Chao Tayiana Maina (Nairobi): Pretexts of Repair. Digitisation and the role of metadata in engaging with colonial collections

For decades, African stakeholders have campaigned for the return of material cultural heritage held outside the continent, drawing attention to the untold physical and epistemic violence of colonialism. In themselves, these objects represent the vast and complex indigenous knowledge systems disrupted by the colonial encounter and in their removal, a critical lack of access to immense repositories of historical knowledge.

On the surface, the lack of access appears to have found amelioration through the wide uptake of digitisation initiatives. Large quantities of cultural collections previously inaccessible to audiences now accessible at the click of a button. Yet on a deeper level, questions of inaccurate information, biased descriptions and knowledge hierarchies continue to have a significant impact on how these digital collections are used and perceived.

This talk looks critically at the place of metadata within the context of the digitisation of colonial collections. How are current metadata practices harmful to the representation, continuation and production of historical knowledge? What epistemic violence and silencing is replicated when digitisation is positioned as repair without interrogating the power dynamics embedded in the data structures? Are there ways to remedy this or in the very least, create space for renewal and recovery amongst communities still coming to terms with the scale of their loss yet steadily reimagining alternative histories?