Suggestions for successfully applying content warnings to digital collections content and publicly available museum databases, based on a survey of current practice in across the websites of 25 GLAM institutions.
This resource is adapted from a short presentation I did about dealing with offensive and problematic language in museum’s public collections information for the Museum Ethnographers Group‘s Keeping Connected event on Tackling Terminology in October 2021. You can also view the slides from the presentation as a pdf.
I know when people begin this work they often want to know what other museums are doing, but it is not always easy to find out without trawling through all of their websites. So that’s what I did: In the summer of 2021 I surveyed the sites of 25 galleries, libraries, archives and museums to collect examples of how they were approaching problematic content in their online collections.
This was informed and inspired by Alicia Chilcott’s paper Towards protocols for describing racially offensive language in UK public archives. Chilcott carried out a similar exercise searching archival descriptions, which her paper describes in detail. The other really useful and concise resource that helped me think through this work is a twitter thread and subsequent blog post about the use of content warnings in public displays by exhibition designer Margaret Middleton which gives sound advice about when to apply warnings and what level of detail you need.
I have drawn on both of those resources and my own survey to pull together some suggestions for how to address problematic terminology in your online collections. There are a few different elements and they all work together improve the user experience of accessing these collections online.
The first kind of content warning is a blanket warning for the whole collection. This can be used when you know that some of the records may have issues but you do not have the resources or the information to go into specifics. And ideally, this would be on the landing page as soon as someone tries to access the collection records online. In my survey there were some examples where after a bit of digging I did find similar caveats about the records, but most people accessing the records are not going to go out of their way to find it.
The example from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge is to the point, doesn’t try to sugarcoat the issue and is honest that they know there are inaccuracies as well as offensive terms.
The second type of warning is for individual records where you know there is a specific instance of problematic terminology. You should put that warning at the start of a record where the offensive content is reproduced. It should be clear from that wording, what the warning is about and if possible, it should give the viewer the opportunity to avoid looking at that offensive content. The V&A’s new explore collections website has a feature where images or content that’s been marked as offensive is pixelated and you have to click through to see it.
While this example is really good in one way, you actually don’t know what you’re opting out of. You know it’s something that someone considers offensive but you don’t know whether that’s because of racist language, graphic sexual content or violence or any number of things that you might apply content warnings to, so it could be improved by being more specific.
In addition to those content warnings, there were a couple of other elements which I think are necessary to give context to the records and explain why museums are reproducing outdated and offensive language.
Its good practice to have some explanatory notes about the collections. This could be on the collections landing page as it likely applies to more than one object, but it should definitely be easy to find. That can include a brief history of the collection putting it into context. My example here is from the Wellcome who say that their “collections were first assembled in the early 20th century, following a racist, sexist and ablest system of cultural hierarchies.”
You can also go into the context of the database, or the records themselves. The V&A has an ‘about this object record’ section on each object page that says: ‘It is a working database that includes information compiled over the life of the museum. Some of our records may contain offensive and discriminatory language or reflect outdated ideas, practice and analysis.’
You may also want to explain why the museum has chosen to reproduce offensive terms. The Black Cultural Archives states that it “includes among its collections the historical evidence of racism and Britain and elsewhere. As a result this catalogue contains terms which are racially offensive, these are being used in the interest of historical accuracy…”
These notes mean that your users will be better prepared for any offensive terminology that they come across and will understand that it does not reflect the contemporary views of the museum. However the explanations should be honest and not attempt to whitewash the reality of museum histories.
Another helpful addition to your collections pages where you know or suspect there might be offensive language is a commitment to action. This shows that the museum is not only aware of the issue, and is actively working on improving the records.
For example, Art UK aggregates works from thousands of venues on its site. Since 2020 they have been working on the terminology which they use, but they have to do that in collaboration with the collections whose artworks they’re hosting. On some of those which still contain offensive terms, they have text that says “Art UK does not support racist terminology. We are working with the collection that owns this work towards amending this artwork record”
Any commitment that you make should be realistic. Working on collections records is a long and slow process, and there’s often not a lot of resource for this work. If you are not in a position to make changes, don’t make promises that you can not keep. Better to be honest and open to feedback.
Think about how this work relates to any other mission statements or commitments that the museum may have made. For example, if a museum made a commitment to anti-racist action (as many did in 2020) how does that relate to the racist terminology in their records? How can collections work support that commitment?
The final thing that I think it’s important to include with these kinds of records is an invitation to feedback. This shows that the museum is open to criticism and it values new perspectives and other sources of expertise. If you’re going to include this in your collections records it should have a really clear call to action so either a contact form, or an email address, so it’s immediately obvious to people how they can send that feedback and who they will be sending it to.
For example on the Tate website, there is a text on each record that says, “Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? we would like to hear from you”
Of course, it goes without saying that, if you have an invitation to feedback, and you get feedback from people you need to act on it. Show that you are responsive and that this work is a priority.