A Curator’s Adventures in Documentation Land
By Subhadra Das, on 25 February 2016
We all know that museum catalogues lie. I have made it clear that I’m a firm advocate for the agency of museum practitioners. No element of museum practice happens magically by itself in a vacuum, it is enacted by those of us privileged to work with collections. When you start to look at how museum staff present information to each other and to our audiences, though, it becomes clear that our catalogues have been doing a lot of the talking for us. This begs the question, which speaks louder: curatorial actions or the words in digital catalogues? This week’s guest blogger, Ananda Rutherford, explores this question through the looking glass of the Galton Collection online catalogue.
One of the most controversial collections at UCL is, of course, the Galton Collection. Francis Galton, with his notorious interest in improving humans by selective breeding, or eugenics – the term he coined – is a problematic figure, and preserving a collection of artifacts associated with him for posterity and within the context of the modern university, is troubling. Every element of the way in which he and his collection are presented requires careful consideration.
Over the past year I have been working on the documentation of the collection with the curator, Subhadra Das. I selected the Galton Collection online catalogue as the focus of a case study for my doctoral research. Subhadra and I have been carrying out various practical tasks to improve the collection’s documentation – or filing as it is also known – and any number of other post-it based displacement activities under the guise of “creating order”. Luckily, we are both in agreement that stationery is the cornerstone of all great intellectual inquiry.
The working title of my research topic has been “What’s missing (from museum object records)?” but inevitably the question has shifted and multiplied – why is information missing, what information about objects do we expect to see, what do museum documentation professionals record and why, if they know other things why don’t they reference them?
For many, first contact with museum objects is through the online catalogue and I had been directed towards the Galton Collection for a class I was auditing. Online I had immediate access to the information about each object, a nice clear image and an authoritative source. A quick click through the various entries, a close look at the terms and advanced search features and I was done, with the feeling that there wasn’t much to see here. The information was dry and brief, the objects seemed not to have much aesthetic merit, and science and the personal and professional debris of dead white men isn’t really my thing. On to the next bit of pre-seminar preparation.
In the class itself the contrast was striking. Subhadra had brought along a selection of objects to present and discuss the ethical issues that collecting, keeping and preserving them raised. She did her thing; explaining what was known about the objects and relating them to Galton’s life and work, his relationship to UCL and to the history of eugenics, moving from the relatively uncontroversial (the prototype weather map) to the deeply disturbing box of hair samples with its visual hierarchy of genetic indicators of race (or rather a measuring tool for racism). And so the collections came alive, the objects causing reaction and debate – they are contentious, difficult, the implications of their use horrific. But how do we understand or communicate what is going on with an object using its online record?
What appears to be a yawning chasm between the content and presentation of online object records and the enormity of what was signified by the objects in the collection, might prove a useful space for my examination of what’s missing from records and why. For the Galton collection, would more information simply elevate the objects to an iconic status – their awfulness and awful banality in some cases, becoming titillating rather than salutary? Are they best left alone with a description and measurements – leaving us to research and put the context back together ourselves or to let them languish without comment?
This particular record was deemed suitable for public consumption, maybe not the final, but certainly an acceptable account of the artifact. Is it acceptable? Where is the difficult stuff? And where is the science, the methods, results and conclusions that make clear the function of much of the equipment? All this information exists, just not here in the record.
To a large degree the answer lies in resources. When is there the time to catalogue and re-catalogue and re-catalogue again, to truly, carefully, sensitively explain, reflect on and reframe these objects, indeed is an object record the best place for that to happen? As Subhadra has said, approaching the complexity of these objects and their significance, the implications of their use and the terrible oppressions and social control that they facilitate, requires time and consideration. In concentrating on the records I feel dislocated not only from the objects (I am, surprisingly, yet to get near to handling an actual artifact in the collection), but from the racist context of many of the objects and of Galton’s work; it is only ever implicit in the records and then, only understood with prior knowledge.
Is the collection better dealt with in a book or exhibition? Debbie Challis, formerly Curator of the Galton Collection, and her team worked on this during the 2011 Galton Centenary at UCL, with the Typecast exhibition and subsequently her book, The Archeology of Race. Her counsel that transparency is the way forward seems right. I would extend this to transparency not just about the collection, but about the processes of record keeping, the choices about what information to present, who authored the records, how have they changed and why.
Publication online has seemingly made the records easily accessible; therefore the objects and the ideas and histories they represent, by extension, must surely be accessible too. But are they? More access online has undoubtedly led to more exhibitions, research, discussion and engagement (there is a demonstrable rise in loan requests from 2005 onwards when the records were made available online) – but the records still sin by omission. The files are nice and orderly though.
Ananda Rutherford is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Digital Humanities, Department of Information Studies, UCL.