Labelling Matters

Wandering through the Pitt Rivers museum we would encounter over 500 000 artefacts from collections that were made mostly between 1870 and 1960. Therefore, the majority of those objects were acquired in colonial context and language from that period used on labels and descriptions is often to various degree problematic. This led Marenka Thompson-Odlum to start a project with aim of reviewing historical labelling and language use in Pitt Rivers, contributing in this way to the overall decolonisation process in museums.

While looking at exhibitions we very rarely stop to think about who wrote the descriptions and what was the background of these people. In the case of colonial collections, labels were most frequently written by European male scholars, providing us with a very limited perspective on objects. Their notion of what is proper knowledge, culture or how are people categorized into hierarchies framed their interpretations of artefacts. For example, case headings presenting the art of indigenous people in Pitt Rivers underwent several changes between 1884 and present times. Initially named “Savage Art” was later changed to “Barbaric Art” then to “Civilisation and Barbaric Art” and recently it was renamed to “Human Form in Art”.

Headings, however, were only the tip of the iceberg in the whole museum collection. Some problematic descriptions were more subtle, as selective usage of euphemisms. This way objects acquired during looting in aftermath of the Benin expedition (punitive expedition) of 1897 were presented as artefacts that were found by British officials. On the other hand, whenever some items were obtained in a similar manner by indigenous people (from some other non-European population) they were referred to as looted or stolen. Another important detail that might slip unnoticed is the way women were presented in the descriptions. If some objects of the exhibition were possessed by a woman, she was most frequently referred to as daughters, grand-daughters or spouses of some man. Consequently, women were presented as having no significant identity separate from men. Last from such examples is the usage of Latin names for plants and animals with which the author presumed a universal understanding of the Latin terms and encoded labels in unnecessary scientific jargon.

All the cases I used so far were meant to illustrate the spectrum of the problematic language used in labelling that would often stay under the radar. Marenka Thompson-Odlum and her colleagues are doing their best to detect, analyse and put into wider context statements made on the labels and museum descriptions. They also held a workshop for children where they had a chance to create descriptions of their favourite objects and think critically about the label-production process. Next time when you will be looking at some exposition, it might be interesting to try a little thought experiment and question critically all the texts around that are provided to visitors.

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