Old Things, Urgent Narratives: Global History Hacking the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre

Thursday 18th April saw the arrival of your friendly neighbourhood Global History Hackers to the foyer of the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC), Nitshill, along with an eager consortium of lecturers, students, and researchers. Their mission was to hack material objects held in storage at the GMRC. This was a different approach to previous archival-based Global History Hackathons and added new dimensions and experiences to the series. 

The theme of the day was Old Things, Urgent Narratives: an exploration into European global imperialism and its aftermath, and forced migration, including the impact of climate emergency upon island communities. Led by lecturers Benjamin Thomas White and Hannah-Louise Clark together with Mia Gubbay and a team of curators from the GMRC, the Hackers were divided into three teams prior to the event. One group focussed on prints of Tahitian life by eighteenth-century French artist Paul Gauguin. The second group explored clothing and talismanic objects either donated by contemporary refugee populations settled in Glasgow or collected—sometimes violently or in dubious circumstances—by individual actors in nineteenth-century British empire. The third group reflected on the climate emergency and what this means for Marshall Islander and Pacific Islander homes and ways of life. The usual prerequisite for the Hacks was altered from ‘Meet the Archive’ to ‘Meet the Collection’ in which hackers were invited to explore the GMRC online catalogue and request material objects they wished to examine on the day; it was this that lead to such an eclectic array of objects. 

The questions for the day were also adapted to meet the needs of working with material culture over textual sources and archival work. The basis however was the same as in earlier hackathons:

  1. What global story would you like to tell using the objects in your group?
  2. How will you use the objects to tell this global story?
  3. What would make this global story more accessible and usable for you?
  4. What would make this global story more accessible and usable for people in the places touched by this story?

The responses to these questions were more emotional than those at the previous two hacks. Alongside previous concern to engage with the imprint of British imperialism (and imperial violence) on the archive, was added a new imperative: climate emergency and the disappearance of history on a local and ultimately global scale. Having physical items to hold while simultaneously reckoning with their loss (once to communities in the past, now through material degradation, and one day to rising sea levels) pushed the Global History Hackers to develop broader perspectives in the telling of global history and more urgent narratives.


Some exciting ideas came from this hackathon. One group proposed a “Future Pals” programme to establish educational links between primary school children in the West of Scotland and the Marshall Islands. Children would explore island heritage collections in the GMRC and become advocates for behavioural and political change through asynchronous communications via Skype, email, and letters. In doing so, the Future Pals would establish connections that might last and provide friendship into the future, when rising sea levels make climate refugees of island populations.

The group intent on Gauguin’s woodcuts wrestled with how to exhibit these beautiful objects given the character and sexual exploits of the artist towards the subjects of his prints, who included young Polynesian girls. It was argued that the behaviour of Gauguin (which was no different from that of many European sailors to Polynesia from the eighteenth century on) in trading for and exploiting underage sexual partners should be confronted head on in any potential exhibitions or installations relating to life in Tahiti under colonialism.

Reflecting on the previous two hackathons in the light of the GMRC hackathon, a couple of methodological differences between hacking archival documents and material objects stood out. Along with the emotional triggers noted above, it was interesting to have the museum curators—experts on the pieces—present in teams during the hackathon. The knowledge and passion they had for these items was palpable and gave a complex dynamic to the day. Whereas professionals in archives support service users to craft a multitude of different histories, curators typically control the story for an audience of museum goers, bringing a different dimension to collaborations between curators and hackers.

Overall, this was a fascinating day which allowed the flexible format and concept of the Global History Hackathon to develop and come into its own as a template that can be used in different environments. The next Hackathon event ‘Curating Discomfort’ at the Hunterian Museum will allow hackers to delve in amongst museum displays and will present yet another day of interesting findings and intriguing discussions that we have come to know and love in the Global History Hackathon team!     

First published: 22 July 2019