In my role as Curator, Diversifying Collections, one of the things I am particularly interested in is historic terminology, and the place it has in our cataloguing systems today. Historic books, manuscripts, archives and images were given titles at the point they were created, which reflected the interests, ideas and prejudices of that historical moment. As a place where these historic resources are gathered and shared with a contemporary public, the John Rylands Library (and the University of Manchester Library more broadly) has a duty of care to both historic people represented in our collections and present-day audiences who view them. We do not want to be describing historic individuals with prejudicial terms, or in ways that are inaccurate. Equally, we do not want Library users to be unnecessarily viewing harmful descriptions or erroneous information.
To this end I have begun researching one particular collection – the Manchester Geographical Society lantern slide collection – to think about how we can create titles and descriptions that both accurately reflect the content of our sources (peoples, places, activities and world events) and place them in the context of their historical moment.
The Manchester Geographical Society Lantern Slide Collection
The Manchester Geographical Society (archive reference GB 133 MGS) was established in 1884 – the same year as the Berlin Conference which saw European nations partition the African continent as part of ‘the Scramble for Africa’. It was a time of unprecedented European expansion of territory, power and commerce. Like the London-based Royal Geographical Society, the Manchester Geographical Society (MGS) ran a bustling lecture series, where well-known explorers, travellers, scientists and missionaries were able to disseminate the newly found geographical and cultural knowledge they were gathering from across the globe.1
MGS developed to the particular interests of its local audience, with a greater emphasis on the promotion of geography as an academic subject and a focus on local geographic knowledge. The lantern slide collection – created roughly between the Society’s inception and the mid-20th century – reflects all these interests, local and global.
The slides themselves hold limited information about their subjects. A slide is small – there isn’t much space to write a description! Often, a slide has a number which tells us which series it came from and which other slides it is associated with, and a short description of what is shown. Most of the slides are photographs and only have a few words to describe their content.
The aim of my study is to determine:
- The accuracy of the information provided about the slides’ content. Are place names, cultural group names or even people’s individual names, accurate and correct in the present? Do the words used to describe activities reflect contemporary understandings of what is taking place?
- What is the nature of the language used in the slide descriptions and what harm might it cause today? For example, slide titles may use colonial terminology that was forced on people to describe them or their homeland, or names were given that were purposefully prejudicial towards people and cultures represented in the slide images.
- Where images have been digitized, have we developed the terminology used in our cataloguing process, or are we replicating the problems or inaccuracy and harmful language identified above by just copying over slide titles to the digital realm?
There are over 3500 slides within the collection, most of which relate to non-European people and places, but many are linked to the impact of British colonial rule. Some of the slides come from commercially produced sets, re-printed for mass distribution. They reflect not only global imperial history, but how that information was disseminated within Britain. These slides therefore present amazing research possibilities for those studying 20th-century history from multiple angles. But equal to the possibilities are problems. For the most part, the only data available to accompany the slides are those few words etched onto the top strip of the slide frame – and what do they tell us, really?
What they tell us is how foreign people and places were viewed and presented to British audiences at the height of British colonial dominance. That is important to recognise, understand, reflect on and record, but that information doesn’t make for accurate, respectful, or searchable metadata in the present. So, where to start?
‘Eskimos, Icebergs, Sleigh-Dogs – not very interesting’
In late 2022 I begun to research a series of 30 slides within the MGS Lantern Slide Collection, which were recorded in Library records as ‘Eskimos, Icebergs, Sleigh-Dogs – not very interesting’.2 It quickly became apparent that not only was the term ‘Eskimo’ inappropriate, but that the dismissive subtitle ‘not very interesting’, belied many of the problems faced in contemporary cataloguing when revisiting historically created descriptions – namely indifference and racist attitudes to non-Europeans that are carried from the past into the present. These 30 slides were in fact part of a larger commercial set produced by the Scottish publisher James Valentine and Sons in 1890. Originally comprising 50 slides, they formed the backdrop to a lecture ‘Greenland’s Icy Mountains’.3 The slides and lecture notes were available for purchase from Valentine and would have been used by educational organisations and societies – such as the Manchester Geographical Society – to present newly discovered people and places to British audiences.
