Addressing Archival Absence

Before beginning the new academic year and jumping back into Oxford life, I had the chance to volunteer and carry out important research with the University of Oxford’s National Trust Partnership. Our coordinators, Alice Purkiss and Hanna Smyth, tasked our group of thirteen researchers with conducting curatorial research on the presence of people of colour in National Trust properties and collections.

With the recent increase in global attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, companies and world-renowned organisations are being challenged to confront and question their structural, internalised biases. The National Trust has been undertaking research into global trade, transatlantic slavery, and colonial legacies for some time. The significant events which began in spring did not specifically inspire this project, but the timing of our internship was an excellent opportunity for each intern to read, research, and understand more about the current global movement and how organisations like the National Trust are responding to it.

Our task was to research the lives and stories of people of colour associated with certain National Trust properties and collections. We were split into two teams, one researching properties, the other focusing on art pieces. Each intern was assigned a number of properties or paintings, and tasked with conducting curatorial research using online archives, censuses, birth certificates and death certificates to learn about the lives of people of colour at some of the National Trust’s most renowned properties. With only a week, we were not expected to complete detailed biographies of these stories that had otherwise been untold. However, the National Trust did hope to use our initial research and fact-finding mission as a platform to conduct more in-depth research on the history of people of colour in some of the UK’s most valued buildings and collections.

This internship was completely online, which was undoubtedly a new experience for many interns. What this meant was that although each team was in theory working together on similar projects, it was harder to discuss and share findings without the natural coffee breaks in the office. We had to get creative and set up WhatsApp chats. The team at Oxford also organised a virtual drop-in session with National Trust staff to discuss careers and some of the challenges faced by the heritage sector at the moment. This, along with daily calls, ensured that we regularly had the chance to ask questions, receive feedback, as well as maintain that sense of working as a research team focusing on a shared goal, rather than as an individual.

For me, I was struck by the absence of literature and material on people of colour. I would try to follow a lead on a particular individual, but the only way to discover more about them was by researching more privileged, white estate owners. Consequently, I would gravitate towards the histories of large families and their colonial background, rather than focussing on the history of the person of colour. This is because there is an absence of information – I would struggle to find surnames or dates of birth for people of colour, which made curatorial research incredibly difficult. Learning how to address this absence and the deeply-entrenched erasure of non-white individuals is something the National Trust is currently deliberating.

I found that this internship was an excellent introduction to the heritage sector and curatorial research. Following this experience, I will be keeping a close eye on how the heritage sector addresses these difficult but increasingly crucial questions on their own colonial history and the absence of narratives for people of colour.

Madeleine has just completed her undergraduate degree at Oxford studying Persian Studies with subsidiary in Arabic. She is interested in joining the tourism industry and curious about the heritage sector within the wider tourism industry.

Find out more about the National Trust Partnership here.

Find out more about the TORCH Heritage Programme here.

Madeleine has light brown short hair and smiles at the camera. She wears a patterned shirt and stands in front of a massive tree trunk.

Madeleine Moore