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Collections Management Values

Statement on Racial Harms

Archives have long claimed to be neutral. In practice, this professed neutrality has created and sustained systemic imbalances that favour those of means and power. The Lyell Project Team acknowledges this issue and that in preserving this collection we are also preserving historical opinion which at times endorses a belief in racial hierarchies and the legal institution of slavery in the United States of America.

In touring northern and southern states in the 1840s and 1850s, Charles and Mary Lyell were confronted with the deep entrenchment of American plantation slavery in southern and northern economies, politics, and social opinion. The Lyells came to America opposed to slavery. They returned with empathy for the plantation owners who hosted them. Letters and notebooks in the collection include sentiments defending slavery and asserting that Black people were part of a ‘lower race’.

While scholarly enquiry has explored these topics, questions remain about the extent to which the Lyells expressed and endorsed harmful views. Clarity will only come from the planned programme of descriptive and digitisation work which will make this collection open to critical scholarly scrutiny. The strength of this collection is founded not only on Charles Lyell’s achievements, but also in the complex narratives it presents about the privileged origins of the natural sciences, and the excusal of American slavery. All of this, and more, can only be revealed by critical, transparent and continuing research.

We accept that assumptions of archival neutrality risk emboldening racist and colonial ideologies, especially if these ideologies are not recognised in the management of collections such as this. The Lyell project team, and the wider Centre for Research Collections, are committed to working actively against discrimination in all its forms. In cataloguing this collection, we will create respectful and accurate descriptions that neither ignore nor strengthen notions of white supremacy. In managing this collection, we aim to make it accessible to all to allow for research and reflection on the life and work of Sir Charles Lyell, his family and his wider circle, in a way which is honest and respectful of all persons, communities and organisations named in the collection.