Critical Cataloguing and Reparative Descriptions
One of the first steps towards addressing how the CCA, as a cultural institution, has been replicating or perpetuating colonial dynamics is to identify and foreground voices and subjects that have not been recognized. And we believe that this entails reviewing and revising the longstanding practices we have used to describe the objects in our collection. These descriptions affect and even determine how collection objects are discovered and interpreted, both within and outside the CCA walls. Any bias embedded in the language and scope of descriptions, potentially including inequity and systemic racism, will therefore have an impact on the work they might help to generate. Descriptive practices are not neutral: what information is included in and excluded from collection descriptions is influenced by professional biases, national and international standards for creating metadata, and terminology that often conveys a particular world view.
The review process, focused on inclusive and just language, began in September 2020, involving not only the people that produce, update, and share collection descriptions, such as archivists and librarians, but also those curating and producing projects in which collection objects are used. We are not experts on all the subjects and contexts that the objects in the CCA Collection address, and so revising these descriptions calls for research and reaching out to both our peers and impacted communities to expand our knowledge. For example, as part of The Association of Research Institutes in Art History (ARIAH)’s Careers in Art History Internships program, the CCA welcomed ten students in April 2021 for a month-long collaboration, during which they critically reviewed and identified absences in the descriptions of objects in the photograph collection. In addition, we have conducted consultation meetings with peer institutions that are also revising their collection descriptions, including the Chicago History Museum, the Morgan Library, the Clark Art Institute, the Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute.
In order to begin to examine and criticize object descriptions and to test what such a critical cataloguing project could look like, we decided to focus on the Photography collection. More specifically, we reviewed the descriptive terms and keywords used in it—or absent from it. In doing so, we recognized a predominant concentration on European and North American histories of architecture ideas, and while the CCA Collection was never intended to be encyclopedic, we identified substantial gaps in the consideration of different perspectives. We also gathered and reviewed a list of harmful language used, we have begun to discuss how to change the language, particularly in constructed titles (a title given by a cataloguer or archivist).
It is important to distinguish between describing an object and classifying it. Systemic biases are often evident in how information is classified—what subject headings are applied or how an object is catalogued in relation to other content. Whereas inappropriate language in an object description, in the title for example, may be due to a lack of knowledge on the part of the person who formulated the title, or simply because language has evolved, rather than necessarily problematic description practices. To this end, we expect not only to identify harmful language but also to address absences and inadequacies of information. What we learn from reviewing biased, inappropriate, and harmful descriptions and classifications in the Photography collection will be applied as we review other CCA holdings, including Prints and Drawings, library collections, and archives, even if description and management standards are distinct in each case. And though (object) records and descriptions are typically the responsibility of librarians, cataloguers, and archivists, those working on exhibitions, public programs, and publications will join the endeavour to investigate, review, and revise the language of object descriptions and captions.
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