Metadata Politics - 30 April 2021

23 May 2021
23 May 2021

For the fifth Spirals session, we hosted Dr Rebecca Kahn. Her talk was titled, “Man, Woman, Other,” based on a soon-to-be-published article. It was concerned with the ethics and politics of museum metadata. This is not always immediately evident in museum collections, although arguably every object in a museum accumulates embedded and encoded politics at each phase of its journey into the collection, and after - see “The Politics of Metadata,” (Dahlgren, A., Hansson, K., Reichert, R. and Wasielewski, A. (eds.),  Digital Culture & Society, 2020). Digitisation can expose these politics, as ever-larger virtual infrastructures promise interconnected and interlinked access to heritage collections online. On the one hand, these technologies have the potential to reunite scattered collections, democratize access and reveal hidden narratives. On the other, they also risk adding complicated, outdated and inaccurate metadata into the data ecosystem, without providing corresponding contextual information. 

The talk considered a small collection of drawings made by children, which were collected by a pioneering female anthropologist, and are now part of the collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology at the University of Oxford (Khan, R., “Man, Woman, Child,” Digital Culture & Society, 2020). This case study demonstrated how difficult metadata, usually buried deep in museum documentation, is brought to the surface by digitisation, and exposes the traumatic histories of a collection’s origins.

Further reading: 

Avgousti, A., Papaioannou, G., & Gouveia, FR. (2019). Content Dissemination from Small-scale Museum and Archival Collections: Community Reusable Semantic Metadata Content Models for Digital Humanities, 43

Kahn, R. (2017). Smudges on the Glass: Locating and Tracing the Museum in the British Museum’s Digitised Collections. [Doctoral dissertation, King's College London].

Speaker Bio: Rebecca Khan is a REWIRE post-doctoral researcher in the Digital Humanities group at the University of Vienna. Her Marie-Curie COFUND project explores how museums and archives are using the semantic web to build integrated collections, and the ethical and technological challenges presented by current data models. Dr Khan is also an Associate Researcher at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin, where she worked on several linked data for cultural heritage projects. Her previous research has explored the intersections of heritage digitisation and national identity narratives in South Africa, Wales and Britain and the formation of memory in both the British Museum and the Schwules Museum, Berlin. She completed her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Rhodes University and Wits and her PhD at King’s College, London.

Discussant Bio: Debra Pryor is a digital archival content manager and archivist in the Archive and Public Culture, Five Hundred Year Archive project at the University of Cape Town.



by Tao Boerstra

April 30th marked the fifth instalment of the Spirals Virtual Seminar series. Dr Rebecca Kahn from the University of Vienna discussed the ethics and politics inseparable from museum metadata, with a case study of a small collection of drawings made by children from various milieux and collected by Beatrice Blackwood, an early 20th century anthropologist and curator at the Pitt Rivers museum at the University of Oxford.

Blackwood is noteworthy for having named the makers of the drawings she collected in a database where a mere 4.9% of makers are named and a good chunk of this figure is comprised of collectors who named themselves. While Blackwood was attentive to the social contexts of the makers, her ethics are dubious. Did the children know to what uses their drawings would be put? Did they give their consent? Did Blackwood really care? The drawings are, by and large, accompanied by detailed descriptions and accounts, but such ethical quandaries make it difficult to publicize the data, and where the data can be published, the correlating metadata provide scant context. However noble in intention it may be, such gatekeeping remains a fundamental concern in relation to the archive.

Who is allowed to access what? Who decides? An archive is at any one moment bereft of a plethora of ideas, values, perspectives and influences which have been deemed unarchivable (Enwezor, 2008: 18). Archival metadata, being data that describe other data, may be conceived of as sites where the relentless taxonomical, indexical and archaeological logic of the process of ‘archivisation’ is exaggerated. They are required to be lean for both algorithmic and human processing. The few characters included in these metadata are expected to be representative of whole realities, an expectation they unfailingly disappoint, for reality is simply semantically irreducible to signs and signifiers. Nevertheless, we tend to intuit them as unbiased representations of things such as they really are, and they shape what we take to be real. If, as Tom Nesmith argues, we know the world through the lens of communication, then communications such as metadata hold sway over our understanding of reality (Nesmith, 2002: 29). This is especially dangerous when, as Kahn argued during the discussion, metadata are sites of cognitive imperialism, or sites of cognitive manipulation that serve to deny other(ed) epistemologies, values, linguistic and cultural conventions through the privileging of a singular language, culture and frame of reference (Mentan, 2015: 58).

