Decolonising the LSHTM archives

Within the LSHTM archives, we have begun to re-examine the way we work, the stories we tell and the role we can play in promoting different versions of history. This was originally inspired by the work of Lioba Hirsch from her project entitled LSHTM and colonialism: history and legacy. However, the global response to the Black Lives Matter movement has further encouraged us to engage with our collections and archival practices from a decolonising perspective.
The Carpenters in 1927

Inevitably, the LSHTM archives are steeped in the colonial history of our School. LSHTM was originally founded as an institution for the research and treatment of tropical disease, in an effort to improve the health of those working in the British colonies. As a result, the histories preserved within our collections are generally those of white, male, colonial explorers, researchers and medical professionals. While there is value in these stories and the contributions these individuals made to tropical medicine, and science more broadly, are an important part of our School’s legacy; they are also reflective of the colonial era in which they were produced and are necessarily informed by the values and attitudes of the time. The difficulty in reconciling the celebration of scientific achievement with the true nature of its colonial legacy is something we are beginning to examine within the LSHTM archives service.

In the LSHTM archives, we have also been asking ourselves how we can explore absences through our existing collections, as well as considering the practical steps we can take to address the structures of racism within the archives.

We propose to engage with the process of decolonisation in a number of ways. These include reexamining items within our collections in a way that seeks to confront and disrupt the colonial narrative. For example,  The Carpenter Diary – a handwritten journal detailing the experiences of a British scientist and his wife researching Sleeping Sickness in Uganda in the early 20th Century – has often been used by LSHTM archives as an illustration of colonial life. The diary provides a rich account of the daily lives of Geoff and Amy Carpenter as they navigated life in African environs, as well as the relative luxury of the colonial lifestyle. Inevitably, this version of 1920s Uganda reflects the experiences and privileges of the diarists. As a result, the journal presents an unbalanced account of colonial history.

Pages from the Carpenter diary

By providing a more critical analysis of archival material such as The Carpenter Diary, we intend to shift the focus away from the stories and successes of colonial researchers and instead present an account that recognises the imbalance of power inherent in the colonial encounter. This narrative shift will be reflected in the way we promote our collections online via social media and the LSHTM archives blog as well as through internal events and external events that engage with decolonising debates within the wider archive sector.

As a starting point, we have developed a set of principles for decolonising the archives and an Action Plan to provide us with practical steps to achieve the principles. The principles cover five areas: cataloguing practice, archival practice, dissemination, education and inclusion. The Archives team is committed to adhering to these principles which will provide a framework for our ongoing work, as we aim to address the bias inherent within the archive, decolonise our collections, and look to create a more inclusive research environment. The principles are published on our website and will be regularly updated as we continue to develop in this important area.

Written by Victoria Cranna, Archivist and Records Manager at LSHTM. 
This article is from the 2021 Alumni News.