The late 19th century saw an increase in arctic exploration and exploitation as the commercial whaling industry boomed. From Franklin’s disastrous attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1845 until a route was finally discovered by Roald Amundsen in 1906, interest in land and sea exploration of the region remained high.4 Professional interest was equalled by public fascination with Arctic landscapes and peoples, both of which featured often in public lectures at the time.
The term ‘Eskimo’ was one given to people within the northern circumpolar region by European settlers. It was used by travellers, whalers and explorers as a short-hand, indiscriminate way of describing huge swathes of peoples and cultures. It led to a homogenising of cultures, which itself led to an erasure of cultural diversity in our historic records. Similarly, today we often hear people say ‘Africa’ when they do not in fact mean the African continent, but one specific country or cultural group – it is a problem that persists and is perpetuated by our Eurocentric view of the world. Current users of the slide collection looking for cultures in our catalogues would have to replicate that erasure – using arbitrary and vague terms like ‘Eskimo’ or ‘Africa’ (rather than specific peoples or places) in order to uncover collections.5 This discrete collection of 30 slides therefore offered an opportunity to think a little more deeply about what information we include in our catalogues, what we prioritise and how we display and disseminate historic records in the present day.
Savage, Specimen or Small Child?
This image shows a small child – maybe four or five years old – dressed in fur clothing (possibly dog fur) with skin boots. It is a studio portrait, where the child has been placed on a half-barrel against a canvas or cloth backdrop. The photograph was taken by Walter Livingstone-Learmonth in 1888, one of several in a series. Learmonth travelled with the crews of both the ‘Eclipse’ and ‘Maud’ whaling vessels in 1888-1889 and documented people and places encountered on the voyage, as well as the gruesome realities of the whaling industry.6 His albums from both the ‘Eclipse’ and ‘Maud’ voyages include a number of Indigenous people photographed in either a mocked-up studio setting, on board a ship or on land. Several are of children.
The title of this image – A Small Arctic Specimen – piqued my interest, as did Learmonth’s original image title, ‘Savage child clad in dog skin, Ponds Inlet’. While the former title might seem harmlessly quirky, in fact both titles reflect the racist ‘othering’ of non-Europeans in the photographic record of the time. By the late 19th century race-science was a mainstream endeavour. The idea that non-Europeans existed in a hierarchy on a scale from savage to civilised was a cornerstone of public debate around the relationships between Europeans and non-Europeans. Presenting a small Inuit child as a ‘specimen’ in this context was an act of reinforcing to the British public the scientific – and therefore ‘factual’– basis on which these claims were made. By the 1890s ‘specimen’ may have been more publicly acceptable – certainly in the polite society in which this image would have circulated as part of an educational slide show – than ‘savage’, but the sentiment was the same. Today we know this to be wholly untrue and based on nothing more than racist ideology, but what does that mean for images like this in the present?
What do we really know about this child? Copies of this image held in other collections note the child as being a boy. So we can say this is a small boy from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada. He is Inuit – a better descriptor than ‘Eskimo’ although it may be possible to narrow down his cultural association further. We can also recognise his Inuit heritage by acknowledging that ‘Pond Inlet’ is an anglicised place name imposed by European settlers. He is from Mittimatalik. We have no idea how willing a participant he was in this photoshoot, nor if those caring for him understood how his image would be used. The most important thing we can do today with the limited knowledge we have, is recognise his humanity and his childhood. We can re-write our description of his image from a position of care and provide as much accurate information as possible in the present context so that others can find his image in a respectful way.
