Provisional Semantics Addressing the challenges of representing multiple perspectives within an evolving digitised national collection

This research project focuses on how museums and heritage organisations can engage in decolonising practices to produce search terms, catalogue entries and interpretations fit for purpose for an evolving digitised national collection.

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 These descriptors can be outdated and/or offensive to contemporary audiences, not least people of African and Asian descent, whose diasporic histories are intertwined with Britain’s colonial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

Provisional Semantics aims to:

  • 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.

Three case studies

Over two years, the Provisional Semantics project will undertake a literature/practice review and utilise three case studies examining:

  1. Collections at the Clive Museum, Powis Castle (National Trust)
  2. The photography collection of the Imperial War Museums
  3. The Panchayat Collection held in the Special Collections of Tate Library

The case studies will 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.

Cataloguing resource list

Access a growing collection of resources relating to equitable and ethical cataloguing practice, object description and information management, with a specific focus on addressing structural racism and traditional, Western, colonial forms of knowledge production.

This list of guidance and research materials was collated as part of the Provisional Semantics project by Ananda Rutherford, to support galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM), and the wider UK heritage sector to engage critically in professional practices that involve recording, writing and generating knowledge about art and artefacts.

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.

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

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