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.
Biobanks may sound a bit dull when compared to shelves teeming with boxes filled with fascinating skeletons, or cabinets stuffed with colourful skins, beautiful eggs or pinned insects. Serried ranks of anonymous freezers, enhanced with the odd fridge magnet, could make your heart sink, but peep inside the biobanks’ databases and you will see an amazing array of biodiversity.
At National Museums Scotland we host one of the main hubs of the CryoArks Biobank initiative alongside our partners at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who also host a hub of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Biobank, and the Natural History Museum in London. CryoArks is a project led by Professor Mike Bruford of Cardiff University and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to establish zoological biobanking in the UK. As well as the -80o freezer infrastructure to store the tissue samples long term, CryoArks is developing an online database that will allow researchers to find out what genetic resources are available in the CryoArks Biobank hubs and in member institutions. With the advent of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing in 2014, access to genetic samples from species from range countries is more challenging. Therefore, it is vital that we make the best use of the samples already available in the UK and make these freely available to support research, much of which may benefit the conservation of endangered species worldwide.
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.
We live at a period in time where we are very familiar with the concept of mass extinctions that are likely to be caused by human intervention (from burning of the rain-forests, hunting and desertification through to global warming). As the years/decades/centuries progress, our preserved plant and animal [by which I mean anything that moves] collections find themselves being useful tools to provide empirical evidence for the causes of the above, outside of their main purpose of pure taxonomy (Thiers 2020: 219-242).
Following the recent closure of Kew’s Red Listing department, conservation is a subject that readily springs to mind. With c. 390 million specimens contained within the World’s herbaria, information captured in specimen labels has ultimately provided the data for calculating the Area of Occupancy and Extent of Occurrence, both of which play a large part in assessing the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red listing of a plant.
I am lucky to work with a specialist herbarium collection – one that contains ornamental plants based at RHS Garden Wisley. Yes, highly unlikely to play a role in an IUCN assessment, but all the same, a dried ornamental plant collection does play a vital role in conservation. Whilst Plant Heritage aims to conserve living plants, a herbarium that specialises in ornamentals (cultivars) can preserve material of long lost or even recently lost garden plants.