups. For the minority populations to be a part of the larger society, and not face discrimination based on negative stereotypes, they need to see themselves in a variety of roles. Creators of nonfiction works have an ethical duty to the individuals they portray, the larger subculture they represent, and the consumers who view their work.’ (1)

In short: In order to understand and accept one another, we must see one another in our surroundings, this includes archives and exhibitions.

Today I will use the LGBTQIA+ community, specifically Michelangelo as an example.

Accessing LGBTQIA+ History:

Identifying records relating to LGBTQIA+ history is particularly difficult as the descriptions do not always make it clear that they contain relevant material. (2)

LGBTQIA+ figures and writings can be found within all subjects throughout history, but their sexuality has often been unwritten, rewritten or coded due to bigotry. Therefore this history becomes buried and is not included in archival record descriptions thus eliminating an important identity of the memories we are attempting to preserve.

Society is continuously learning about many trailblazing historical figures that were part of the LGBTQIA+ community. It is important to add this identity to their online labelling to ensure clear searches are available.

For example, Michelangelo dedicated over 100 poems and drawings to his lover Tommaso. When Michelangelo’s nephew published the poems in 1623 the gender of the poems’ subjects and addressees were changed, to female (3) erasing his intended purpose of the poems, this places him in, what we consider now, to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community. (4)

Why is this important?

People often think that gay and lesbian history is a minority history, but of course it is part of humanity’s history. (5)

In this instance a member of the LGBTQIA+ community is not only represented but is related to the most famous and important artists through their social heritage.

How can we label all these items?

Archives have many collections across various subjects most of which are likely to include invisible members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The relabelling of these archives must be done in three steps:

  1. Create a description index and training created in collaboration with communities, groups and other information and recordkeeping professionals for accurate and acceptable descriptors, specific to LGBTQIA+ needs. (Refer to previous blog post for further details)
  2. Work through the subjects that currently have links to LGBTQIA+ peoples and label records accordingly, eg: Suffrage movement, Police records, Criminal Law discussions, Divorce proceedings, Artists.
  3. Enable user tagging abilities within the online archival descriptions, limited to the accepted words from the Index. Review as appropriate.

Empowering staff and library users with an accessible way to search the history of the typically underserved creates fair representation in archives.

Archives are often used for exhibitions, so it is important that empowered collaboration does not cease here. Long term collaboration with underserved communities will result in diverse and inclusive exhibition narratives, and consequently, increase visitor  numbers and archive engagement. I will explore this further in my next post.

Thanks for reading. See you next time!


*This list is not exhaustive

* Expert by Lived Experience: The lived experience of people from underserved groups mixed with their work experience.

(1) Kid, M. (2016) Archetypes, Stereotypes and Media Representation in a Multi-cultural Society, Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, Volume 236, P 25-28. Available at: 96f37fab70c4&acdnat=1534773433_85eb789dd4697b663bb2b76e3c267938. 

(2) The National Archives, (2018) How to look for records of Sexuality and Gender Identity, available at:

(3) Stern Keith, (2009) Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgenders. Paul Russell (1995) The Gay 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Gay Men and Lesbians, Past and Present 

(4) I acknowledge the problems inherent in determining the sexuality of someone who is unable to speak for themselves, however, if one is part of the LGBTQIA+ community it is empowering to have the knowledge that powerful figures are part of your social heritage.

(6) BBC News (2013) British Museum launches Gay History Guide,

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.

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