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Labelling Matters

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

Wandering through the Pitt Rivers Museum, we would encounter over 500 000 artefacts from collections made mostly between 1870 and 1960. Therefore, most of those objects were acquired in the colonial context, and language from that period used on labels and descriptions is often problematic to various degrees. This led Marenka Thompson-Odlum to start a project with the 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 the background of these people. In the case of colonial collections, labels were most frequently written by European male scholars, providing us with a minimal perspective on objects. Their notion of proper knowledge, culture, or how people are 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 the aftermath of the Benin expedition (punitive expedition) of 1897 were presented as artefacts that British officials found. 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 a woman possessed some objects of the exhibition, she was most frequently referred to as daughters, granddaughters 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. 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 statements made on the labels and museum descriptions into a wider context. They also held a workshop for children where they could create descriptions of their favourite objects and think critically about the label-production process. Next time you will be looking at some exposition, it might be interesting to try a little thought experiment and critically question all the texts that are provided to visitors.

-Jakub Senesi

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