Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum.

Decolonising museums is in the headlines a lot at the moment and so it should be. I’ve chatted to a few people about this recently and it isn’t very clear what it means, how it relates to natural science collections and how we can start to decolonise our collections, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Much of the discussion in the museum sector has been around ethnography collections with some great work that goes some way to redress our colonial past (including from my own institution Manchester Museum who have returned sacred aboriginal objects). Some ethnography objects are made from bark, fur or ivory, but these materials don’t often form part of the decolonisation debate.

The reality is that many natural history collections, particularly in the western world have a colonial origin. Many objects were traded on slave ships and were an attempt to map and tame the British Empire. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das have done some brilliant work to highlight this and the Grant Museum’s new exhibition on their Colonial Histories is a great first step in bringing this to the public.

But what does decolonization of museum collections mean?

Well, I think it is for us to define, in partnership with our communities and indigenous people across the world. I see it as an opportunity to lead the sector in:

Being proactive in telling hidden truths however difficult, about how we got our collections – acknowledge we have them, but at what cost?

Bringing new meaning and new voices to our collections through partnerships with people from the source communities and others from where we got the collections. Proactively explore repatriation where it is wanted.

Being a force for good in conservation and climate change through data sharing. We all know our collections are a rich source of information that could support conservation, habitat restoration and adaptation to the climate emergency. Collections data on what flora and fauna were found in the past could be an essential part of land management plans throughout the former empire, but this data isn’t often shared, or recorded in a way that’s useful. The data is often more valuable than the specimen itself.

We have a long way to go in decolonising museums, but we have a great opportunity to re-think natural science collections, bring new meaning and maximise their impact. I’m encouraged by some of the first steps some are taking and one of the themes of the NatSCA 2020 Conference in Cardiff is Decolonisation.

If you would like to submit an abstract or just attend the NatSCA 2020 conference, you can find all the details here.

5 thoughts on “Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

  1. Wonderful Rare Specimens Collections with kind Regards Natural History Museum from Prof Salman Raza Principal Government Degree Boys College 5L New Karachi Pakistan and Prof of Zoology


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