Displays of Power: A Natural History Of Empire

Presented by Hannan Cornish, Luanne Meehitiya, Tannis Davidson, Subhadra Das, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL Culture.

Abstract

The Displays of Power exhibition explores the zoology collections of the Grant Museum, motivated by the conviction that, “there are stories of empire in any natural history collection – if you know how to look”.

Research found that empire played a key role in the development of the Grant Museum. The map of the British Empire was reflected in where the specimens were collected and empire helped to turn animals into objects for worldwide trade. Teaching specimens were used to promote racism and colonialism. Specimens hunted to extinction by colonists evidenced how empire affected the natural world. Hunting trophies demonstrated imperial attitudes towards animals that persist.

Displays of Power was inspired by a paper co-authored by Subhadra Das, one of our curatorial team, and Miranda Lowe, a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum, which argues that natural history museums perpetuate racism and alienate BAME visitors by ignoring colonial histories. To remedy this erasure, Displays of Power foregrounds the legacy of empire throughout the museum display.

The exhibition takes the unusual approach of reframing and reinterpreting objects that are already on display. In this way, we turned a lack of temporary exhibition space into an opportunity to show that stories of empire are ubiquitous but untold throughout collections. Displays of Power was created as a means to open up the conversation around empire in as many different ways as possible. This includes a collaboration with poet Yomi Sode, visitor conversations with trained front of house staff and family and school activities and resources. Associated events include a community take over day and evenings exploring privilege through comedy and a giant immersive game of snakes and ladders. Visitor feedback highlights the deep personal impact of the exhibition. Visitors are sending a strong message that we (and other museums) need to continue decolonising our collections and that is what we intend to do.

About the author

Hannah Cornish is a Science Curator at UCL working with the Science Collections and Pathology Museum. She has a background in natural history and anatomy collections and her interests include collections research, documentation, and the history and ethics of natural science and medical collections. She is one of four co-curators of the Displays of Power exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology. Hannah.cornish@ucl.ac.uk@HannahLCornish

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

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