Ananda Rutherford speaks on museum and gallery systems, documentation and cataloguing

Part 2 of our interview with Ananda Rutherford, Research Associate on the TaNC (Towards a National Collection) AHRC project: Provisional Semantics and based in the Research Department of Tate.

Read Part 1.

What are your starting points? Have your observations and lived experiences shaped how you see the documentation of collections?

I think it depends which starting points you chose. We can all construct a narrative that fits. I like a good list, and putting things in order and I think I would (embarrassedly) describe myself as an historian, albeit of a painfully niche area.

I sometimes feel much of my research is trying to redress failings of the past. Why didn’t I see this? Why didn’t I do more?

My starting points in terms of education and career are predominantly so traditional, conservative and privileged (Courtauld for BA and MA, then V&A, Ashmolean, V&A again, Museum of the Home and now Tate, plus a few in between) that I sometimes feel much of my research is trying to redress failings of the past. Why didn’t I see this? Why didn’t I do more? How could I have effected change more, challenged more? How have I been so complicit?

My minimal experiences as a woman with mixed heritage or as a woman of colour – if I count as that – (I used to say mixed race, but none of the words fit or feel right anymore) don’t need to be foregrounded in this work. I used to tick the “other” box on forms and that is usually how I feel – other, but I suspect that most people feel other. Most often I feel as if I sit between, and that can be helpful and useful, I hope.

I have both a large dose of socialised white fragility which I am working on, and some direct experience of explicit, and the British speciality, implicit racial prejudice. In organisations, being other also gets instrumentalised when useful – I count on the diversity statistics, but I don’t count enough for it to be really meaningful, and represent an “authentic BAME experience” for the diversity reports. 

We are still working with colonial era behaviours and understandings of the world, fitted into 19th century pseudo-scientific classification systems, in 20th century databases for a transnational, global 21st century audience – why? 

With regards to documentation I think I just want the “other” stories to be seen, to move away from the fabricated modernist canons of art and knowledge that keep white men in the ascendant, and measures of value and worth predicated on success within a very narrow, western, colonial, capitalist system. The world is so much more interesting and colourful, literally and metaphorically, than that. I think we can really show that through museum collections and the records that inform our understandings and capture their histories. Perhaps we need to move beyond “ways of seeing” to ways of being and understand our heritage that way?

Increasing awareness of decolonial practice in museums and galleries has pointed heavily to the problems in our systems, such as our documentation and cataloguing. What are your reflections on this?

Documentation and collections management seem to be the last bastion of claims for a-political or neutral practices. We are still working with colonial era behaviours and understandings of the world, fitted into 19th century pseudo-scientific classification systems, in 20th century databases for a transnational, global 21st century audience – why? 

A lot of the time I think we know exactly what the gaps are in our collections and our knowledge, but still choose not to deal with them. It’s not necessarily an active choice but a passive acceptance that it’s all too difficult. I think many curators and collections professionals live with a level of shadowy discomfort about the representation and diversity of their collection, but justify their lack of action through this idea of professional pseudo-objectivity and avoidance of the political, or excuses about money and resources. There are of course those who simply don’t or won’t see it, who argue hard for the neutrality of their cataloguing and cannot see their role in the erasure and the repetition of a particular way of seeing and organising the world that is colonial and structurally racist.

Changing how we think about records and description, and understanding that systems of classification and data structures are not immutable or inevitable.

Every time I talk to colleagues, they tend to know what hasn’t been catalogued, where the problematic language is, what they are ignorant about, but then they get stuck. This is where structural barriers come into play. The issue is more about doing something about it and making it stick, changing how we think about records and description, and understanding that systems of classification and data structures are not immutable or inevitable.

There is disconnect between documentation management/cataloguing practice plus the push towards digitisation, and the discomfort and absence of ways to address racism and colonial control inherent in our work. We are all looking for practical answers and technical solutions that really don’t exist for issues that haven’t really been interrogated properly. 

I am not at all sure that the project of “decolonisation,” as the word is currently being employed in the cultural heritage sector, is achievable, and especially not by a majority white sector. There is so much fundamental social and political change needed to achieve that, beyond the walls of museums. However, that it is not to say that it is not worth doing the work with the tools we have and within the limitations of the world as it is. 

