Telling the Truth About Who Really Collected the “Hero Collections”.

Written by Jack Ashby, Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

One way that museums can decolonise their collections is to celebrate the true diversity of all the people that were ultimately responsible for making them. We often say things like, “This specimen was collected by Darwin”, or whichever famous name put a collection together, when in reality we know that often they weren’t actually the ones who found and caught the animal.

Museums can be rightly proud of their “hero collections” and the famous discoveries represented by them. Acknowledging that they did not work alone does nothing to diminish their accomplishments. We just need to make clear that other people made enormous contributions to their successes, and celebrate them too.

Undeniably, natural history museums have overwhelmingly celebrated dead white men. A major strand of decolonisation work is to show that a greater diversity of people are, in fact, represented in the history of our collections. But in reality, their contributions are rarely documented.

The Malay Teenagers Who Collected Wallace’s Birds

Lately, I’ve been looking at the collection of birds here at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, that Alfred Russel Wallace brought back from his eight-year voyage to the Malay Archipelago. Any museum with Wallace material considers it among their treasures. He co-discovered evolution by natural selection, added mountains of invaluable specimens to museums worldwide, and founded entire scientific disciplines based on his interpretations of what he saw. And he gives a lot of credit to the people of colour who collected much of his material.

Although Wallace certainly does not name every collecting assistant, a Sarawak teenager named Ali – who joined the voyage when he was probably just 15 – was perhaps his most trusted expedition-member and closest companion. And a 16-year-old named Baderoon from Celebes also provided instrumental contributions to his collections (Van Wyhe & Drawhorn, 2015). Wallace respected them, their insights, wishes and their Islamic faith, and wrote openly about their part in his accomplishments.

Portrait of Ali in Singapore in 1862, aged around 22, from Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life (1905)

In Cambridge, we have what appears to be Wallace’s “personal” specimen of Wallace’s standardwing bird-of-paradise Semioptera wallacii, a species which Wallace is famous for “discovering” on this voyage, at around the time the theory of natural selection came to him on his malarial sick-bed. However, in his published travelogue, The Malay Archipelago, Wallace himself wrote:

Just as I got home I overtook Ali returning from shooting with some birds hanging from his belt. He seemed much pleased, and said, ‘Look here, sir, what a curious bird,’ holding out what at first completely puzzled me. I saw a bird with a mass of splendid green feathers on its breast, elongated into two glittering tufts; but, what I could not understand was a pair of long white feathers, which stuck straight out from each shoulder. Ali assured me that the bird stuck them out this way itself, when fluttering its wings, and that they had remained so without his touching them. I now saw that I had got a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the Bird of Paradise, differing most remarkably from every other known bird”. (Wallace, 1869)

It’s clear that not only did Ali collect the first specimen of the species (which we can be confident is one of the ones we have in Cambridge) and realised that it was unusual, but also provided details of its natural history. Nonetheless, the world gave Wallace the credit. According to Wallace’s journals and published accounts, it was commonplace for Ali to make such contributions (Van Wyhe & Drawhorn, 2015).

The Wallace’s standardwing bird-of-paradise at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge – most likely the specimen that Ali first collected for Wallace, described in The Malay Archipelego. It is one of the syntypes (the specimens used to formally describe the species) [UMZC 27/Para/20/a/1] © University of Cambridge

As an aside, when the Museum reopened in 2018, we surprised Sir David Attenborough by asking him to install one of our standard-wing specimens in a display about Wallace, at which point he did an impromptu impersonation of the feather-flutter Ali described to Wallace.

 

Ali was with Wallace for almost the entire voyage, and collected many if not most of the 8,050 birds Wallace sent back to Europe (and prepared the skins of many more he didn’t shoot himself). Ali is therefore represented in the tens of museums worldwide with “Wallace” specimens.

Heroes and Villains and Nuance

Despite Wallace’s respect for Ali and many of the other Malay collectors he references, at times Wallace’s writing exemplifies the deep-set colonial view of naturalists and explorers of the time.

The king bird-of-paradise at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge – most likely the specimen that Baderoon collected for Wallace, described in The Malay Archipelego. [UMZC 27/Para/2/a/10] © University of Cambridge

Another of the specimens from Wallace’s voyage that we have in Cambridge is a king bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus regius from the Aru Islands between New Guinea and Australia, which is in all probability the one he describes in the passage below. He proudly credits Baderoon for having collected it (Baderoon was from Celebes, not Aru), but goes on to imply that the Indigenous people who were acting as his guides simply did not count.

