Cultural heritage organizations across the world are beginning to reevaluate their practices in order to foster inclusion and more accurately represent the people and cultures they are describing. Staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Library and Archives acknowledge that the ways we process our collections have their shortcomings. In order to make our materials discoverable across a broad range of platforms, we describe them using accepted industry best practice vocabularies and authorities. However, these vocabularies are rooted in historic norms and practices that reflect the inherent biases of the time periods and cultures in which they were founded, as well as the people and institutions who continue to maintain them. On the whole, the accepted terminology for the bodies and cultures of white, straight, cis male persons enjoys hegemonic dominance; terms available to people of color, women, and gender and sexual minorities are inevitably defined in relation to this established norm. Those terms sometimes use outdated language that we now understand to be alienating and harmful. At times, terms needed to represent the experiences of marginalized people do not exist at all.
But the problem goes beyond vocabulary. Many of our records lack information about an artist’s race, gender, or culture. This makes it difficult for us to determine which or how many of our collection resources pertain to Black people, women, or LGBTQ people, for example. Important artists from non-dominant communities risk being overlooked by researchers and forgotten in our collections. But correcting this oversight comes with its own concerns. Even if we recognize an artist to be part of an underrepresented group, that individual may have self-identified in a different or even contradictory way. Description demands both diligent research and meaningful dialogue in order to be ethical and accurate.
Our goal is to make space for marginalized artists, authors, and creators in our records. We need to respect and preserve both their individual identities and the histories of their communities. We need to discover and overcome our own biases and blind spots, and do better.
We welcome your feedback. Please let us know if you encounter offensive or harmful language—or the absence of underrepresented voices—in our finding aids, catalog records, digital collections, exhibitions, publications, social media, or elsewhere. You can email us at email@example.com or call (215) 684-7650.
Statement as of January 15, 2020.
Please let us know if you encounter offensive or harmful language — or the absence of underrepresented voices — in our finding aids, catalog records, digital collections, exhibitions, publications, social media, or elsewhere.
You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (215) 684-7650.