Marwan Kaabour has always been a collector. The London-based designer traces the hobby back to his childhood in Beirut, Lebanon. “Perhaps the most serious collection was an insanely well-organized collection of Spice Girls merchandise,” he remembers with a laugh.
Today, Kaabour is collecting photographs, video clips, and other rare visual media on the Instagram account Takweer, a digital archive with 16,000 followers that maps the intersections of queerness and Arab history. Launched in September 2019, the account spotlights long-forgotten artifacts — a TV appearance of a 1970s Lebanese pop diva; sepia-tone portraits of cross-dressing Egyptian women in the 1920s; prints of the Buraq, an androgynous mythological creature in Islamic tradition.
The account is an effort to build community and shape historical memory, Kaabour said. “I’m trying to challenge the big picture … that readings of queer history start from the West and the West only,” he told Rest of World. “I think we deserve a space in that history.” In his view, the account speaks to “the collective queer …consciousness that me and the diaspora kids and the kids back home, that we all share.”
Takweer is just one of dozens of Instagram archive accounts that have risen to prominence in the last several years, which focus explicitly on the histories of non-Western countries and marginalized communities within them. These include accounts like the South Asia-focused Brown History, which has over 600,000 followers and has been spun out into an e-commerce store and a podcast. Other accounts, such as The Korean Archives, and The Indian Memory Project, have cultivated smaller but still engaged communities, crowdsourcing materials from family photo albums to build a living, breathing digital archive.
These accounts capitalize on Instagram’s photo-first experience and grid view feature to curate popular visual histories, distinct from standard archival websites. They also represent a subtle, notable shift in democratizing who writes and records history, a space that was once dominated by academics but today allows an average user to participate.
“I think Instagram kind of takes away the gatekeepers a little bit. People are able to identify as being historians or archivists or researchers, because it places a little bit more emphasis on people’s lived experiences,” said Nayana Prakash, a PhD candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, who researches storytelling platforms in India and marginalized voices on the internet. “History is just the life that we live every day –– and writing about it the day after. It doesn’t need to feel like something that’s mythical or beyond one’s reach.”
A number of the Instagram account creators Rest of World spoke to, like Kaabour, are members of diaspora communities, or have tapped into diaspora networks to build their following. “When you grow up without your culture reflected around you, it can be difficult to piece together your identity. For diasporic people, what we know about our culture is often limited to what we can gather from our family,” said Aya Apton, the Japanese-American founder of Ko Archives, who launched the retro Japanese history account back in 2019, when she relocated to Tokyo.
“Almost everyone around me was Japanese. And I was almost embarrassed to realize how narrow my understanding of Japanese identity was.” What started as a project of self-education and exploration soon had a global audience. Within months of the account’s launch, Apton was receiving DMs from Japanese followers in Brazil, the U.K., and other countries she never expected to reach.
Munawwar Abdulla, who runs the account Uyghur Collective, said “Everything about Uyghur Collective is for and about the diaspora.” The account is focused on the fashion, food, and living history of the Uyghur people. In a poll Abdulla posted to the account’s Instagram Stories asking about her followers’ identities and countries of residence, about 70% of respondents said they were Uyghur, residing in Kazakhstan, Turkey, North America, and Australia, for example. Abdulla herself is based in the United States. She said her account operates in the face of organized state campaigns by the Chinese Communist Party to erase Uyghur cultural history. “Central Asian history is barely taught, if at all, in Western schools. The history that Uyghurs teach ourselves has been destroyed, censored for decades, and historical records are difficult to access.”
For many of Abdulla’s more than 26,000 followers, the Uyghur Collective account is far more personal than a digital textbook. “Uyghurs are quite interested to learn about themselves, especially since there are so few resources. We’re asked so much about where we’re from –– we want to know,” said Abdulla.
Crowdsourcing is one common method for building Instagram archives accounts, including The Korean Archives, an effort started by U.S.-based artist Julia Chon. What began in 2019 with Chon sharing her family’s photo albums dating back to the early 1900s has since evolved into a community effort, celebrating vintage photographs from across Korea and its diaspora.
