Narrating the Diverse Past

Building Collections Histories

By Amara Thornton (Research Officer)

Histories of collections and archaeology are based on a number of different sources. Some of these are easier to find and access than others. For researching collections histories relating to Barbados, published primary sources such as British and American newspaper reports, books, and articles written at or close to the time of collection, excavation, display, or acquisition are the most readily available source for building up collections histories.

Thankfully, many of these have been digitised and are available through databases such as Internet Archive and HathiTrust or through the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the British Library,  the Early Caribbean Digital Archive and the Digital Library of the Caribbean. Sometimes there are notes on collectors in museum databases, such as the British Museum’s Collection Online, or the Smithsonian’s Collection database. These sources often are written by White collectors and excavators, or contain only their names. Many do not contain the names of Black, Indigenous or other People of Colour who were collectors and excavators.

There were various newspapers published in Barbados throughout the colonial period of its history. Where copies of historic newspapers are still extant, in many cases these have not been digitised. However, thanks to the British Library’s Endangered Archives programme digital images of issues of Barbados Mercury Gazette, spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries, are available online.

Specific details of Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour active in collecting and excavating archaeology in the past are more likely to appear in archives than in published sources. The accessibility of primary archive source material has been severely restricted by the coronavirus pandemic.  Even if the pandemic were not affecting research, where relevant archives have been catalogued (and this is by no means always the case), the catalogues may not record evidence of details of collections histories.  Locating and accessing relevant material in archives is a painstaking, laborious and expensive process, meaning that some histories are easier to tell than others.

Further Reading

100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object [website].

Das, Subhadra; Lowe, Miranda. 2018. Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections 6: 4-14.

Levi, Amalia, 2018. The Barbados Mercury digitization and digital scholarship opportunities. Presentation 11 Jul 2018. [Online]

Mishra, Ananya; Parikh, Danika; Suryanarayan, Akshyeta, 2019. Untold Histories Museum Tours: stories of collecting through colonialism and conflict. University of Cambridge Museums.