In this two-part interview we speak with Ananda Rutherford, Research Associate on the TaNC (Towards a National Collection) AHRC project: Provisional Semantics
In Part 1 Ananda speaks about her work on the TaNC Provisional Semantics project based in the Research Department of Tate.
Thanks for chatting with me, how did you come to work on the TaNC Provisional Semantics project at Tate?
After a career in museum collections and documentation management, I stepped away from doing the work in 2014, to do some thinking about doing the work. It was something that had not really been possible with young children and a job. Thanks to a chance conversation at a school Christmas fair, over the noise of the legendary Chocolate Tombola (don’t ask), I started a part-time doctorate with UCL’s Centre for the Digital Humanities. With the help and encouragement of a pretty fab array of supervisors, colleagues and fellow students who kick-started my brain, I have been trying to finish it since. As ever, the doing and living bits get in the way.
The odd thing about this role is that it feels like the coming together of everything I care about in life and career. That sounds a bit melodramatic, but I saw the advert (and several people sent it to me) and it seemed to fit my research and professional interests exactly, but more than that, it seemed to be an opportunity to actually do something useful.
With Provisional Semantics there was the chance to address some of the fundamental issues around how we write about and present cultural heritage
Provisional Semantics is part of the Towards a National Collection (TaNC) funding initiative and I was aware, as were many across the sector, that it would be a large(ish) chunk of funding dedicated to pretty crucial collections work for the first time in a while. I am old enough to have seen several funding rounds of this type, but I was hopeful that there were going to be some interesting projects emerging from it.
My career and research interests have been dominated by the process of digitisation and getting museum collections out there and online, so another push on this front made me prick up my ears, and with Provisional Semantics there was the chance to address some of the fundamental issues around how we write about and present cultural heritage and how often object description repeats without reflection and due care, language, content and attitudes that are mired in colonial thinking and structural racism.
While many of the TaNC projects are necessarily and inevitably about technological solutions and innovation in collections information and access, it seemed crucial that a funding initiative that addresses the idea of a “National” collection also tackles some of the problematic ways in which we write and think about national identity and our histories through our cultural heritage. Of course, this is all being grimly played out with the National Trust at the moment.
I thought I knew my stuff, but the space to really explore both personal experience and the insidiousness of racism throughout our organisation and its effect on black artists and makers was upsetting, radicalising and deeply important.
I was at the Crafts Council at the time I applied for the post, and grappling with the idea of the representation and visibility of Black makers, artists and artisans of colour. At the same time the entire organisation was required to take part in training sessions run by the impressive Shades of Noir. It was less training, and more an attempt to fundamentally unpick and shift the personal and structural racism that defines white experience and perpetuates discrimination and hurt. I thought I knew my stuff, but the space to really explore both personal experience and the insidiousness of racism throughout our organisation and its effect on black artists and makers was upsetting, radicalising and deeply important. The honesty and directness of the Shades facilitators was eye-opening and shocking, and moved on my thinking immensely. I would highly recommend working with Shades of Noir for any organisation.
Age, experience and a level of independence in working freelance while studying, have allowed me the immense privilege of giving many fewer f***s than I used to, so I had already decided that I was going to call racism out where and when I saw it, but the Shades sessions showed me still how much I still didn’t see or understand. This is not to say the issues of structural racism were new or that this was an epiphany, but there is a difference between “knowing” and (to a very small degree having experience of racism), and trying to live and work in an actively anti-racist way. They ask you directly what are you going to change?
Specifically addressing my own collections management and documentation practice at the Crafts Council I was looking for ways to make the work of artists of colour more visible, to amplify, promote and centre Black makers within the collection. I was approached about the works of Magdalene Odundo held in the CC collection and was subsequently introduced to the Black Artists in Modernism project and the work that Anjalie Dalal-Clayton at UAL’s Decolonising Arts Institute had done with Sonja Boyce.
Tate’s work on the Art and Artists database, from its inception, has always been one of the gold standards for online collections innovation.
What I am trying to say in a very round-about way is the fact that Anjalie was on the team was a definitely a draw! I continue to be impressed by the thoughtful and careful work done on that project, both the qualitative and quantitative analysis of exactly what is going on in UK collections with the work of Black artists and the generous and thoughtful ways the project engaged with both the artists and the institutions.
At the same time, through my doctoral research I had been looking at the limitations of museum cataloguing – tools, systems, practices and policies – and what digitisation does with and to collections knowledge. Tate’s work on the Art and Artists database, from its inception, has always been one of the gold standards for online collections innovation. So again, that strand of the project was a great pull and just the fact that the proposal actually mentions cataloguing practice got me a bit over-excited.
What exactly is Provisional Semantics and what is the project’s goal?