Not only are museums not neutral, but that databases are not neutral, descriptions are not neutral and language is not neutral and that the way in which we deploy these things perpetuates ways of being that are colonial, biased, racist and limiting.

I think it’s more useful to step back and reframe this work in terms of practice and approach: a starting point of active anti-racism, a fuller understanding and acknowledgement of colonial history and its impact and harm, and going forward a critical, reflective, and post-colonial approach to museum practice and research. The extent to which our procedures and systems are limited and discriminatory is only now beginning to be a mainstream issue.

This is where the real barriers lie; acknowledging that not only are museums not neutral, but that databases are not neutral, descriptions are not neutral and language is not neutral and that the way in which we deploy these things perpetuates ways of being that are colonial, biased, racist and limiting. Whether this is intended or not is irrelevant, as is the argument that we have always done things this way.

Cultural institutions are not simply presenting lovely things for the enjoyment of all.

There is so much to unpick and remake in equitable terms, but many white people are only just starting to grapple with the ideas of structural racism and white supremacy being at the heart of our society, the English identity and our nation, and struggle even to use the words. When white people benefit from a system in every aspect, it’s hard to see that the supposedly equal and democratic infrastructures such as the public sector or education may not actually be neutral or benign and that cultural institutions are not simply presenting lovely things for the enjoyment of all (back to the disingenuous and confected debate in the media and government about the National Trust).

There has been so much good work done into representation and inclusion (though I would challenge both those terms – represented by whom and included by whom?) Still as a sector, we are gatekeepers, but who are we keeping our collections from? 

I am trying to chart that research for the project at the moment (my desperate cry for help is here: PS survey call-out), but it seems that a great deal of the research within the sector has been the observation and demonstration that there are problems, but there is not really much in the way of embedded, sustainable change to practice. There are lots of reasons for this – the usual cry of not enough time, resources, money etc, but I think it may be more that there is not enough understanding of how deep structural racism runs.

Decolonial approaches are not new – Stuart Hall wrote “Whose heritage?” back in 1996, Edward Said’s Orientalism was published in 1978, and there is more before

There has also been a lack of sector leadership, resources and training. Collections Trust still has archaic documents like this hanging about, and republished in late 2019, where the only naming convention for non-European people is the advice that: “If there is a form of name that has become well established in English language reference sources, use that, eg: Confucius not K’ung-tzu” (neither of which are the pinyin transliteration currently used in China).

Again, how is that the sector’s current guidance? Decolonial approaches are not new – Stuart Hall wrote “Whose heritage?” back in 1996, Edward Said’s Orientalism was published in 1978, and there is more before, but so little of this thinking is apparent museum cataloguing and documentation, and despite 30 years of the ‘New Museology’.

What next for you and your research?

As for most people at the time of writing, what next is such a difficult question. Who knows what lockdown rules will change again and when, where the political climate is going, where the actual climate is going or rather how we cope with the direction it is going in, what next for museums, academia, society in general?

With the push towards digitisation that has dominated collections management practice over the last 20 years or so, these issues have gone largely unchallenged, championed rather as open and democratic, and a great solution to problems of widespread public access.

My PhD research is about online museum collections and the limitations of replicating colonial era systems of classification and categorisation in material culture, using databases and data structures which are then published online as un-nuanced and unauthored definitive accounts, without context or contest. With the push towards digitisation that has dominated collections management practice over the last 20 years or so, these issues have gone largely unchallenged, championed rather as open and democratic, and a great solution to problems of widespread public access. I have been doing the research part-time, while working, so it has almost been action research and auto-ethnography, as each bit of the thesis either contributes to or is informed by work I am doing at the time on collections with in museum organisations.

I miss objects and the immense privilege of handling and knowing an artefact or work of art intimately and physically; understanding its stories and agency through that experience and contact. I hope that my next endeavour might get me back to these things more. Of course, coming to terms with, and addressing my own racism and colonially informed thinking is the very least I can be doing right now, but that’s constant and ongoing I guess.