Decolonising Language

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Ray Barnett, head of collections and archives

In our efforts to address decolonisation, one major piece of work is around our use of language.

In everyday speech, many people are now more aware of terms that may be offensive to different communities; terms which are denigrating and inappropriate.

As we go about our work in Bristol museums and archives, we need to not only remove such words, but also understand how we manage historic references. It’s vital that we do not cause undue offence but we also need to make sure we are not disguising how such language has been an accepted part of society in the past.

To address this we established a Decolonisation Terminology sub-group of our overall Decolonisation Working Group. This has since become more simply a Language group which looks at how we use language to catalogue, describe and label our objects and documents. The aim of the group is defined as:

To address the inclusion of offensive language, both direct and inferred, and the omission of context in our recorded narratives.

Within this aim, there are two areas of focus. Firstly to review the information we hold about the items in our collections and, related to that, the way we interpret those items within our displays, exhibitions and digital channels.

Secondly, to bring all work in this area together to ensure consistency, cut-down on duplication of effort, connect to people working in similar areas and provide transparency of our working practices.

The group has been working on several projects. The main ones are:

  • A review and audit of the labels, initially in the main galleries of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and instigation of a process to change any found to be offensive.
  • Identification of overtly offensive/racist language in our museum and archives collection databases, how to manage that so as not to hide or change historic references, and how to warn users of the context and offensive nature of what they might be researching or viewing.

In addition, the group reacts to any additional requests for changes to labels at our museums from the public or staff. They are developing guidelines for anyone writing new text for labels and interpretation to make sure the language used is appropriate.

The group is also developing ways to alert those using our online resources (e.g. collection databases) that they may be opening documents or accessing historic information which could be seen as offensive. We are consulting with other organisations to take advantage of experience already gained in this area.

Please bear with us as we develop these areas of work. If you do come across, for example, a label in one of our museums which you consider to be offensive please let us know immediately and we will ensure it is acted on as soon as possible. You can contact us through our website.

Keep up to date with our work on decolonisation.

Image: The front hall of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery with the State Entry into Delhi painting on display © David Seaman

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