Colonial Critters: Decolonising The Powell-Cotton Museum

Presented by Rachel Jennings, Powell-Cotton Museum.

Abstract

The Powell-Cotton Museum’s dioramas are visual spectacles that delight audiences, but they aren’t representations of ‘real life’. Starting in September 2020, we are undertaking a project called ‘Colonial Critters’, which will look critically at the context in which these displays were created. In this project we will delve into the history of the Museum and uncover the ‘hidden’ stories in our extensive archive,
including those of the communities with whom Percy Powell-Cotton worked across the African continent, in India, and in Kent to make this place. We will engage our staff and audiences in the process to find out what stories they would like the Museum to tell, giving the opportunity for some uncomfortable – but ultimately more rounded – histories to be displayed. The aim of decolonisation is not to re-write history, but to be more open and transparent about the origins of our collections.

This presentation will outline the Colonial Critters project, and discuss what decolonisation means to us at the Powell-Cotton Museum.

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The Political Platypus And The Colonial Koala – How To Decolonise The Way We Talk About Australian Animals

Presented by Jack Ashby, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

Abstract

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.

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Decolonising Manchester Museum’s Mineral Collection – A Call To Action

Presented by David Gelsthorpe, Manchester Museum.

Abstract

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.

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Nature Read in Black and White: An Update

Presented by Miranda Lowe, Natural History Museum and Subhadra Das, University College
London.

Abstract

There has been an enthusiastic uptake of ideas and practices around decolonising the natural history museum in the wake of the publication of our paper ‘Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Natural History Collections’ in the NatSCA Journal in 2018. People have written blogs, there have been exhibitions relating to the topic and even the Daily Mail scare quoted cancel culture fears when they heard the Natural History Museum in London was reviewing the colonial histories of its collections. A highlight moment was when Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, complimented one of the co-authors of the
paper, saying he had read all sixteen pages and how it was accessible and easy to read. We are gladdened by the national and international impact of our words and research, and this has encouraged us to reflect on this success and raise some other related issues that we would like to share with you in this keynote presentation. In addition to listing recent successes within our own organisations and some plans for future work, we also plan to talk about two further topics about decolonising natural history museums. The first will consider the colonial roots and context of the environmentalist movement, while the second will examine the question of representation in the natural history museum workforce. We will consider the current state of the discourse around decolonising museums, and discuss what continues to be required in the interests of long-term, equitable change.

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Top 10 Blogs of 2020

Written by Jennifer Gallichan, NatSCA Blog Editor; Curator (Vertebrates/Mollusca), National Museum Cardiff.

2020 – what a year! Well done on getting through it, and a heartfelt thanks from me for all of the fantastic blog contributions this year. We saw a marked increase in online engagement when the first lockdown hit, with more of you reading and engaging with our blog page than in any other year. I have very much enjoyed reading all of the articles, and I hope you have too.

To reflect on the year, here are your Top Ten most read NatSCA blog articles from 2020. Covid obviously features, as well as a strong focus on discussions surrounding decolonising collections. I am also pleased to see that there is a healthy dose of solid natural history conservation practice this year. I know I have taken great solace from the fact that no matter what was happening in the world, time seemed to stand still the minute I entered the stores. I hope that focusing on the practicalities of caring and conserving our collections has been a healthy and hopefully reassuring distraction from the craziness surrounding us all.

10. Frequently Asked Questions about Taxidermy

Written by Ella Berry amateur taxidermist & MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University. Attempting to deal with some of those tricky taxidermy questions.

Photo of the taxidermy Gannet (Morus bassanus) waiting patiently(!) to go on display before the event. Photo by author.

9. Museums Beyond Covid

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth. Exploring how our museum spaces and experiences might be very different in the future.

Beautiful taxidermy work of lions attacking a buffalo. I patiently waited 15 minutes until the case was clear of visitors for this photo. Photo by Jan Freedman.

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