Red book cover with white abstract pattern, and the title in bright blue text, with 'BLACK' and 'WATERS' running horizontally and 'Crossing' running vertically upwards between the 'L' and 'A' of 'BLACK'

Cover of catalogue for Crossing Black Waters (1992), touring exhibition in the UK, edited and curated by Shaheen Merali and Allan de Souza; one of the items in the Panchayat Collection held at Tate.

Provisional Semantics is part of Towards a National Collection (TANC), a major programme investing in the UK’s world-renowned museums, archives, libraries and galleries. The programme, led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council with funding provided through UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund, ‘will take the first steps towards creating a unified virtual “national collection” by dissolving barriers between different collections’.

Currently, many subject index terms, catalogue entries and captions of artworks and artefacts in museums and heritage organisations have been informed by, and replicate, colonial contexts, attitudes and modes of perception. These descriptors can be outdated and/or offensive to contemporary audiences, not least people of African and Asian descent, whose diasporic histories are intertwined with Britain’s colonial past. At present there is a significant gap between research examining ethical methodologies and the application within the sector of necessary changes to practice and attitudinal shifts. This gap still prevents sustainable institutional change from taking place.

Provisional Semantics asks: How can Independent Research Organisations (IROs) and the wider sector develop ethical, equitable and transparent readings to support everyone to engage with a digitised national collection?

  • Examine what methodological, ethical and practical changes museums and heritage organisations need to make to accommodate multiple and provisional interpretations.
  • Test what decolonial methods museums and heritage organisations can employ to produce interpretive frameworks and terminologies fit for an evolving digitised national collection.
  • Provide evidence, knowledge and practical recommendations for action to inform the Towards a National Collection (TANC) programme and the sector more widely.

Over two years, the Provisional Semantics project will undertake a literature/practice review and utilise three case studies examining collections at the National Trust, Imperial War Museums and Tate that address the histories, representations and artistic practices of people of African and Asian descent. We will be testing an approach to collaborating with key stakeholders of African and Asian descent through the case studies and hosting a Reflective Workshop with key stakeholders at the National Maritime Museums. The research is supported by the project’s academic partner, Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, from the Decolonising Arts Institute, University of the Arts London.

Logos for Tate, Imperial War Museums, National Trust and University of the Arts London

Project Information

Project investigators
Emily Pringle, Tate
Helen Mavin, Imperial War Museums
Tate Greenhalgh, National Trust
Ananda Rutherford, Research Associate, Tate

Co-investigator and Higher Education Institution (HEI) partner
Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, Decolonising Arts Institute, University of the Arts London

Project partner
National Maritime Museums