The original proposal for Provisional Semantics came from the Tate’s former head librarian Maxine Miller, in 2019, with the aim of transforming collections access material relating to the Caribbean, African and Asian diasporas across the sector. It was subsequently worked up into a bid for the TaNC initiative, with multiple partnerships and collections.
I am cautious though about claiming we have done anything different or new on the project. Much of the work to date has been about understanding how we are still here as a sector
The project centres around addressing racist language, the lack of representation of Black people and people of colour and multi-perspectival histories, experiences and understandings of art and heritage in object description. Many curators, and collections and documentation managers have been wrestling with this for a long time and numerous projects have attempted to address it in exhibitions workshops and other initiatives. Yet here we are in 2020, still debating blatantly a-historical accounts, repeating offensive and uninformed terms and still thinking that anything other than the pseudo-objectivity of the traditional curatorial cataloguing practice is somehow problematic or too difficult.
I am cautious though about claiming we have done anything different or new on the project. Much of the work to date has been about understanding how we are still here as a sector, as museums and as people: how we got here and how our own personal, professional, and institutional positions inform the project and the so-called decolonisation work we are attempting to do.
How conscious are you of Tate’s own colonial past and how are you integrating this awareness into your work?
Very conscious, it is deeply problematic, but as has been blatantly obvious this last year it’s not just in the past; it’s in the infrastructure, behaviours and responses and the ideas and attitudes. The public scrutiny and criticism of Tate has been intense this year, alongside the British Museum and the National Trust, but that is actually as it should be.
Control is a major issue. My mantra at the moment is – “Let it go!”
As a National, the way Tate acts and functions should be up for debate and challenged and that is certainly the position within the Research department, which I have found to be supportive, reflective and thoughtful, though this may not be the case for everyone. Working within an institution makes the tension between complicity and constructive challenge hard to balance, and I am well aware that it is not always a welcoming or comfortable place to work for many people. So many staff and stakeholders are working to change things, but until the composition of the staff is more diverse, particularly at senior levels, Tate, like many organisations in this country, will struggle to fundamentally alter its behaviours.
What have been your primary insights so far in Provisional Semantics? Just how problematic are our documentation procedures, controlled vocabularies and descriptions?
Cataloguing and documentation comes in many forms, but control is a major issue. My mantra at the moment is – “Let it go!” (yes I will sing it badly if asked). Let go of the control, the traditional, the way we usually do it, but I know that’s not always practicable.
You know how to think about objects – at least use that skill to tackle the gaps and the absences of information within your collection.
Across the sector when issues about language or terms or object description come up in discussion – people always ask “but how do I do this?” You know how to do this: you do it with place names and date changes and spellings and materials all the time. Do the work! If it makes you uncomfortable, if colleagues or your audience have raised it as an issue – read up, fight your corner, be bold. Read Black scholars, read scholars of colour, talk to people with expertise through experience, do the research outside your usual echo chamber – you know how to think about objects – at least use that skill to tackle the gaps and the absences of information within your collection.
That said, I do know this is going to be even harder in the current climate where swingeing cuts are decimating the sector and the work that is possible. So once again the rich and urgent work of research and description will be parked and left without resources in order to keep the doors open.
It helps address the discomfort and disconnect I often feel between the experience of seeing or touching an object, and the dry records with their selective information that attempt to give account of it
The questions I come back to in my research and practice are, what’s missing? Who is missing, what isn’t being said or shown or discussed? This is the opposite way round to the way I was taught to catalogue and describe objects, but it helps address the discomfort and disconnect I often feel between the experience of seeing or touching an object, and the dry records with their selective information that attempt to give account of it, and often write out the other people and the agency of the object – its social and political relationships, its effect.
As for insights, this project is incredibly fluid and shape-shifts all the time, as we question and reflect. But so far, I would say:
- That we need to start from an agreed ethical position when setting out on any project and that explicit, active anti-racism should be the baseline
- That project work is not the way to decolonise, connect or change
- That projects can only observe the issue and trial solutions and that embedded change and meaningful legacy are not possible in the short-term. (this is all well observed and documented in Bernadette Lynch’s work back in 2007)
- That long-term, well-funded scrutiny of practice and policy is the way to make change and relationships
- That attachment to the way things are “usually” is very powerful, that fear of getting it wrong is a massive barrier to trying to getting it right
- That this sector is very siloed even within specialisms, within the same organisation, within departments
- That the sector is terrible at evaluation
- That institutions choose where the money goes, it’s not inevitable or not available, it’s strategically allocated – what determines that strategy?
- That the impetus for change depends on individuals
- That colonial histories and experiences – at the time and now are not one homogenous whole and cannot be tidied out of the record
- That we are not all on the same page about decolonisation, anti-racism and understandings of these terms need to be defined and contested
- That there isn’t a single fix
- That changing words is not enough
- (told you I liked a list).