Decolonise! Activations of Natural History Collections by International Contemporary Artists

Presented by Dr Bergit Arends, University of Bristol.

Abstract

Nowhere else is the encounter between Western science and the cultures of non-European peoples so evident than in the collections of European museums. These encounters are reflected in the collecting practices, the archiving and documenting, the conservation of objects and in the ordering systems through which these artefacts are interpreted. But in Western museums we need to learn how to recognise and how to acknowledge these encounters.

Museum collections are sources of both cultural and environmental knowledge (Thomas, 2018), particularly natural science collections. Moreover, taxonomic systems of the past, particularly in the natural sciences, are now considered to be one of the most important resources for understanding the interconnections of science and culture (Browne, 1989). How can historic collections be mobilised to address contemporary issues? How can the natural sciences be understood as cultural practice? How can the violence of past
scientific practices be acknowledged in natural history museums?

I discuss how artists challenged historic and contemporary scientific and collection care practices. In the international artists’ residency programme (2010-2013) at the Natural History Museum London, Daniel Boyd (Australia), Hu Yun (China), and Sunjo D (India) used the collections to explore shared histories and to research scientific practices. The artists engaged with the collections’ provenance, bureaucracy, access and visibility, and the collection objects themselves to create public displays. I discuss their works through the impetus for decolonisation, referring to revisiting institutional taxonomies, scientific and collection care practices and colonial impositions while speaking out for cultural multiplicity and recognition. The programme worked with artefacts, histories, the museum, and communities. I present how strategies to decolonise collections though contemporary art can be derived from this programme.

About the author

Bergit Arends curates and researches interdisciplinary processes, with a current focus on the environment and visual art. She publishes widely, recently on plants in The Botanical City (2020), Botanical Drift (2018), Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (2018), and on decolonising natural history museums (Art in Science Museums 2019). Her thesis ‘Contemporary Art, Archives and Environmental Change in the Age of the Anthropocene’ (2017) resulted in the award-winning publication Chrystel Lebas. Field Studies (2018). She has curated contemporary art projects for the natural history museums in London and Berlin (Art/Nature 2019). Most recently Bergit was in Collection Care Research at Tate and is now British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of History of Art, University of Bristol. Bergit.Arends@bristol.ac.uk / @BergitArends

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

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