Mukpa / Kate Mackay
Another slide in the series – also taken by Walter Livingstone-Learmouth aboard the ‘Maud’ in 1889 – is titled ‘Kate Mackay’. It shows a woman standing on the deck of a ship wearing clothing traditional to the northern Baffin Island region. Many Indigenous people were involved in the whaling industry in various capacities and many were given – or chose to take on – anglicised names. These names were recorded, but often individuals’ Indigenous names, the names that connected them to lands, people and cultures, were not.
This anglicisation was a core practice of British colonisation but seeped into other areas of contact with non-Europeans outside of the Empire. Much like the broad use of ‘Eskimo’, the renaming of people erased cultural traditions. Naming creates continuity, connecting families down the generations. Inuit communities have recorded their history orally for centuries if not millennia and the handing down of names is central to that practice.
Mackay is a relatively common Scottish surname, and much of the whaling fleet sailed out of Scotland. In Kenn Harper’s news piece for the Nunatsiaq News – a newspaper of record for the Nunavut and Nunavik territory – he speculates that ‘Kate’ may have taken the name of her Scottish common-law husband (a known practice), or perhaps she just liked the sound of the name. Whatever the reason, her anglicised name has remained associated with her image, while her Inuit name was lost for a century. Thanks to Harper’s research,6 we now know that her name was recorded in the original notes to accompany the ‘Greenland’s Icy Mountains’ series. That description tells us that her name was Mukpa and that like the small boy above, she was from Pond Inlet. She was a seamstress and she was well liked.
As with the image of the small boy, knowing more does not necessarily mean we know a lot. But what we do know can centre an Indigenous woman and her story, rather than the story of colonial exploration and the erasure of Inuit language and culture.
Having researched the 30 images in this small part of the Manchester Geographical Society collection, what next? This research has shown that placing the original slide titles directly into our digital system LUNA replicates inaccurate and harmful historic practices through inappropriate language. But the process has also given us the chance to think about what better practice might look like.
A first step will be to update the records of these 30 slides. Throughout 2023 the John Rylands Library plans to begin a project to create accurate and respectful records for all the slides. With so many thousands of slides, this will be a long process, but hopefully this work will open up this fascinating collection to better and more innovative use and research. At the same time as updating records, we’ll be looking for ways to record historic information, which may no longer be the basis of our descriptions and catalogue records, but which is an important part of the history of these images, and helps us explore and reflect on why they were created and used.
We may never know a lot about all the individuals recorded in these slides, but we can approach our cataloguing with care, and centre the human experience of those depicted.
- You can find more information about the Manchester Geographical Society Archive here: https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/c19df3f8-d59b-36f8-8eda-0ba49dec6015
- The parent work title of ‘Eskimos, Icebergs, Sleigh-Dogs – not very interesting’ was given to this grouping more recently through a box-listing project (a project to write short descriptions of each group of slides) and is not the original name given to this collection by Library staff. Though ‘not very interesting’ is found on internal (not public) records only, it’s modern use shows a continued Eurocentric framing of non-European peoples and places. You can find the collection here: https://luna.manchester.ac.uk/luna/servlet/view/search?q=title_larger_entity=%22Eskimos%2C%20icebergs%2C%20sleigh%20dogs%22
- You can find more information on Greenland’s Icy Mountains here: https://lucerna.exeter.ac.uk/set/index.php?language=EN&id=3000586
- For more information on 19th-century arctic exploration and its impact on British culture see David, Robert G. The Arctic in the British Imagination 1818–1914. MSI edition. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2017.
- For further information on the use of the term Eskimo see https://sinchi-foundation.com/news/dont-use-the-word-eskimo-anymore/
- You can find out more about Learmonth’s voyages and photographs here: https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/picturelibrary/catalogue/emv1888-89/
- For the full news article see: https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/taissumanni-march-1/
0 comments on “Specimens and Savages? Representing people in the historic Manchester Geographical Society Lantern Slide Collection”