In her search for primary sources, Chon mostly found historical information that was captured from a Korean viewpoint, in Korean. Originally, the account was a resource for children and descendants of Korean immigrants in the U.S. like herself, who may be seeking other historical perspectives, but are not able to speak or read Korean. “It was really just a moment to come together as a community. I think it really started getting traction during the anti-Asian rise and anti-Asian hate [in the United States]. And so it was, I think, just a place to share some joy,” said Chon.
But Chon’s focus on visuals has made the account widely accessible. Chon now uses Instagram DMs, as well as a submissions form and email, to gather photographs directly from her followers to post and has had submissions from around the world. For Dave Young Kim, submitting photos to The Korean Archives allowed him to understand his own family history more deeply. “I think there’s a sense of pride. There’s an educational aspect to it. Some of our family members, my cousins, my younger cousin, I’m the oldest, didn’t even know that history,” said Kim.
Through its crowdsourcing methods, the account relies less on scholars or accredited academic institutions. Instead, it elevates private family photo albums and oral histories, making them part of a shared public history.
“This is information activism. This is knowledge activism,” said Kelly Foster, the program coordinator for Whose (Digital) Archives, an initiative by Whose Knowledge?, a global campaign to center marginalized communities on the internet. Foster puts Instagram archivists in the same classification as Wikipedians editing the open-source encyclopedia and earlier generations of history-focused account creators on Tumblr and Twitter. “Very quickly, you realize that if you aren’t sharing this knowledge, then it simply isn’t represented online.”
Still, creators recognize limitations to building archives tethered to commercial platforms like the Meta-owned Instagram. Kaabour for one, has repeatedly run up against community guideline violations with Takweer. One series of posts celebrated the figure of the “sissy boy” in Arab history, including a survey of followers to build a lexicon of Arabic expressions for effeminate men across regions. The post was taken down for hate speech.
Anasuya Sengupta, the London-based co-director of Whose Knowledge?, questions if Instagram can host the darker and more violent moments in these communities’ histories because of content restrictions, but also whether in the long term these archives will be preserved by a for-profit company.
“Is [the account] Brown History going to [outlive] the British Museum, and the British Museum’s version of ‘brown history?’ Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be true,” she said, pointing to the resilience of museums and archives backed by the governments of former imperial powers. “In this moment in time, does [Brown History] transform the ways that people think about history? Yes, I hope it does. I hope people find their joy in it.”
Some account creators are attempting to take on the work of museums and traditional memory institutions more directly. Created by Aanchal Malhotra and Navdha Malhotra, who are both based in New Delhi, the Museum of Material Memory is a digital catalog that chronicles Indian history through heirlooms, collectibles, and objects of antiquity, exploring the intersection between family history and social history. Although the archive first and foremost takes form as a website, the online museum has an Instagram following of over 22,000 followers and is one of the most popular ways for contributors to submit their photos and stories.
Deeksha Jhalani, a brand consultant and copywriter based in Delhi, submitted the dishware she inherited from her grandmother to the account, including engraved thalis, silver-cast kitchen utensils, and an ornate chinar leaf-shaped plate used on the festival of Holi. “I feel like it has changed my relationship with the objects, because when I was writing about them, I understood [them] a lot more deeply,” she said. To Jhalani, the Museum of the Material Memory is capturing the stories of “things that have not yet made their place in maybe textbooks, but things that carry a lot of history.”
It is common to find historical objects in a Western museum with little information on the people and families that owned them, said Aanchal Malhotra. The Museum of Material Memory strives to fill in these gaps. One object can exist in two different families and have completely different histories. “There’s so much storytelling that goes into even mundane objects.”
But more than that, Instagram is a way to make a museum experience accessible to users that may never have the chance to view these objects up close, and in person. “This is going to be a museum for South Asian material culture, where the borders and the fault lines with history run so deep and it becomes physically inaccessible for one person in one country to access the culture of another across the border,” said the Museum of Material Memory’s Aanchal Malhotra. “I think one of the biggest strengths of our museum is the fact that it is digital and that makes it borderless.”