Ally Skills 101: Why Allies?

Presented by Hao Ye, University of Florida & Molly Phillips, Florida Museum of Natural History, iDigBio.

Abstract

Natural science collections are, by their nature, collaborative and cumulative, and benefit from the inclusion of diverse people with diverse experiences and backgrounds. Yet many of us recognize that our workplaces, and STEM at large, are not welcoming to all, even after decades of efforts. It is increasingly clear that one of the challenges is that we lack training in turning our shared values into action. In this talk, I will introduce ally skills as a path to change. An ally is a member of a social group that enjoys some privilege that is working to end oppression and understand their own privilege (Frame Shift Consulting). We introduce ally skills via workshops offered by the Gainesville Ally Skills Network. In these workshops we teach people how to recognize when they have power and influence to act as an ally and take effective action to make their workplace more inclusive.

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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.

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Colonial Critters: Decolonising The Powell-Cotton Museum

Presented by Rachel Jennings, Powell-Cotton Museum.

Abstract

The Powell-Cotton Museum’s dioramas are visual spectacles that delight audiences, but they aren’t representations of ‘real life’. Starting in September 2020, we are undertaking a project called ‘Colonial Critters’, which will look critically at the context in which these displays were created. In this project we will delve into the history of the Museum and uncover the ‘hidden’ stories in our extensive archive,
including those of the communities with whom Percy Powell-Cotton worked across the African continent, in India, and in Kent to make this place. We will engage our staff and audiences in the process to find out what stories they would like the Museum to tell, giving the opportunity for some uncomfortable – but ultimately more rounded – histories to be displayed. The aim of decolonisation is not to re-write history, but to be more open and transparent about the origins of our collections.

This presentation will outline the Colonial Critters project, and discuss what decolonisation means to us at the Powell-Cotton Museum.

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The Political Platypus And The Colonial Koala – How To Decolonise The Way We Talk About Australian Animals

Presented by Jack Ashby, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

Abstract

Decolonisation is about breaking down systemic hierarchies, where European narratives have been considered superior to any others. In this talk, I will be asking whether this can be applied to the way we talk about Australian mammals.

My argument is that the ways in which museums and other sources represent Australian animals today are often fundamentally pejorative, and reflect an ongoing subconscious colonial bias. This attitude begins with the colonists and explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries, but remains detectable in the ways that Australian wildlife is interpreted today, in museums, TV programmes and in the popular zeitgeist. This may sound extreme, but I will be asking whether the zoological and socio-historical stories of marsupials, platypuses and echidnas may intertwine to have severe impact on global politics.

I will explore some common tropes for how Australia’s wildlife appears in our museums, and propose language and narratives to avoid perpetuating colonial narratives in museum interpretation.

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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?

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