The Importance of a Word

This month I wrote a post for Arctos describing a change the Arctos Working Group recently implemented in our collection management system. I’ve re-posted the essay here, to emphasize the importance a single word can have when you’re working with diverse groups.

From “Specimens” to “Catalog Records”: An Exercise in Inclusive CMS Modification

In October of 2019, the Arctos Working Group (AWG) took a small but important step forward to more accurately represent the diverse holdings documented in our collaborative collection management system (CMS). A 2015 Github issue with the deceptively simple title “Specimen” created by Dusty McDonald after a discussion with UAM Entomology Curator Derek Sikes recommended changing out the term “specimen” with the term “record”. Sikes felt our use of specimen was confusing because of the various kinds of things that get cataloged and sought clarification with his suggested terminology shift. Like some issues, there were no comments and little to no action on the issue for four years. On October 3 Dusty closed the issue after tagging it “Abandoned.”

Sikes responded to that abandonment, expressing his sadness and his problem with the term “specimen” – the inherently inaccurate tallies of collection items resulting when one cites the number of records in Arctos as somehow being equivalent to the number of specimens in the collection. Although there is a tradition in entomology of using the term ‘specimen’ as equivalent to specimen or ‘lot’ (eg a vial full of many specimens), it is clear that confusion can easily arise if the term ‘specimen’ means more than one thing (Sikes 2015).

The discussion provided me with the opening I’d been looking for since 2014 when the cultural collections moved into Arctos. A number of my colleagues and I, who work in archaeology, ethnology & history, and fine arts collections, had long felt embarrassed and a bit ashamed by the fact that our individual objects were labeled by the term “specimen” when those items might at best, be considered by the source communities as living beings, or at worst, might be the physical human remains of Indigenous ancestors held in the collections, many times awaiting repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This issue prompted me to finally step up and address this elephant in the room that pervades all of Arctos and its associated documentation.

As I described in my Github comment, the term “specimen” is fraught with a history of trauma through institutional racism, insensitive, and often unethical, treatment of Indigenous peoples by museums and scientific collections the world over. It is a key part of the history of museums and our former ways of exerting dominance and control over subjugated people in colonial settings. Representatives of museums and colonial governments regularly stole or unethically “traded” for the material culture and sacred objects of people, removing them from their cultural settings where the objects play an important role in the expression of identity, of family relationships, of hierarchy and territoriality, as well as sometimes being the way one communicates with the spirit world and keeps a balance between the various parts of life. The term “specimen” reduces an object down to its basest level of being just a thing on a shelf that one looks at (from the Latin specere, “to look”). Specimens were things held, examined, and displayed in natural history museums. When Indigenous peoples and their material culture were included in museum collections, they too were lumped in with the animals, plants, and creatures of the “natural” world. This was in contrast to the dominant cultures, whose objects were seen in museums of history and art.

During the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, members of discriminated groups joined together to express their outrage at the lack of respect granted in mainstream culture, and museum policies and procedures mirrored these societal changes. Activists initiated a continuum of change that we acknowledge today through the discontinuation of disrespectful practices, like the exhibition of human remains in galleries, and instead undertake meaningful consultation with source communities to improve policies and procedures.

The change in the use of the term “specimen” in Arctos to the more neutral (and technically accurate) “catalog record” signals a culture shift and a willingness to continue to move forward in this continuum of change. Arctos as a CMS is growing, from a system formerly used to keep track of biological individuals and their related data, to one that is capable of so much more. Whether it’s the enrichment of the agent table to better document the biographical information associated with artists, to the increased use of media and relationships to show objects within their original cultural context, our diverse users and collections are expanding what Arctos is capable of and how it can be used to answer increasingly complicated and multi-disciplinary questions.

At the time of this post, we’ve only begun the process of removing all references to “specimens” in Arctos. The AWG has prioritized the pages most often used by members of the public: search, search results, and the object detail page. From here we will work our way into the transactions and the deeper elements of the code tables and associated documentation. It’s a work in progress, afterall!

——-

Sikes, D.S. 2015. What is a specimen? What should we count and report when managing an entomology collection? Newsletter of the Alaska Entomological Society 8(1):3-8. http://www.akentsoc.org/doc/AKES_newsletter_2015_I.pdf

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