In 2011, I visited the National Archives in Washington DC and in the exhibition space, a copy of the Magna Carta was on display. The interpretation outlined the way in which it had influenced the United States Constitution, and the laws of the American colonies. For probably the first time, I was on the receiving end of viewing the history of my country from the perspective of another. Despite knowing that the Magna Carta had been acquired legitimately, a small voice in my head said ‘it’s not yours…give it back.’
I’m painfully aware that I cannot speak about the experience of the loss of items of enormous cultural significance to invasion or colonisation, or the prevailing equality issues within special collections and their finding aids with much personal experience. As curators, it is however our responsibility to educate ourselves, to listen to the views of the people who are affected by them, and to transform this knowledge into meaningful action. A part of this action is shaping the narrative we use to talk about records which document these issues without perpetuating the inequalities that they describe.
What are content warnings?
A content warning is, in itself, as simple as it sounds. A warning, placed at the front of a collection or catalogue to warn users that it contains sensitive content that they may find upsetting. They’re not a new concept, we have long accepted them for films, social media and exhibitions. In the world of Special Collections, much of the discussions on content warnings have focused upon their application to records which show evidence of oppression based on race and ethnicity.
Earlier this year, I wrote UoM Special Collections first content warning for the Bow in the Cloud manuscripts from the Rawson/Wilson Anti-Slavery Papers, which date from the early 19th century. The manuscripts have been digitised, and are available online for the first time, reaching a far larger audience. When I examined the collection, I found evidence of racial discrimination in both the language used and the views expressed. This is what I produced:
Bow in the Cloud content warning
‘As a historical resource, this collection reflects the racial prejudices of the era in which it was created, and some items include language and imagery which is offensive, oppressive and may cause upset. The use of this language is not condoned by The University of Manchester, but we are committed to providing access to this material as evidence of the inequalities and attitudes of the time period.’
Why do we need them?
In the UK, it is fair to say that at the moment, content warnings aren’t applied to Special Collections and Archives in any meaningful or prevalent manner. Perhaps because what we’re telling you is pretty obvious. Historical records will reflect the time period in which they were created in their attitudes to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, and as evidence of the violence and oppression members of these communities experienced.
But here’s the issue, that oppression and discrimination is still with us. And the psychological tail of colonialism still reverberates through the descendants of these communities.
It is part of our role as curators to bear witness to the affective power of these records, and the impact they have upon the people whose experiences they reflect.
Problem 1 – Collections
The content and language found within our collections are reaching wider audiences through the present drive for digitisation and online access. It is now more likely that a casual viewer might stumble upon them by accident and unprepared. Some of the force of this issue can be negated by marking up offensive language, and by providing adequate content warnings.
Problem 2 – Finding Aids
Our catalogues and box lists do not effectively describe these collections, and problematic material is both unacknowledged and difficult to find. Catalogues created in the past can themselves also contain offensive language, and be in need of correction and additional interpretation. Participatory description, which is carried out in conjunction with the relevant communities or crowd sourced can go some way to redressing this issue.
So, would we ever restrict access to these records?
Absolutely not, there is no suggestion of censoring these records, the intention is to highlight these narratives in our collections and make them easier to find. Archival best practice recommends that descriptions can be supplemented, with a markup of inverted commas applied to problematic language in collection descriptions and catalogues, in addition to accurate terminology and content warnings. Additional keywords and tags can be added to assist in the location of relevant material. There is no suggestion at all that we should participate in figurative whitewashing.
There are of course plenty of issues to consider. Who decides what language and which collections need amendments or content warnings? Language that was at one time in common use, and had an appearance of acceptability as it was not challenged, can later be seen as offensive or discriminatory. Our colleagues at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre work in a collaborative way with donors whenever possible, including creating catalogues. This process allows a careful exploration of language, led by donors, who determine what words and terminology is used (or not). Where the donor doesn’t belong to the community the collection relates to, or the donor is unable to participate, they employ other ways to ensure people with lived experience guide the creation of catalogues. This creates a catalogue using language that people represented in the collections feel comfortable with.
It is my hope that as work on Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity has become part of our directorate’s operational plan, time will be allocated to the consideration and application of content warnings to our collections and finding aids. It’s a large and difficult piece of work, and will need to be prioritised if it is going to succeed.
If you feel content warnings are unnecessary or they don’t speak to you, then, in the immortal words of Nathan Sentance, they’re not for you. Perhaps this work brings about strong reactions in curators and collection users in the UK because we are unused to not being at the centre of the narrative. Regardless, we all have a responsibility to give this the consideration it deserves.
Joseph, Etienne, Decolonising the Archive, APAC Symposia Series 2020.
Sentance, Nathan, Who Drives the Conversation? DCDC Conference 2018.
Post edited 03/12/2020 to add corrections.