Decolonalising geographical names in collections data

At Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh our Racial Justice Working Group is initiating discussions within the organisation and the wider community to gain a full picture of views, issues and, most importantly, solutions. This is essential to increase our understanding of inequalities and injustice. I am a member of the sub-group focussing on data and collections. One of the issues raised within our group is the legacy of colonialism in internationally recognised geographical names. For example, one of the administrative regions of American Samoa used in the Database of Global Administrative Areas (GADM) is ‘unorganised atolls.’ This administrative area contains two islands which have names centred in their colonial legacy e.g. Swains Island (Olohega/Olosega) privately owned by an American family since the mid-1800’s and used for plantations and also uninhabited Rose Atoll (Motu O Manu). We think that part of decolonialising should involve moving towards an internationally recognised geographical data standard/controlled vocabulary that uses local names rather than those associated with colonialism.

Is anyone aware of work within our community looking at this issue?


This is a very important question and an increasingly significant area of collection practice, and one which cultural collections have been looking at closely. The decolonising work of the metadata teams at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Royal Library Denmark can be interesting to study in this regard. Biological collections and their attendant data have many critically important functions and values, and their historical and cultural value are among these.

Historical values would include the contexts (social, political, economic) in which materials were collected, and this would also mean place names which change over time. In some cases, especially for biological materials that were collected before it was common practice to give exact locations to collection sites and fieldwork, retaining the colonial name can even help to attribute a more precise location to materials, since it gives historical contexts that can be helpful clues. This would be among the science reasons to retain these colonial names as well as local names and geolocation parameters. It would be critical to create data fields to retain this contextual information, and not to discard it entirely, in my opinion.

In terms of your example in particular, Samoa and the Pacific Islands in the 1800s is a significant time/place. There were a range of colonial actors in the area at that time – German, American, British, and more. Sometimes the reasons for collecting materials were driven by state colonial aspirations and sometimes by hybrids with commercial agents. This can influence what gets collected and therefore what we understand today of the biodiversity of the time/place.

I have been researching the natural history collecting and sales schemes of the Hamburg ‘Museum Godeffroy’ (1861-1885) in Samoa and the Pacific: Godeffroy duplicates can be found in most European nathist collections, and each duplicate will have a diverse range of data connected to it on top of the info given by Museum Godeffroy at the time. Dates and places will always matter to biology: I believe it is important to retain this contextual information even if other valuable information such as local names and precise geolocation is also appended.

These areas of practice are a good example of where, when and how humanities researchers and biological researchers can and should work together to both assist each others’ research and design useful database architectures. It would be great to have a working group to look at this and other areas where collaboration could be fruitful. I recently organised a panel discussion about historical and contemporary data collection, design and use which included archivists, historians, and biodiversity informaticians to look at shared issues: Semantics and Beyond: Modeling and enriching longue-durée biocultural data for answering interdisciplinary and epistemic research questions.

Thank you for bringing this to the table!

Martha Fleming

Thank you Martha for your thoughts on the subject. I will be discussing all responses with the sub-group at our Friday morning meeting.

Thanks to @sking and @MAFleming for this thread. Next door there is a global consultation happening where some of these topics could provide useful insights in particular about data access, enrichment, and attribution.

Hi Sharif, I’m working on a contribution to the consultation now. The issues that @sking and I are addressing here relate to both historical origins of collections and contemporary users of collections beyond the ‘scientific community’, as well as to researchers who are highly skilled in humanities and social sciences (environmental historians, human geographers, historians of science, historians of globalisation, etc). These different groups are holders of huge bodies of knowledge about biological collections, and whatever data model is adopted should ideally accommodate places for their contributions as well as ways in which their research interests in the materials can be integrated/served. It is great to have a chance to participate in the consultation – now all I have to do is decide which thread to contribute to! :woman_student:

@sking and @sharif.islam – The contribution of @bsterner to the previous GBIF consultation ‘Advancing the Catalogue of the World’s Natural History Collections’ might be helpful here. He notes in the section Governance: 4.1: Ownership of Information for Each Collection several peer-reviewed papers from Cataloging & Classification Quarterly that relate to the significance of incorporating indigenous knowledge and attributions in collections data and data models.

Thank you, @MAFleming , for your response to our post. We are in total agreement that the historical information should always be captured digitally. One way we are looking to address this is to put a disclaimer statement that appears on our online collections catalogue indicating that the historical data is not a reflection of the organisations current viewpoints. The Field Museum in Chicago has a very well written statement for this:

Our concern is centred around the current internationally recognised standards that often do not use local names and may be grounded in a colonial history. It’s great to see the resources and links posted by yourself and @sharif.islam. We are happy to engage and share any information we discover on the topic here and are keen to take up any new standards and recommendations as they arise. It would be great to see this thread remain active as a place where people can continue to share more resources and updates.

@sking and @sharif.islam – just to let you know that I have tried to articulate the huge potential of collaborations between biological and humanities researchers, over on the section on ‘Extending, Enriching and Integrating Data’.