One way that museums can decolonise their collections is to celebrate the true diversity of all the people that were ultimately responsible for making them. We often say things like, “This specimen was collected by Darwin”, or whichever famous name put a collection together, when in reality we know that often they weren’t actually the ones who found and caught the animal.
Museums can be rightly proud of their “hero collections” and the famous discoveries represented by them. Acknowledging that they did not work alone does nothing to diminish their accomplishments. We just need to make clear that other people made enormous contributions to their successes, and celebrate them too.
Undeniably, natural history museums have overwhelmingly celebrated dead white men. A major strand of decolonisation work is to show that a greater diversity of people are, in fact, represented in the history of our collections. But in reality, their contributions are rarely documented.
The Malay Teenagers Who Collected Wallace’s Birds
Lately, I’ve been looking at the collection of birds here at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, that Alfred Russel Wallace brought back from his eight-year voyage to the Malay Archipelago. Any museum with Wallace material considers it among their treasures. He co-discovered evolution by natural selection, added mountains of invaluable specimens to museums worldwide, and founded entire scientific disciplines based on his interpretations of what he saw. And he gives a lot of credit to the people of colour who collected much of his material.
Although Wallace certainly does not name every collecting assistant, a Sarawak teenager named Ali – who joined the voyage when he was probably just 15 – was perhaps his most trusted expedition-member and closest companion. And a 16-year-old named Baderoon from Celebes also provided instrumental contributions to his collections (Van Wyhe & Drawhorn, 2015). Wallace respected them, their insights, wishes and their Islamic faith, and wrote openly about their part in his accomplishments.
In Cambridge, we have what appears to be Wallace’s “personal” specimen of Wallace’s standardwing bird-of-paradise Semioptera wallacii, a species which Wallace is famous for “discovering” on this voyage, at around the time the theory of natural selection came to him on his malarial sick-bed. However, in his published travelogue, The Malay Archipelago, Wallace himself wrote:
“Just as I got home I overtook Ali returning from shooting with some birds hanging from his belt. He seemed much pleased, and said, ‘Look here, sir, what a curious bird,’ holding out what at first completely puzzled me. I saw a bird with a mass of splendid green feathers on its breast, elongated into two glittering tufts; but, what I could not understand was a pair of long white feathers, which stuck straight out from each shoulder. Ali assured me that the bird stuck them out this way itself, when fluttering its wings, and that they had remained so without his touching them. I now saw that I had got a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the Bird of Paradise, differing most remarkably from every other known bird”. (Wallace, 1869)
It’s clear that not only did Ali collect the first specimen of the species (which we can be confident is one of the ones we have in Cambridge) and realised that it was unusual, but also provided details of its natural history. Nonetheless, the world gave Wallace the credit. According to Wallace’s journals and published accounts, it was commonplace for Ali to make such contributions (Van Wyhe & Drawhorn, 2015).As an aside, when the Museum reopened in 2018, we surprised Sir David Attenborough by asking him to install one of our standard-wing specimens in a display about Wallace, at which point he did an impromptu impersonation of the feather-flutter Ali described to Wallace.
Ali was with Wallace for almost the entire voyage, and collected many if not most of the 8,050 birds Wallace sent back to Europe (and prepared the skins of many more he didn’t shoot himself). Ali is therefore represented in the tens of museums worldwide with “Wallace” specimens.
Heroes and Villains and Nuance
Despite Wallace’s respect for Ali and many of the other Malay collectors he references, at times Wallace’s writing exemplifies the deep-set colonial view of naturalists and explorers of the time.Another of the specimens from Wallace’s voyage that we have in Cambridge is a king bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus regius from the Aru Islands between New Guinea and Australia, which is in all probability the one he describes in the passage below. He proudly credits Baderoon for having collected it (Baderoon was from Celebes, not Aru), but goes on to imply that the Indigenous people who were acting as his guides simply did not count.
“I had obtained a specimen of the King Bird of Paradise (Paradisea regia) … The emotions excited in the minds of a naturalist, who has long desired to see the actual thing which he has hitherto known only by description, drawing, or badly-preserved external covering — especially when that thing is of surpassing rarity and beauty, require the poetic faculty fully to express them. The remote island in which I found myself situated, in an almost unvisited sea, far from the tracks of merchant fleets and navies; the wild luxuriant tropical forest, which stretched far away on every side; the rude uncultured savages who gathered round me, — all had their influence in determining the emotions with which I gazed upon this ‘thing of beauty.’ I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course — year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy.” (Wallace, 1869)
“beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy”. Wallace is suggesting that the people of the Aru Islands could not recognise their aesthetic beauty, nor had the “intelligent eye[s] to gaze upon their loveliness”. In the emotional, evocative sweep of a pen, Wallace dismissed the experiences, understanding and knowledge of the Indigenous people living alongside the birds, in a way which many Wallace fans may find disquieting.
In decolonisation work it can be tempting to either build up people as heroes who valued the contributions of a diversity of people, or knock down them down as racist villains. However, from the pair of quotes above, we can see that it’s probably more nuanced than that. At times, individuals wrote things that suggest they saw their local collaborators as equals, while at other times their words are deeply problematic.
It’s unfortunate, because not only is most specimen documentation inadequate for telling the truths that would allow museums to celebrate a more diverse group of people who contributed to the history of their collections, but the accounts we do have access to aren’t necessarily trustworthy.
But we do have to try, otherwise museums aren’t telling the stories truthfully. Looking for the Alis and Baderoons in our collections might help more people realise that – as well as all the dead white men – people like them played vital roles in the science and the history on display. And that museums are about them too. To fail to do that is a gross underestimation of museums’ relevance.
Van Wyhe, J. & Drawhorn, G. M., 2015. ‘I am Ali Wallace’: The Malay Assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 88, Part 1(308), pp. 3-31.
Wallace, A. R., 1869. The Malay Archipelago. London: Macmillan and Co..
With thanks to Mike Brooke, George Beccaloni and Andrew Berry for their advice on matching Cambridge’s specimens to Wallace’s notes. And to the Natural History Museum, London, for making scans of Wallace’s field-notes available online.