Listening and learning: Reflections on the Second Workshop of the People and Plants Project

Written by Fiona Roberts. Collaborative ESRC PhD student, Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales Decolonising biocultural curation of South Asian medicinal plants.

Monday 7th November, National Museums Collections Centre

In early November, a group of academics, researchers, curators, artists and knowledge holders gathered at Edinburgh’s National Museums Collections Centre. The second workshop of the year-long AHRC-funded ‘People and Plants’ project focused on ‘reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of Indigenous ecological knowledge.’

During the object handling session (Photo by Dr Ali Clark, National Museums Scotland)

The People and Plants Project

Led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Powell-Cotton Museum, the project investigates current debates on decolonising museum practices, including the interplay between natural history and ethnography collections, creating a conversation about these among varied experts.

The project’s previous workshop, held at the Powell-Cotton Museum in March 2022, brought together Somali knowledge holders from UK diasporic communities and was run in partnership with the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation and the NOMAD project, which engages Somali communities in heritage projects. To read more, see this previous blogpost, and view workshop talks on YouTube [People and Plants – YouTube].

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Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 2.

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

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.

Figure 1. An undated photo of the Uganda Railway near Mombasa (http:/www.jaduland.de, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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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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