Welcome to the August edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.
A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. We are really keen to hear more about museum re-openings, exhibition launches, virtual conferences and webinars, and new and interesting online content. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In case you missed it, the NatSCA 2021 Conference: Environmental Breakdown and Natural Science Collections, which took place in May, is now freely available to view online, through our website or YouTube channel. This year’s conference focussed on how we can address global issues such as climate change and habitat loss with our collections, and featured some amazing talks and fascinating tours from across the sector. All talks, tours and Q&A sessions have captions available.
Abel Chapman’s time in southern Africa was only the first of many visits to the continent. His next trip, in 1904, was to a very different place – British East Africa. This was a colonial protectorate roughly equivalent to today’s Republic of Kenya. It had grown out of land leased by the British East Africa Company but was now firmly under British imperial control.
The Uganda railway, a huge feat of engineering, had been completed just three years before Chapman’s visit. This now allowed trains to travel the 800km (500 miles) between Mombasa on the east coast and the African Great Lakes. The British now had the means to extend their influence right across East Africa, disrupting the slave routes and simultaneously opening up the land to the missionaries, settlers, tourists and game hunters that were now pouring in. It was in this rapidly changing environment that Chapman strove to find the longed for wilderness that had eluded him in Transvaal, and test his skills as a sportsman, before that land too vanished under the settler’s plough.
In the museum’s basement is a room filled with heads. Row after row of them stare out from metal racks, glassy eyed and bristling with every kind of horn and antler. Visitors to this room are sometimes awestruck at the breadth of species on display. The Kudu, its head crowned by spiralling horns like giant corkscrews. A tiny Klipspringer with horns like shiny black thorns. The huge Eland, its vast head armed with massive horns like tank shells. A parliament of Africa’s fantastic beasts, all in this small storeroom. These are hunting trophies from the Abel Chapman collection. When he died in 1929 they were taken down from the walls of his Northumberland home, and gifted to the museum.
In light of the current conversation about museums and colonialism, and the insightful work of Lowe and Das on the subject of Natural History collections in this context, I thought I’d try to learn more about the history of the great North Museum’s African collections, and my attention was caught on the horns of Chapman’s trophies. The more I’ve learned about their story, the more I’ve come to feel that trophy heads, some of the most recognisable Natural History objects, are great examples of the way that colonialism has both helped to shape naturalism, museum collections and even our ideas about wildlife conservation.
The story of our collection begins in 1851 when Abel Chapman was born into a wealthy Sunderland brewing family. Educated at the elite Rugby School, he joined the family firm as a young man and embarked on a successful business career. Chapman was intelligent and adventurous, making expeditions to places like Canada, Scandinavia and the Arctic. In detailed notebooks filled with deft pencil sketches he documented the things he heard, saw and shot, and used these to write a whole series of books. He built a reputation as a ‘hunter naturalist’ passionate about combining field sports with game preservation, and as well as amassing a horde of trophies, he became an influential figure in the emerging field of wildlife conservation.
Manchester Museum is currently undergoing an exciting transformation, building two new galleries, a South Asia Gallery and the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery. This sparked interest and further research into our natural history collections from Asia.
Manchester Museum has a large collection of 18,000 bird skins; including many specimens from the former British Empire. Further study of the collection has identified over 100 birds linked to the East India Company Museum.
A Brief History of the East India Company Museum
The East India Company was established in 1600 by a royal charter signed by Queen Elizabeth I. It gave the company the monopoly on trade in South Asia for over 250 years. The museum was established in 1798, as an ‘Oriental Repository’ to exhibit the returns of the East India Company’s commerce. It was known as the India Museum, and was housed in the company’s headquarters at India House, Leadenhall Street, London. Company servants were encouraged to expand their knowledge of South Asia in order to advance the company’s commercial and territorial ambitions.
Modelled on the Royal Society of London, the Asiatic Society of Bengal was formed in 1784 by a number of East India Company employees in Calcutta. The aim of the society was to carry out research into the history, arts, literature and Natural History of Asia. The Asiatic Society was closely associated with the India Museum in London. Charles Wilkins one of the founding members of the Asiatic Society would go on to propose the formation of the East India Company Museum in London and would become its first curator. The Indian Museum in Calcutta was established in 1814 with the founding collections from the Asiatic Society.
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.