Book Review: Managing Natural Science Collections.

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

Working with natural science collections is quite a unique role. The specimens we care for, the stories they tell, the research we carry out or help facilitate, and the engagement with the public, are just a few rewarding jobs that we carry out daily. Sometimes there are barriers between those working with natural science collections and those at a higher management level. This is mainly due to a lack of understanding of the importance of these types of collections. “Why are there so many flies?“, “It’s just taxidermy, bring it out for people to stroke“, “It’s just a rock”. Just a few of things many of us have heard being said about natural science collections.

Whilst we can respond to these kinds of comments, some of us may find it more difficult to respond in a strategic way: in a language that makes sense to high level managers or funders. I have in the past, and I’ve found that frustrating, because I know the importance of the collections I look after. I was very pleased to be asked to review a new book about management of collections, focusing on strategy and development, Managing Natural Science Collections: A guide to strategy, planning and resourcing which was released this year and it couldn’t have come at a better time. A time when the country is recovering from an economic slump after the Covid pandemic. A time when cuts to the museum sector are inevitable.

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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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