Gatekeeping, along with often politically-motivated emphases and absences, results in metadata that are parochial, tendentious and that greatly limit our knowledge of the object, its maker(s) and its context(s). Through the case study, Kahn also demonstrated the ways in which digitisation can exhume contested metadata, at once revealing it to the public eye and exposing the oft-traumatic histories of a collection’s origins. She considers the political repercussions of digitising metadata, their ethical ambivalence and their mnemonic limitations.

Debra Pryor, digital archive content manager of the 500 Year Archive (FHYA) digital project and research associate at the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative, as well as the discussant of this seminar, emphasised the selective processes that take place in collating archival metadata and the opportune moment that digitisation presents. Her discussion helped us to imagine an alternative to the reality conveyed by conventional archival metadata. She and her colleagues, Chloe Rushovich and Carolyn Hamilton, outlined alternative modes of managing metadata, using the experimental FHYA as an example of fundamentally reconfiguring an archive in a way that interrogates singular communication and allows for alternative hermeneutical methods to be explored.

The FHYA is a research tool that seeks to stimulate engagement neglected histories, in particular those peculiar to Kwazulu-Natal up to 500 years prior to European colonialism and the material vestiges that have largely been deemed unarchivable (FHYA, 2008). Enquiries into this area and era have been hampered by a lack of accessible archival material, and where archival material is available, it is often misidentified, undated and even misplaced. The FHYA attempts to locate these materials and to track and interrogate colonial framing, democratise the material and invite visitors to contribute in various ways (FHYA, 2018). In this way, it seems that the project adopts the tenets of Indigenous Standpoint Theory, defined as “a method of inquiry, a process for making intelligible ‘the corpus of objectified knowledge about us’ as it emerges and organises understandings of our lived realities” (Nakata, 2007: 215).

The 500 Year Archive differs from the archetypical archive in many crucial ways. The website is accessible and allows for maximum searchability, it publishes as much contextual information as is available and invites visitors to add or even dispute the information it presents. The archival apparatus itself is interrogated and rendered transparent. Indeed, the apparatus (comprised of notes, accession registers, boxes, letters, among other material traces that touched an object) becomes an archived object in itself. Such transparency serves an antithetical function to the gatekeeping of documents and the obfuscation of archival processes. The gatekeeping of primary documentation is crucial to the project of cognitive imperialism which dictate how we remember the past and interact with the present, not to mention how we imagine the future and our place in it, all through a universal, slanted and reductive lens.

The FHYA, like Kahn and Pryor, Rushovich and Hamilton, interrogates the archive and in the process of democratising it, turns it on its head. Together, they acknowledge the limitations of the archive in order to imagine an archive anew, one that, instead of imposing someone else’s interpretations of what constitute important and relevant voices, encourages the visitor to employ their own hermeneutic. In so doing, the FHYA seeks to institute a pluriverse, that is, a world in which many worlds, worldviews and epistemologies co-exist and in which it becomes difficult to establish a hierarchy between them (though in writing this, my computer insists that the word “worldview” has no plural).

Watch the recording of the discussion between Dr Kahn and the FHYA team, here.


Tao Boerstra is a student of the Honours in Curatorship programme at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, with a background in Art History and the Social Sciences. Through his research into knowledge production, especially within the natural sciences, he seeks to elucidate and unravel epistemic violences.   



Enwezor, O. (2008). Archive fever: uses of the document in contemporary art. New York, N.Y., International Center of Photography.
FHYA. (2018). About. Available at: [accessed 7 May 2021].
Mentan, T. (2015) ‘Western Liberal Democracy as Cognitive Imperialism: A Theoretical Exploration’, in Decolonizing Democracy from Western Cognitive Imperialism. Langaa RPCIG. p. 57–96.
Nakata, M. (2007). Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Nesmith, T. (2002). Seeing Archives: Postmodernism and the Changing Intellectual Place of Archives. The American Archivist, 65(1), 24-41.