Review: Decolonising Natural Science Collections Conference 2020

Written by Ella Berry (also available here), amateur taxidermist & MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University.

Concisely contained within one day’s worth of talks, the NATSCA conference on ‘Decolonising Natural Science Collections’ was eye opening. Rarely have I felt my time was so well spent. The conference was recorded so I encourage you to go press play


With over 300 attendees from Australia to America, the conference had a global reach. The chance to be physically in the same room as so many from the field was sorely missed. However, this didn’t stop attendees taking to the chat rooms sharing ideas, links to literature and discussing the talks.

On reflection, what linked all the talks was an approach differing from the norm. Something altogether novel was provided by looking at objects already existing within our collections, and seeking the hidden information they could offer. The conference showcased not only the large scale, systemic nature of this problem but of on-going work proving the commitment and drive of individuals from multiple disciplines to see decolonisation carried out effectively in the museum sector.

By far the most shocking facet of the conference was how close to the surface these stories are. Colonial connections in our collections are not tenuous. It is confounding to me, that as someone who has visited museums all my life, I knew nothing of this. It would be instructive to see the methodology used to unravel these stories, the initial approach taken, and any difficulties encountered along the way for those inspired to undertake their own investigations. I am still uncertain how to approach unearthing these buried histories.

The talks left me with the strong conviction that actively working towards decolonisation is an essential task for all individuals in the museum field. Equality, diversity and inclusion should be the reality of our workplaces every day. I would like to thank the committee for putting on such a stimulating and well-organised event.

The Talks in More Detail

Keynote speakers, Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe offered a follow up to their far reaching and impactful paper ‘Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections‘, a sobering start to this timely conference. Since the publication of their paper a lot has happened to bring the issues of the BLM movement to the forefront of our minds, accelerating institutional efforts towards decolonisation.

There was much to reflect on and take in with each of the day’s presentations. David Gelsthorpe’s talk ‘Decolonising Manchester Museum’s Mineral Collection – A Call To Action‘ cast decolonisation as an uplifting, positive opportunity to those who undertake it, without belittling the time and work it takes. Rebecca Machin’s talk on tracing Mo Koundje (a.k.a. ‘Mok’) a Western Lowland Gorilla, left a deep imprint on my mind. One individual commented “This is so shocking”, another solely “appalling”, reminding me of a quote by African American playwright Pearl Cleage “discomfort is always a necessary part of the process of enlightenment”.

Dr Bergit Arends talk discussed the international Artists’ Residency Programme, the results of which are well worth seeking out. It was a shame to hear such a well-received project was cut short due to funding and that there was still opposition in allowing the overlap between art and science disciplines.

In ‘The Political Platypus And The Colonial Koala – How To Decolonise The Way We Talk About Australian Animals‘, Jack Ashby argued that the casual use of language used in museums might give us an unnatural perspective of animals. His talk was thought provoking and I was surprised by how quickly real-world consequences became apparent.

Rachel Jennings’ talk showcased an amazing example of a museum reworking itself in the name of decolonisation. The Powell-Cotton is occasionally colloquially termed ‘the museum of the great white hunter’ as it focuses on the views of one wealthy, privileged, white, European male. An approach of adding interpretation rather than removing objects is being taken, and the scale of the task they are undertaking can clearly be felt.

Hannah Cornish, one of the four co-creators of the Grant Museum’s 2019 exhibition ‘Displays of Power: A Natural History of Empire’ kicked off the afternoon session. The public consultation undertaken at the Grant was vast. Visitors commented the exhibition was“…long awaited…” and were thankful for acknowledgement of a “painful yet truthful history”. I’d personally love the chance to visit this exhibition post COVID.

Molly Phillips and Hao Ye (Gainesville Ally Skills Network) condensed their usual 3 hours of training into 15-minutes, by providing five simple behaviours to integrate into our everyday fight for equality. My only criticism is that whilst the definitions provided aid in guiding us towards the same goals, they may in themselves be exclusive, thereby creating division where there should be unity.

Isabelle Charmantier talk on ‘The Lost Artists of British Enlightenment Natural History’, highlighted work exploring the Linnaean’s society’s archives. It was found that British collectors did not draw the artwork accompanying their written observations, instead anonymous local artists created it. It amazed me that this held true for such well-known names.

Jim Middleton’s introduction of the troublesome collections of ‘trigger happy’ James Harrison, had a disquieting effect on the audience. Perhaps more appalling than Harrison’s amassing of dead creatures as a form of sport, was his obtainment of six Mbuti men and women for exhibition on his second trip to the Congo. Middleton explains the aftereffects of the thinking that lead to these ‘exhibitions’ are still being felt today aided by misinformation spread throughout our history.

The final part of this conference was presented by Mama D, and what a way to end it was! I had no idea what to anticipate from  ‘Legacies Of Jamaica: A Not So Elegant Priest!‘, and yet it still managed to defy my expectations. Throughout the Q and A Mama D herself felt like a force of nature moving her collective forward towards ‘community centred knowledge’.

The day concluded with one last Q and A involving as many of the speakers from throughout the day as possible. Useful, if like me, a pertinent question only occurred to you once the schedule had moved on. Although spontaneous debate over zoom isn’t possible, the process and set up was unobtrusive and well managed with sessions flowing easily; an achievement in itself.

The NatSCA 2021 virtual conference will be held on 27th – 28th May 2021 9.50am-4pm BST (UTC +1) ‘Changing the world: environmental breakdown and natural science collections

If you would like to participate in the conference please see our website for more information and the abstract submission form. DEADLINE 26 March 2021.

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