Wilfully ignorant histories: its impact, and what we can do about it

All those working in the GLAM sector would argue memory institutions, and the archives in them, have a social responsibility to protect our collective memories. However, The Black Lives Matter movement has been the catalyst we have needed to begin a discussion about the way unequal power structures result in many forgotten, undervalued and erased histories. From under-represented groups such as; People of Colour, LGBTQIA, Disabled, First Nations, Neuro-divergent, working class and women.

This article will explore the ways the archive sector is complicit in systematic racism, but also touch on other systemically oppressive attitudes, and how we can tweak our current practices to educate the public in a way that gives space to all voices.

Intellectual spaces:

Items within collections are contextualised in order to catalogue them and use them to educate future generations. In the majority of institutions, this contextualisation was created from the perspective of a white, cis gender, male individual during the British Empire. In this period, races were separated into categories, thanks in large part to Eugenics, and given rankings based on the lightness of their skin colour (colourism). When documenting these ‘savage populations,’ each race was discussed from the point of view of the colonizer and as a result, were othered in discussions about their own person, history and culture. This also led to the eradication, misinformation and oppressive descriptions of LGBTQIA+, Disabled, Neuro-divergent and gender non-conforming peoples.

Most of these catalogue descriptions have not been investigated or recontextualised over the years, therefore when these items are used for exhibitions or research, we are allowing the same racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic thought process of that period to bleed into today’s contemporary society. Where it has no place.

This results the miseducation of generations, and reinforcing dangerous, implicit and unconscious biases about non-white races, while ignoring the histories of LGBTQIA community, Transgender peoples, Disabled peoples and Neuro-divergent people, within these races.

We now have the opportunity to do better with these archives and contextualise them with new understanding. If we do not challenge our assumptions, we are being wilfully ignorant.

Below is a diagram outlining the perpetual cycle of wilfully ignorant histories.

What can we do about this?

All archivists are required to undertake formal education, I would argue that lessons and training on intersectionality, including anti-racism training, are vital and should be included in the accredited archival MAs. Moreover, all current archivists should be required to take the same intersectionality training to ensure all archivists are working from the same ideals.

There have been cases of archivists and academics who do not believe in systematic racism or the existence of Transgender and Neuro-divergent people. These ideals mostly likely stem from some kind of fear of change. It is important to develop ways to empathetically interact with these people during training to try and understand where these thoughts start and how we can kindly challenge them.

This training will have two long term excellent consequences; when archivists are required to re-contextualise items, or approach a new collection, they will have the context in which to do so. It will also ensure that any upcoming staff members from non-white backgrounds will have collegues who have a better understanding of barriers they face and will be less likely to experience unintentional micro-aggressions.

Although this training is not yet available through university channels, there is demand for more understanding of these issues. In just two weeks, 1,708 archivists signed a Commitment to Dismantling Structural Racism in Britain’s Archives Sector.

I have personally committed to creating a training course called ‘Anti-Racism Training for the GLAM Sector’ to be premiered August alongside my current courses, Diversity, Inclusion and Intersectionality Training for the GLAM Sector, and Unconscious and Implicit Bias Training which can be found here. If you would like to commit yourself to anti-racist learning a list of resources are outlined at the end of this article.

While the majority of the archive sector works to become anti-racist, it is important to improve the context of the current archives by centring overlooked groups. This is best done through Empowered Collaboration.

Physical Spaces:

Many buildings that house archives and collective memories are created through the direct or indirect proceeds of enslavement. The majority of which do not outwardly admit or discuss these elements.

What can we do about this?

It is important to acknowledge this in clear and precise language when discussing the history of the building. By refusing to acknowledge this history you are; assuming people of colour are not aware of enslavement in architectural history (we totally know) and becoming complicit with the whitewashing of history by indirectly denying slavery. This consequently alienates people of colour as they will not feel safe or welcome in that environment.

What now?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what is required from our sector. If we are to strive for equality, intersectionality is the most important aspect of our goals. If we begin this journey by understanding more about oppressive racial structures and build on this knowledge we will excel in our collective goal to protect everyone’s collective memories

List of resources

Jass Thethi, Managing Director of Intersectional GLAM

Edited 29/06/2020 to alter a spelling/grammatical mistake in the title.

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