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

The second 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'.

Matthew Bridson writes:

Working alongside my classmate, Hannah Banks, I have spent the last eleven weeks researching glass magic lantern slides from the Echoes of Service special collection, as part of actions underway to diversify collections and practices at the University of Manchester Library.

Our research focus has been to help Lianne Smith, the Christian Brethren Archivist, locate the stories and voices of the Indigenous people photographed in these slides by the British missionaries who used them to centre their own colonial narratives.

Decolonisation as an ever-evolving, critically-reflective process

Originally, the project’s aims were primarily about amending digital descriptions and metadata to bring these silenced, Othered Indigenous individuals to the fore. Early on, though, it became clear that this, as well as the impact of our own individual positionalities within the project, needed to be re-examined. For my part, coming to this activity as a white scholar to simply update information about Indigenous people for the benefit of academic researchers felt, in itself, like a type of recolonising.

My recent studies have really shown me that any work aiming for decolonisation should not be about outcomes as much as it should about methodology. Decolonisation is not an end destination; it’s a process that endlessly evolves in response to project developments and shared input.

As a research team, then, we went on to share our thoughts about this with honesty and openness, discussing the ways we can prioritise the ‘how’, broaden the project scope, and meaningfully collaborate with wider communities to create a platform for diverse voices. As a result, our placement task shifted to focus on finding out as much as possible about the Indigenous people and places that appear in the slides, reflecting on the challenges and successes this research poses as we went. This trial research will hopefully provide the groundwork for a project that will go on to shape a creative, thoughtful engagement with the lantern slides for the public. So, watch this space!

The first lantern slides I turned my attention to for this initial part of the project were those from India. What follows is an example of my learnings in decolonising praxis during my time with this part of the collection.

Focusing on ‘who’ and ‘when’: subversion of colonial biographies to support decolonising work

Page from Echoes of Service, June 1904

As well as glass lantern slides, the special collection in question also includes the Echoes of Service periodicals, which we planned to use to glean more information about the missionary geographies involved. The material within them was produced by, or for, colonial missionaries. Therefore, it seemed that the best course of action would be to identify the British missionaries who featured in some of the slides. Doing this, I hoped, would provide some clearer dates and locations that could well provide more details about the Indigenous Indian people photographed too. Admittedly, it felt frustrating that, in order to centre the Indigenous people of India, I was first having to centre the colonial missionaries. At this point, though, without any concrete details of where or even when the slide photographs were taken, it was the most practical solution. After all, I’d already been taught that subverting knowledge from sources which have marginalised Indigenous peoples in order to draw attention to them today can prove valuable in archival decolonising work.

Despite this approach being well-intentioned, however, I quickly came to realise that it jarred with my particular project’s goals on a personal level. It began to feel like I was tumbling down a rabbit hole of missionary/colonist biographies; I risked continuing to privilege their journeys and inadvertently re-marginalising Indigenous priorities. So, I took a step back. It was time to critically review my research methods.

Focusing on ‘where’ and ‘how’: a rethink in favour of location and process

I decided to go at the research from a different angle. One that didn’t directly focus on the European missionaries themselves. Rather than using the slides to find locations, my new plan was to use known mission sites to inform the slides.

So, I combed through the annual Echoes of Service periodicals from the date ranges I had been researching, noting down any Indian place names that were referred to, as well as any references to specific Indigenous Indian people, communities, or other social groups. I recognised that, while this wouldn’t help me directly identify people in photographs, I could ultimately pinpoint a list of locations where the lantern slide images might have been captured. That, at least, would be a starting point. With this knowledge, I would have practical clues to help locate the connected modern-day people and places.

As part of this new process, I created an Excel table to record place names and any associated people mentioned. This data collection method, it turns out, was to end up providing me with an important opportunity for critical reflection. After a few days’ use, I became aware that, without consciously realising, the ordering of columns in my data table was privileging European missionaries’ names before those of any Indigenous Indian groups or individuals. On top of that, I was only recording colonial places as outdatedly described by the missionaries.

Alarmed by this, I actioned a structural overhaul of my table. I reordered and expanded my columns, prioritising modern-day location names and putting aside additional time to research contemporary place names and regions wherever possible. I also brought forward the column of Indigenous figures’ names, featuring it ahead of European missionary names (when reading left-to-right). These may seem like relatively small changes, but, as a researcher, they are a proactive step to counter subconscious biases conditioned into me through a societal framework that centres whiteness. Decolonising our methodologies and being able to respond reflective learnings is fundamental. The shifts I made to my presentation of data mark a subtle shift in my own thinking, which plays a part in my continuing development journey to centre Indigenous people in research.

