Making the Invisible Visible

In 1901, one of the first acts of the Commonwealth of Australia was to create a system which would keep the newly-formed nation white. The legislation was specifically designed to limit non-British migration to Australia. In Australia, this idea focused particularly on people of Asian descent, but applied to all non-whites, including indigenous Australians, who were viewed as a ‘dying race.’ [1] In his article, It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People, Tim Sherrat, an historian and self-described hacker, turns this system of rejection and control on its head by making the invisible, non-white Australians visible through the creation of a database.

The administration of what was to become known as the White Australia Policy created a colossal volume of records, most of which is still preserved within the National Archives of Australia. In the National Archives of Australia there are thousands of photographs attached to certificates that non-white residents needed to get back into the country if they traveled overseas. These certificates are poignant reminders of the thousands of lives which were tracked and supervised by the government of Australia.

Non-whites took back some of the control of their lives by having professional photographic portraits taken, rather than using the standard mug shot style photos, and were able to present themselves instead in a dignified manner. Sherrat has used facial detection technology to find and extract the photographs from digital copies of the original certificates made available through the National Archives of Australia’s collection database. He reverse-engineered the web interface and created a script that would harvest the metadata and download copies of all the digitized images. [2] Thanks to this ingenious technique, Sherrat built a resource which granted the opportunity to view these certificates and photos not as records, but as people. He linked the faces he found to the copies of the original certificates back to the collection database of the National Archives, effectively constructing a finding aid.

Sherrat quotes Margaret Hedstrom, a professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, as she describes the archival interface as a ‘site where power is negotiated and exercised.’ Sherrat asserts that finding aids or collection databases are the product of conscious design decisions. His hope is that his database will return a portion of power back to the people within the records. Sherrat was able to create his database without any assistance from the National Archives itself. In doing so, Sherrat has managed to shift some of the power away from the National Archives and to his database which is refers to as a resource that adds information to the existing archives, but simultaneously is also a pointed critique of the collection. It is digital technology that has taken some of the control away from cultural heritage collections and given it to the public.

I agree with Sherrat’s statement that recordkeeping systems tend to reflect the structures and power relations of the organizations that create them. His assertion that records can find new meanings and power can be reclaimed with technology is significant when we consider that Nazi records of items confiscated during the holocaust have been used to assist the process of restitution and reparation. In addition, through the examination of slave records in the United States we can accomplish a similar goal to Sherrat’s, in that we can show the slaves as people, rather than a commodity being bought and sold.

In my own work in the field of American art history, I may not be ready to write my own code, but I can see myself creating a database on Winslow Homer. I would like to include an interactive map of where he painted, and where the paintings currently reside. There could also be a timeline of important events of the nineteenth century cross-referenced with Homer’s work. Perhaps I could tie my database to other scholarly sites on Homer, as a potential finding aid.

One archive I found of interest is the Digital Library on American Slavery, created by UNC Greensboro. [3] You can search for information by names, or by keywords. There is also an advanced search option in which you can search by year, state, and slave status. The site also contains the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, which provides information on approximately 150,000 individuals (slaves, free people of color, and whites). This data was gleaned from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, as well as a variety of related documents which includes wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, and amended petitions. In these documents are the names and data of roughly 80,000 slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites, both slave owners and non-slave owners. The archive also contains the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project, which provides online access to all known runaway slave advertisements published in North Carolina newspapers from 1751 to 1840. These ads offer a view into the social, economic, and cultural world of the American slave system as it pertains to North Carolina. The site includes The Trans-Atlantic Slave Database from Emory University, which features information on more than 35,000 slave voyages for transport to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Researchers can also find a collaborative endeavor between the UNCG University Libraries, North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, and North Carolina Registers of Deeds, called People Not Property – Slave Deeds of North Carolina. This project is leading towards a unique, centralized database of bills of sales indexing the names of enslaved people from across North Carolina. Finally, the site includes a section of Slavery Era Insurance Registries, an index of insurance companies who wrote policies insuring slave owners against the loss, damage, or death of their slaves. The Digital Library on American Slavery is an excellent resource which offers many potential avenues of research for historians. One that comes to mind is the cross-cultural influence on art using The Trans-Atlantic Slave Database as a resource.


[1] National Museum Australia (2006). White Australia Policy.

[2] Tim Sherratt (2011). It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power and People. Discontents.



  1. Thank you for sharing about the Digital Library on American Slavery project! You pointed out so many of its key structures (primarily the ability to search across multiple fields), which makes me wonder what aspects of that data base you could incorporate into the project you proposed regarding Winslow Homer and vice-versa. I am particularly interested in your idea to include a map function in your hypothetical project. I think this type of spacial and visual tool is often very helpful in seeing large amounts of data. I am wondering if the Digital Library on American Slavery incorporates this structure at all? It could be a useful tool for them to group deeds or bills of sales through counties or states on a map so a user could see clustering affects. I also am curious what types of information you would include in this project aside from location of painting and current location. The American Slavery project includes so many sources, and although you definitely do not have to include the same number as they do, more information regarding commissions or patrons could be interesting.

    1. Hi Michelle!
      There are a lot of letters written to Winslow Homer by collectors, and fans as well as his responses, some of which are quite pithy at the American Archives of Art by the Smithsonian. It would be great to link to those from my site. I was also thinking about including photographs of the locations where Homer painted, so that you could compare what he saw with what the actual painting.

  2. Thanks, Annie, for your detailed analysis of Sherratt’s database. I really appreciate your point on subversive practices and how Sherratt (as well as the authors/programmers of the Digital Library of American Slavery) is re-contextualizing historical records and, as you say, returning power to those who have been made invisible.

    When I read Sherratt’s article, I was also intrigued by his comment on ‘conscious design,’ and wish he could define what he meant by that. We can glean a basic definition, but I am curious to learn more because Sherratt’s project is what I would argue as ‘critical design.’ There are a few theorists that use this term, but I think specifically of Azu Nwagbogu’s definition “a speculative and theoretical approach that questions commonly held notions about the role objects play in daily life.” (Visual Africa: A Complete Picture). These records and photographs were created for one specific reason and through Sherratt’s critically designed project, their roles are reversed and reactivated politically. Never-mind the difference between the two terms, critical and conscious, but I think it’s really interesting how digital art historians are thinking about how digital platforms can help reinvent our understanding of historical objects.

    Also, your idea for a database on Winslow Homer sounds awesome! Your ideas for a timeline of his life, the juxtaposition of his paintings and the physical landscapes they represent, and the inclusion of personal letters seem to create a more complete understanding of Winslow Homer, the person. If there is one section of the internet that gets the most attention, it is the digital space in which we can perform and voice our identities and experiences to larger communities (ie social media). Its fun to think about how we could create a space for artists throughout history in a similar way, providing a great amount of material and data that allow audiences to socially engage with the individual.

  3. To start, I appreciate your highlighting of the Digital Library on American Slavery at UNC Greensboro! I had no idea that this existed, yet it could be so helpful in some of my research on slave song – so thank you! I appreciated your focus on the potential for digital humanities projects to give visibility back to those who were there and living the whole time. These digital methods are excellent ways of reconstructing narratives, and an added benefit is the relative ease of access and workability of interacting with a digital projects as opposed to a scholarly article. I wonder how you see your database on Winslow Homer, especially in regard to the question of visibility. Are there invisible aspects surrounding the work you could highlight? How would you do so? What digital interfaces facilitate promoting visibility – not just from the information itself that is presented, but how it’s presented.

    Overall, thanks for a great post that was both illuminating and thought-provoking!

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