I live and work on the Isle of Man, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea, about 30 miles long and 15 miles wide with a population just shy of 85,000. As the Isle of Man is independent from the UK, we have our own central Government and part of my role includes sitting on committees discussing Government policy development, partnership working with environmental NGOs, land management, ecology and conservation. For the most part though I manage the natural sciences collections at the Manx Museum, including (the other) conservation, preparation, IPM, exhibitions, education and outreach, loans, enquiries, etc. As I work for an organisation that encompasses the role of a national trust and national museum, the job is varied and I work with a great team of people who all support each other. One day I may be working with an intern on reboxing and relocating the Geology collection, the next I’ll be learning how to traditionally thatch a cottage using locally grown materials, and when an unusual cetacean washes up on our shores I get to attend the beach autopsies recorded by the local Wildlife Trust (pro tip: strandings in winter tend to be a LOT less smelly…).
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.
The history of Black people, people from indigenous cultures and the role of empire in museum natural history collections is largely ignored. This talk uses Manchester Museum’s mineral collection to take the first steps to uncover these stories, analyse the role of empire and expose racism. For the first time, archive photographs from the early 1900s are used in a new display, to tell the story of the people who mined the Museum’s South African gold ore specimens. Recent research and the Museum’s Sierra Leone diamond are used to tell the story of ‘Blood Diamonds’. Data analysis of the mineral collection reveals that 24% of the collection comes from colonial countries. 50% of the Museum’s minerals from the British Empire are Australian, of which 33% came from the Imperial Institute. This research has shown that Manchester Museum’s mineral collection is intimately connected to empire, but the history of Black and indigenous people is ignored or unknown. This is institutional racism and museums need to be proactive in addressing this. There are enormous opportunities to develop this research through fostering partnerships with source communities around the world. This paper is a call to action.
I stepped into the role of Chair for NatSCA in May this year, and it’s been a challenging but important time to consider our future activity.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought real immediate impacts to NatSCA’s work. As for many people, NatSCA’s trustees have experienced individual challenges such as furlough or juggling work and childcare. We have also had to adapt our working practice – initially focusing on how to work together effectively as a virtual committee, and moving our event content online. (Announcements on virtual events to follow soon…)
NatSCA’s trustees have also been assessing potential longer-term risks to the charity in light of the pandemic, and how to make sure our activities remain relevant and sustainable. It’s a vital time for natural science collections, with their huge scope to contribute to urgent issues such as climate and ecological crisis and decolonisation. We also have potential challenges ahead, such as reduced budgets for professional development or further loss of subject specialist posts. The shift of many in our sector to virtual working offers NatSCA new opportunities. Most importantly, we are committed to understanding the changing needs of our communities and seeking your ideas to help inform our next steps.