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 These descriptors can be outdated and/or offensive to contemporary audiences, not least people of African and Asian descent, whose diasporic histories are intertwined with Britain’s colonial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.

Can you help us to map past and current projects, reports and publications related to museum cataloguing and object description, with a specific focus on language and cataloguing practice around race, ethnicity and nationality, diversity, decolonisation or inclusion?

Statement of acknowledgement

The Provisional Semantics project team would like to recognise and acknowledge Maxine Miller and the important work she has undertaken throughout her professional career, including decolonising library collections and practices in the UK and beyond. The inspiration for Provisional Semantics was born from a project that Maxine was developing in 2019, with the key aim to transform access to collection material relating to the Caribbean, African and Asian diaspora across the sector.

With Maxine’s generous permission, her original project idea was taken forward in 2020 by Tate Research, and helped to form the basis and critical thinking behind the Provisional Semantics project. Maxine’s knowledge and expertise is of huge importance to, and will continue to inform, the project.

Maxine Miller joined Tate in 2010 as Library Collections Manager, bringing her vast knowledge and experience of libraries through positions held within the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), Lambeth College, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) and the Stuart Hall Library (Iniva). She was a member of the BCA Steering Committee, part of the UCL Drawing Over the Colour Line Research Project Steering Group, Chair of the African Caribbean Library Association, Commissioner on the Mayor of London’s Commission on African and Asian Heritage, and a Digital Resource Associate for the Arts Council Cultural Leadership Programme at the National Library of Jamaica.

In the year she joined Tate, Maxine was recognised for her contribution as a leader in the UK culture and heritage sector by her inclusion on The Cultural Leadership Programme’s list of ‘Women to Watch’. During her time at Tate Library and Archive, she has encouraged and facilitated debate on decolonisation through a number of important initiatives, including curation of the Spaces of Black Modernism ‘Show and Tell’ event and select bibliography (2014), the acquisition of the Panchayat collection (2015), and hosting the Women of Colour Index (WOCI) Reading Group events (2018).

The inspiration for Provisional Semantics was born from a project that Maxine was developing in 2019, with the key aim to transform access to collection material relating to the Caribbean, African and Asian diaspora across the sector. Working with a group of partner institutions, her vision was to create and implement a new approach to cataloguing these items, enabling their increased accessibility and use by audiences. The project recognised that standards in cataloguing and indexing do not fully reflect the inclusive terms widely used today, creating barriers to public access and neutralising the nuance involved in these complex narratives. Working collaboratively with key stakeholders across the sector, the aim was to enable sector professionals to enhance their own understanding of these complex narratives by gaining a sense of the human element and context behind these stories.

Logos for Tate, Imperial War Museums, National Trust and University of the Arts London
Logos for Towards a National Collection and UKRI and AHRC

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