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Diversifying special collections: reflecting on our decolonisation research project so far (part 1)

The first of two posts written by University of Manchester MA students Hannah Banks and Matthew Bridson, who have been working with the John Rylands Research Institute and Library on the project 'Redressing colonial perspectives in Echoes of Service Archives'.

Hannah Banks writes:

Over the course of February through to April, I have been working with Lianne Smith, the Curator responsible for the Christian Brethren archives, and my fellow MA colleague Matthew Bridson. We have been trying to redress the balance of the indigenous voice within the Echoes of Service Archive.[1] Our task was to look at missionary photographs, captured on magic lantern slides within the collection and reinterpret them to reflect alternative indigenous perspectives in the metadata. Our starting point was the Echoes of Service periodicals, which contain letters describing missionary work in countries across the world, as well as researching in secondary sources.

I chose to work on the lantern slides from China which included Caroline Gates’ collection. Initially, I felt confident in thinking the periodicals would provide useful research and clues to identifying slide content. It quickly became apparent that this was not the case. As I took a closer look at the periodicals, it became evident that the correspondence reflected an evangelical Christian and European perspective. This is because the periodicals and lantern slides would have been used to promote the missionaries’ work and get endorsements from their donors.[2]  

One slide which caught my attention depicted the typical dress of Chinese workers in what was an agrarian culture in the late nineteenth century. I later found a reference to similar clothing in the periodical for 1897 reporting, ‘They go about looking so picturesque in their straw rain-capes and large hats, with almost flat Chinese umbrellas, which are certainly made more for use than ornament’.[3] This language is typical of European travel writing of the time, with the word picturesque having connotations of romanticised backwardness, a Western imperialist perspective discussed in Edward Said’s theories on orientalism. Against reports of torrential rains, severe flooding and devastated crops, such images of quaint lives seem distinctly patronising.

‘China farming. Peasant types. Going market. Ready for Field.’ Reference: EOS/4/1/6/14. The University of Manchester Library

Unfortunately, the missionaries’ correspondence rarely describes in any detail the provinces in which they were located nor the people they encountered, with much of their description centring on preaching sessions. The missionaries encountered Han Chinese majoritively and confirm through their writings that they were regarded with suspicion or curiosity. Penetration by foreigners into China’s mainland was minimal.

Focusing on a more generalised search, I discovered a map prepared for the China Inland Mission in 1900 from the Library of Congress.[4] This was an exciting find as it helped me to locate some places mentioned in the Periodicals, where I had encountered problems with Google Maps. This is because many of the place names have changed over time and spellings of Chinese words can vary in many subtly different ways. It proved a helpful exercise to try and pinpoint which areas of China were targeted by the missionaries, as this gave me clues about the Chinese they were likely to encounter. For instance, based over the Great Wall of China in Inner Mongolia, it was revealed that the missionaries made little progress with the Mongol people, but encountered many Han Chinese there with whom they were more familiar.

It has been a fascinating experience to work on these archives. I quickly became aware of the challenges to revealing the indigenous voice through the information available within the archive. Unfortunately, working with records that were biased to Western, evangelical perspectives means that other voices were silenced. Further challenges have included working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic – I would have loved to handle the collections – and language barriers in secondary research on the internet.  However, through having the opportunity to delve into this particular archive, I was made very aware of Western perspectives in action and could recognise the untold story from the Other side.

Reference List:

[1] Echoes of Service Archive catalogue: [Accessed on: 7 April 2021].

[2] Donald Simpson, ‘Missions and the Magic Lantern’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21:1, Periodicals Archive Online, (1 Jan 1997): 13.

[3] Constance Reynolds, Correspondence to Echoes of Service, Han River, 1 October 1897, 41.

[4] Edward Stanford Ltd, and E Bretschneider. Map of China prepared for the China Inland Mission. [London: Stanford’s Geographical Establishment, 1900] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, [accessed on: 11 April 2021].

2 comments on “Diversifying special collections: reflecting on our decolonisation research project so far (part 1)

  1. Thank you for this, Dr Banks,

    The missionaries could not help seeing things through their own eyes, but is there evidence of what they did to inculturate themselves? Intensive language training, translating Scripture and other texts, training the first generations of local ministers, and so on. Any hints as to what records might have been kept by the local church as it grew, rather than the perhaps optimistically moderated letters home? No doubt much has been destroyed in XX Century wars and revolutions, so a full picture may be impossible to discern now, but it’s not impossible that the missionaries grew in understanding and acceptance of local cultures.

    • Lianne Smith

      Thank you very much for your comment! Yes, there is evidence of preparatory work of the type you describe undertaken by the missionaries prior to and during their mission work – the Echoes of Service periodicals record some of this information (they are available digitally here:, and it’s also documented in much of the correspondence and printed material held physically in the archive. There’s less in the archive related to the growth of local churches, and what’s there is usually in relation to churches in which the missionaries had a continued presence. What we have tends to be written from their perspective, as one would expect, rather than the indigenous people in the places they were working. In the case of China, as the missionary presence withdrew following the Communist Revolution, the information in the records from this perspective becomes very limited indeed.
      Learning more about what records may have been created by local churches and have survived would be a very welcome outcome of this work – I’d be delighted to find out more about this.

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