What’s In A Name?

In September 2017, during a Twitter Q&A session, #AskACurator, hosted by the British Museum, curator Jane Portal tweeted: “We aim to be understandable by 16-year-olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing – so we have to be careful about using too many.” The Museum has since issued an apology. 

This type of cultural imperialism in the Western world is so ingrained in archival practices that museums can sometimes feel like less of a place to acquire cultural knowledge and more of an institution of capital-gaining cultural appropriation and superficial gandering. That tweet demonstrates some of the themes in this week’s readings, namely the discussion about the lack of including a community in an effort to create an archive pertaining to their heritage, and the effort to name items in the vernacular of said group. This also raises a question mentioned in the Digital Social Memory panel, who is the audience?

When a name is changed or taken away it strips the cultural significance of the item; it replaces the bodies and histories attached with a centerpiece, a decoration; it panders to those who are not affected by the misrepresentation. I wonder what is the full range of dangers or limitations of uninformed naming practices in archives? What are the politics of inclusion when an archivist so steeped in their own hegemonic viewpoints only considers the audience and neglects the bodies which created the content?

One Reply

  • Great post, Tress. You echo Caswell + Cifor’s call for archivists to address their relationship to records’ creators, subjects, users, and the broader community. And regarding the “translatability” of non-English names, you might be interested in this piece by Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, listed in our supplemental readings.

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