Your neutral is not our neutral

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

My blog post about the myth of neutrality in libraries, archives and museums. This post is from a First Nations perspective

I had a discussion with someone once about if memory institutions, like museums, libraries and archives, should modify past classification and description of First Nations material that use antiquated and potentially offensive terminology, they said we could not because that would be whitewashing history and we need to remain objective and just present the facts. While part of me partially agrees, my retort was memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by doing so have demonstrated an ingrained bias (Jimerson, 2009, 216). This bias manifests itself in how material is collected, described, preserved, and exhibited (Jenson, 2008, 93). I argue that museums, libraries and archives cannot not remain objective or neutral because they never were.

Many have contested the objectivity of memory institutions, noting that their collections are governed by people, people who have their own perspectives and intentions and as such are not impartial agents (Jimerson, 2009, 215; Durrani & Smallwood, 2008, 123). Their perspectives are influenced by their epistemology (Kwaymullina, 2016, 439). This affects their decisions such as what information should be preserved for future generations and these decisions shapes the public’s memory, thus making these political decisions (Jimerson, 2009, 215).

Admittedly, there are systems created to reduce individual choices in regards to memory institution’s collections to uphold objectivity, such as government policies and professional criteria, guidelines and standards. However, these systems are influenced by the dominant culture, which in colonised countries is a Western Eurocentric culture (White, 2017, 369; Jimerson, 2009, 215). There is a reason why the predominant cataloguing code libraries used until just recently was titled the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2).

Furthermore, because many memory institutions are part of the government and/or are funded by the local, state or federal government, they are not just influenced by the dominant culture, they are also influenced by the government (Luker, 2017, 112); Jimerson, 2009, 216). Different governments have different political positions, which may change the objectivity of the memory institutions.

In regards to First Nations cultural heritage, it has been argued that memory institutions are tools of colonisation in which colonial powers used to proliferate narratives for their own means (Luker, 2017, 112; Sentance, 2017). For example, exhibitions in natural history museums portrayed First Nations people as primitive savages. This helped justify land dispossession, because it framed us as inferior and in need of Western civilisation (Genovese, 2016, 34; Smith, 2012, 39).

In addition to this, Western institutions, including memory institutions, have a long tradition of centring Anglo non-Indigenous people in the telling of First Nations history and culture (Sentance, 2017a; Moreton-Robinson, 2004, 87). Kwaymullina suggests that this reinforces Anglo non-Indigenous people as the default which places First Nations people as the “other” (440). As a result, First Nations people are perceived as objects of history or of anthropology, rather than fellow humans (Kwaymullina, 2016, 43; Smith, 2012, 39).

Consequently, some perceive memory institutions not as neutral sources of information, but as political tools. To accept them as neutral means to accept the existing distribution of power they enforce and contribute to (Jenson, 2008, 94).

This idea of neutrality in institutions is very much informed by the Enlightenment and the concept that Eurocentric Western scholarship produces a universal knowledge that is universally relevant (Kwaymullina, 2016, 439). This notion portrays Western scholars as speaking from a neutral position which means those outside of the Western scholarship are biased. As a result, this notion has delegitimised First Nations knowledge production and denied historical and cultural pluralism (Kwaymullina, 2016, 441).

Why this is a problem

There are issues that can occur if the notion of neutrality in memory institutions does not continually get challenged. For instance, if a memory institution is perceived as being neutral, then actions like adding First Nations stories of oppression to the collection to rectify past imbalances of perspectives can be framed as not an action of balance, but rather a political act This could lead memory institutions to avoid necessary actions because they are “risky” and they do not want to be political (Jenson, 2008, 94).

Similarly, if memory institutions are neutral, then their inherent Eurocentrism is neutral which continues First Nations people being framed as the “other”. This makes it harder to challenge and change white privilege and institutional racism within memory institutions and society more broadly.

Additionally, if being neutral means shunning involvement in movements that challenge oppressive structures, then some would argue that memory institutions in attempting to be neutral, even though they are not actively oppressing people, have assisted the oppressor (Jenson, 2008, 94). Furthermore, it makes memory institutions less effective in creating social change which therefore makes them less socially relevant (Good, 2008, 145).

In conclusion, memory institutions need to challenge internal and external perceptions that they are neutral and we need to come to terms with what that means.

To be continued….

By Nathan Sentance

Durrani , Shiraz and Elizabeth Smallwood “The Professional is Political : Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 119-140

Good, Joesph. “The Hottest Place in Hell: The Crisis of Neutrality in Contemporary Librarianship” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 141-147

Jensen, Robert. “The myth of the neutral professional” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 89-96.

Jimerson, Randall, C. Archives power : memory, accountability, and social justice‎. Society of American Archivists‎, 2009

Kwaymullina, Ambelin. “Research, ethics and Indigenous peoples: an Australian Indigenous perspective on three threshold considerations for respectful engagement” AlterNative, vol 12, no. 4, 2016 437-449.

Luker, Trish. “Decolonising Archives: Indigenous Challenges to Record Keeping in ‘Reconciling’ Settler Colonial States” Australian Feminist Studies, vol, 32, no. 91-92, 2017, 108-125

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. “whiteness epistemology and Indigenous representation” Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism. Edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004.

Sentance, Nathan. “The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting” Archival Decolonist. 12 Jun. 2017

Sentance, Nathan. “Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People” Archival Decolonist. 21 Jul. 2017

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed., Zed Books, 2012.

3 thoughts on “Your neutral is not our neutral”

  1. I’ve started following this persons writings

    On Thu, 18 Jan 2018 at 8:38 pm, Archival Decolonist [-o-] wrote:

    > saywhatnathan posted: “This idea of objectivity is very much informed by > the Enlightenment and the concept that Eurocentric scholarship produces a > universal knowledge that is universally relevant (Kwaymullina, 2016, 439). > Furthermore, this notion delegitimised other systems of ” >


  2. Thank you for this very enlightening post. Please know that Anglo-American cataloging rules means rules for cataloging in English for Americans and Britons; it was cooperative cataloging rules for English speakers rather than, as it can sound, Anglo centric. Please forgive me if this is already known and if I am being pedantic.


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