Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 1.

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

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.


Figure 1. A rack of game trophies from the Chapman collection in the Great North Museum resource centre (Copyright Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

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.

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Legacies Of Jamaica: A Not So Elegant Priest!

Presented by Mama D Ujuaje & Rhian Rowson, Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives.

Abstract

This presentation discusses a previous successfully curated public event, The Food Journey, held in the summer of 2019, forming part of a long term international project linked to our Jamaican botanical collection.

Addressing many of the contentions of Jamaican history, this presentation evokes a feel of mid-eighteenth century Jamaica by describing how making use of dramatic narrative, a soundscape, food tasting, aromas and textures of the time and geography, allow the context of the collection to come alive and to, as it were, ‘answer back’ to the authority of the author’s claims. We use costumed dialogue to help re-enact the immersive feel of the original production.

We include in our presentation a discussion of how the collection came about and its use over the years and how that might be critiqued in the context of slavery analyses over time and current notions concerning the erasure of traditional knowledge forms.

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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.

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The Lost Artists Of British Enlightenment Natural History

Presented by Isabelle Charmantier, The Linnean Society of London.

Abstract

Taking the art collection of the Linnean Society of London as a case study, this paper looks at the many drawings, paintings and illustrations of the natural world collected and commissioned by the Society’s Fellows in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These Fellows came from varied backgrounds, including surgeons, medical doctors, reverends and army soldiers. They were part of the British colonial enterprise, exploring and settling in Burma, Nepal, India and the West Indies. Their observations about the botany and zoology they studied were sent back to the Society to be read to other Fellows at meetings and published in the Society’s journals. Yet the artwork accompanying these observations was not generally drawn by the authors themselves but by local or indigenous artists they employed. The identities of these artists remain unknown in most cases, but the images they drew were of paramount importance in the construction of natural historical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain. The images they drew to accompany textual descriptions of new plants and animals were often the first to be seen in Europe. These artists were steeped in their own visual and technical traditions, yet they were expected to conform to Western standards of depicting plants and animals, that mirrored taxonomic and nomenclatural objectives. The resulting works reflect the meeting of different cultural, sociological and ecological concerns. The talk will present three specific examples from the Society’s collections and explore what can be done to decolonise the collections, to resurrect these artists, and give back the recognition they deserve.

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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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