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Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by transcript Verlag June 15, 2021

Man, Woman, Child

Ethical Aspects of Metadata at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Rebecca Kahn
From the journal Digital Culture & Society


This paper is concerned with the ethical aspects of museum metadata. These are not always immediately evident when working with the metadata related to museum objects, although, I will argue, they are embedded in the object, accumulated at each phase of its journey into the institution; and continue to accumulate while it is part of a collection. This takes place against a backdrop of new development and possibilities afforded by digital technologies for building connections between and across heritage collections online, which can result in these complicated metadata potentially entering the data ecosystem. This eventuality, I will argue, has ethical and technical implications which need to be considered and understood through the theoretical lenses of critical data studies, museum informatics and the growing calls from museum scholars and others to decolonisation of museum collections. Using a small collection of drawings from the Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology at the University of Oxford, I will demonstrate how difficult museum metadata can be buried deep in museum documentation, and how this data, once brought to the surface by digitisation, can expose the trauma of a collection’s origins. I will go on to ask whether the current models used to share heritage data online are appropriate mechanisms for materials with such sensitive histories, and ask how best to handle them in the increasingly digital future.

Published Online: 2021-06-15
Published in Print: 2020-12-01

© 2021 by transcript Verlag