Mo Koundje: How Gorilla Histories Can Help Decolonise Our Collections

Presented by Rebecca Machin, Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Abstract

Mo Koundje (‘Mok’) is a Western Lowland Gorilla in the collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries (LMG). His taxidermied skin is displayed at Leeds City Museum, while his skeleton is in the store at Leeds Discovery Centre. At present, his remains are used as an example of ‘gorilla’ in the Life on Earth gallery, but they have the potential to tell us so much more. Using archives from the Zoological Society of London, the Natural History Museum, and the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, as well as French and British press archives, I have found out more about Mok’s life. His story touches on domestic life in French colonies, the interaction between colonists and colonised communities, and the illegal hunting and trade in gorillas, which continues today. The remains of animals from once colonised countries have the potential to reveal stories not only of their own experiences, but of the people whose lives were affected by colonisation. By entering colonial homes, gorillas enable us to look at racial and gendered hierarchies imposed by European colonisers from a new perspective. We can, and should, use these stories to engage our audiences with a range of political and environmental issues still relevant today.

This presentation contains distressing images.

About the author

Rebecca Machin is a curator of natural sciences at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Most recently, she has been working with community outreach colleagues on the Windows on Nature project, encouraging socially isolated older people in Leeds to enjoy birds from their homes, even under lockdown. She has published work around gender representation in museum natural science displays, exposing the misrepresentation of female animals, including humans, in public galleries and stored collections. Rebecca recently started a PhD at the University of Leeds, researching the history of gorillas as pets in colonial Africa. rebecca.machin@leeds.gov.uk / @Curator_Rebecca

Presented in the first session of the ‘Decolonising Natural Science Collections’ NatSCA online conference, 19 November 2020.

2 thoughts on “Mo Koundje: How Gorilla Histories Can Help Decolonise Our Collections

  1. Pingback: NatSCA Digital Digest – January | NatSCA

  2. Pingback: Review: Decolonising Natural Science Collections Conference 2020 | NatSCA

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