Using periodicals to identify missionary-linked locations like this proved worthwhle in a couple of ways. Firstly, I was able to start mapping out the extent to which British missionaries travelled through, worked in, and impacted India. I was able to identify forty-two specific locations and – more importantly – thirteen references to specific Indigenous individuals. These references tend to be just first names, but there are also a handful that give the full names of individuals. Though I’m not able to specifically identify any of these people in the lantern slides themselves, it felt significant to be able to bring to light Indigenous names that sit within the periodical aspect of the Echoes of Service archive.

EOS/4/1/8/8 – Group of people with woodworking tools. Echoes of Service lantern slides

In one instance, I was actually lucky enough to be able to contextualise a slide photograph (EOS/4/1/8/8), when I spotted it had featured in a periodical. Named in the catalogue as ‘Group of people with woodworking tools’, it shows nine young Indigenous men and boys. Thanks to this research method, I now know that this photograph was taken in Dhavaleswaram. It shows attendees of a missionary industrial school, who are described as being orphans of famine, being taught carpentry and tin smithing. Whilst the names of the specific Indigenous individuals aren’t recorded, we now have a date, a place, and some additional information – however small – about who they were.

Refocusing on ‘who’: a move towards properly privileging the Indigenous individuals

Although it provided some results, the problem with the research method above is that it took a lot of time. Each annual periodical includes quite a few sections about India throughout the year, and every section features any number of contributions from European missionaries. Because of this, it took two days of research to sift through just two years’ worth of periodical content. What with periodicals dating from the early 1870s up to the early 1960s, you can imagine the extent of time as a resource that would be required to continue along this route. On top of this, the locations I was discovering already covered the length and breadth of a country that spans over 3 million square kilometres. Without even beginning to analyse links between actual slides and these locations, the workload would be gargantuan.

Faced with this fact, Lianne and I discussed how best to proceed within the limits of the project timeframe. We agreed that refining the scope to look more closely into specific slides would be of more immediate benefit. Before I started this, however, I reflected on my approaches to date. From my perspective, they still lacked sufficient focus on the Indigenous people in the slide images. In one way or another, I had so far used European missionaries as a starting point. Now, I wanted to begin my search through the Indigenous figures within a slide, to side-line the often the looming presence of a colonial missionaries.

EOS/4/1/8/7 – Group portrait. Echoes of Service lantern slides

So, I selected a set of three slides (EOS/4/1/8/7, EOS/4/1/8/9, EOS/4/1/8/18) that show a group of Indigenous Indian people without any British missionaries whatsoever. These slides – all group portraits – looked similar in composition, and the clothing styles of the men in each one matched.

I studied each slide intently. So far during my research, my eyes had automatically been searching for the white faces, analysing their age, clothes, and the other white faces standing nearby, in a counterintuitive way of discovering inferred detail about the Indigenous Indian people stood beside them. Now, for the first time, it felt like I was really looking into faces of those people, gazing into their eyes, and truly appreciating their presence.

I hoped that the slides would provide me some kind of clue to a location, date, or social group, without the need to become enmeshed in colonial missionaries’ biographies. Clothing was the unifying factor, in all three images. I knew that the men’s long collars, worn widely open over their jacket lapels, only came into fashion in the 1930s. Most of the men in the images are holding what are likely bibles too, and one features a chalk blackboard with a message about having been ‘delivered […] from the power of darkness’. It seemed feasible, then, that these people were Christian converts. I imagined that this would have made for good missionary “PR” fodder in the Brethren’s periodicals.

EOS/4/1/8/18 – Group of men sitting. Echoes of Service lantern slides

So, I tasked myself with hunting through every image featured in the publications from the late 1920s into the early 1940s. It took a couple of hours to get through them all and, despite my hunch, I didn’t come across any of my slide images.  I did, however, spot two photographs of men dressed in identical styles of clothing, though the poor print quality made it all but impossible to match any of the faces of the men with those I was looking for. One image is described as a Bible Class in Chennai (know at the time as Madras) in 1939; the other is a gathering of missionary workers in Mumbai (known then as Bombay). It’s just possible that the slide photos I was looking for were also taken at one of these locations, though it’s impossible to say for sure.  If nothing else, though, these discoveries strengthened the evidence to contextualise the people I was hunting for as likely being involved in missionary activity themselves – be it as students or as co-workers.

There is so much more important information to uncover in the Echoes of Service collection, and I’m excited for the research we’ve been doing to feed into project work that will transform these colonial-era lantern slides into tools for reflection and positive change.

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