Journal Article

  • Promises of mass digitisation and the colonial realities of natural history collections
    Kaiser, K., Heumann, I., Nadim, T., Keysar. H., Petersen, M., Korun, M., Berger, F.
    Journal of Natural Science Collections, Volume 11, pages 13 - 25

    Recent debates have highlighted the colonial roots and legacies of museums, prompting intense discussions about these institutions within the museums themselves. Amidst the debates, policy-makers and museum professionals worldwide have come to regard the digitisation of collections as an important means for addressing global inequity by advancing fast and fair access to collection items. In this paper we want to caution against the hope that political problems can be solved by technical solutions alone. We argue that the digitisation of collections, like any other technology, integrates assumptions and preferences - about people, capacities, values - that, if left unchecked, reproduce or reinforce inequities. We present different approaches and initiatives developed at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (Natural History Museum Berlin, MfN) assessing critical questions about the assumptions and preferences congealed in digitisation efforts. What rationales and imaginaries structure digitisation? Who is served by normative concepts such as transparency, access, participation and standardisation? We argue that digitisation efforts, rather than offering a solution, provide an opportunity to consider the unequal distribution of power, historical responsibilities and epistemic injustices. This paper concludes with tentative recommendations for the digitisation of natural history collections from colonial contexts.

    Keywords: colonialism, natural history objects, digitisation, public access, racism, epistemologies, coloniality, cooperation, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin