James J. Harrison: Unnatural History

Presented by Jim Middleton, Scarborough Museums Trust.

Abstract

Scarborough Museums Trust holds an archive of the big game hunter James Jonathan Harrison (1857-1923) comprising of not only the usual hunting trophies, but also a large number of photographs and nine hunting diaries. Shortly after his death, his collection was donated to Scarborough Corporation, where for many years it was displayed in the upper rooms of the library before eventually making its way to the towns Natural History Museum when that opened in 1952.

After several years of neglect, many of the mounts and trophy heads were destroyed or removed from cases and only through careful detective work have a number of mounts been able to be definitively attributed to this collection.

One of the more interesting aspects of this collection are the photographs and diaries which give an insight into his privileged lifestyle and insatiable appetite for shooting. In 2021/22 the museum is planning an exhibition based around Harrison’s photography which will have to address a number of difficult issues regarding not only the slaughter of hundreds of animals but also the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and especially the Congo.

In 1904/5 Harrison brought six ‘Pygmies’ from the Congo which at the time was under the brutal rule of the Belgians and toured them around the UK before returning them home. This historically has always been related in a cheery, anecdotal way with little regard for the clearly exploitative nature of the venture (bearing in mind that at around the same time the Bronx Zoo had a Congolese man on display in a cage). This aspect of the narrative will be retold in a way which makes people think a little more about the inherent racism within collections and how we can redress this.

This presentation contains distressing images.

About the author

Jim Middleton is the Collections Manager for Scarborough Museums Trust. A life long Naturalist of the old fashioned type, Jim started his career in museums in the late 90s at the Jorvik Viking Centre, but was always happier discussing the environmental findings of the digs rather than the historical artefacts. Following a brief spell digitising the Hull University Herbarium, he worked as an ornithologist monitoring raptors on potential windfarm sites in Caithness and the Western Isles. In 2008 Jim started working for the Scarborough Museums Trust initially front of house, and has worked his way up since then. When not staring blankly at computer screens, Jim researches historical natural historians for the Natstand website, which he runs with his father. jim.middleton@smtrust.uk.com / @SMT_Collections

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

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