Toward a Digital Methodology of Decolonizing the Archive

Like many missionary archives, the Papers of Matilda Calder Thurston were compiled by Matilda’s sister, Helen Calder, who then donated to the Missionary Research Library (MRL) now housed at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary. Similar to state colonial archives, the MRL collated information for a purpose: current and future missionaries could learn more about history and best practices of the missionary enterprise as well as the details of “native Christians” and potential converts. While scholars are now the main audience for the MRL’s collections, the archive carries the imprint of missionary imperialism in its contents, organization, omissions, and silences.

The View from Ginling employs digital tools to transform and decolonize the archive in multiple ways. Drawing on the Thurston Papers as well as related collections, the exhibits use interactive maps, timelines, and network visualizations to reassess the archival materials related to Ginling and its associates. By creating a space where multiple students could read (and re-read), analyze, and discuss these documents, the seminar fostered their ability to make these connections. The students’ collaborative efforts and distinctive positionalities show how multiple perspectives can affect the interpretations of each document. The varieties of research questions will continue to grow as future classes build on what their predecessors have created. 

In seeking to tell new stories from the perspective of those who taught and attended Ginling College, the exhibits also depart from a typical missionary biography and instead highlight a broader range of people associated with Ginling. The exhibits show that this Protestant missionary women’s college operated as dynamic and often contested terrain during a period of political and religious transformation, nationalism and the construction of the “New Woman” (xin nuxing), as well as war and military occupation. The ongoing work of digitizing documents from the Papers of Matilda Calder Thurston also makes these materials available to a wider audience, and invites visitors to join the conversation.