“I had obtained a specimen of the King Bird of Paradise (Paradisea regia) … The emotions excited in the minds of a naturalist, who has long desired to see the actual thing which he has hitherto known only by description, drawing, or badly-preserved external covering — especially when that thing is of surpassing rarity and beauty, require the poetic faculty fully to express them. The remote island in which I found myself situated, in an almost unvisited sea, far from the tracks of merchant fleets and navies; the wild luxuriant tropical forest, which stretched far away on every side; the rude uncultured savages who gathered round me, — all had their influence in determining the emotions with which I gazed upon this ‘thing of beauty.’ I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course — year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy.” (Wallace, 1869)

beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy”. Wallace is suggesting that the people of the Aru Islands could not recognise their aesthetic beauty, nor had the “intelligent eye[s] to gaze upon their loveliness”. In the emotional, evocative sweep of a pen, Wallace dismissed the experiences, understanding and knowledge of the Indigenous people living alongside the birds, in a way which many Wallace fans may find disquieting.

In decolonisation work it can be tempting to either build up people as heroes who valued the contributions of a diversity of people, or knock down them down as racist villains. However, from the pair of quotes above, we can see that it’s probably more nuanced than that. At times, individuals wrote things that suggest they saw their local collaborators as equals, while at other times their words are deeply problematic.

It’s unfortunate, because not only is most specimen documentation inadequate for telling the truths that would allow museums to celebrate a more diverse group of people who contributed to the history of their collections, but the accounts we do have access to aren’t necessarily trustworthy.

But we do have to try, otherwise museums aren’t telling the stories truthfully. Looking for the Alis and Baderoons in our collections might help more people realise that – as well as all the dead white men – people like them played vital roles in the science and the history on display. And that museums are about them too. To fail to do that is a gross underestimation of museums’ relevance.

References

Van Wyhe, J. & Drawhorn, G. M., 2015. ‘I am Ali Wallace’: The Malay Assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 88, Part 1(308), pp. 3-31.

Wallace, A. R., 1869. The Malay Archipelago. London: Macmillan and Co..

With thanks to Mike Brooke, George Beccaloni and Andrew Berry for their advice on matching Cambridge’s specimens to Wallace’s notes. And to the Natural History Museum, London, for making scans of Wallace’s field-notes available online.

CryoArks – Discover The UK’s First Zoological Biobank

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

Many of us have probably been approached by eager PhD students and other researchers who want to snip a bit off those specimens or drill a few holes in others. As curators we start to feel somewhat uncomfortable about seeing our precious collections sliced and diced, and yet we are also keen to discover more about the genetic content of our specimens for their own sake. This is partly because collectively we can contribute to studies that benefit wild populations of species, including the conservation biology of many endangered species and the possibility of rewilding extirpated species. You may also have a chest freezer bursting with grip-seal bags or plastic tubes filled with tissue samples collected from specimens you have acquired, but you’ve no idea what to do with them, but you know they will be useful one day. Or maybe you have a freezer full of specimens you want to get rid of. CryoArks is a new initiative that just might help you to solve all these problems.

Sorting through lemur muscle samples at National Museums Scotland © National Museums Scotland

CryoArks is a BBSRC-funded project led by Professor Mike Bruford at Cardiff University, which has established the UK’s first comprehensive zoological biobank for research and conservation. CryoArks is a consortium of museums, zoos, academic institutions and biobanks, which is working together to establish common standards and working practices to store tissue and DNA samples and make them available on a common web portal, so that researchers and conservation biologists will be able to find out what is available for their research. This will help cut down on the sampling of our permanent collections by giving researchers something else to sink their scalpels into. CryoArks has two main sample storage hubs – at the Natural History Museum in London and at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh – that currently house more than 65,000 samples, but we have room for almost a quarter of a million. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is also a joint CryoArks and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria biobank storage hub, bringing the zoo and non-zoo biobank communities together.

Continue reading

Natural Connections

This is a modified version of two articles originally published on the Gallery Oldham webpage by Patricia Francis, Natural History Curator, Gallery Oldham. May & June 2020.

Fred Stubbs shown in The Naturalist by George Henry Wimpenny

This painting reveals a hidden Oldham story. It dates from the 1920s and has always been a great favourite with our visitors. Several years ago it inspired me to look more deeply and investigate, the person, the place and the specimens.

The person is Fredrick J. Stubbs

Fred was born in Liverpool in 1878 and moved with his family to Oldham where he became apprenticed to an upholsterer. He joined the Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society, his first love being birds. Fred volunteered at the Oldham Municipal Library, Art Gallery and Museum which was long connected with the Natural History Society. When a vacancy arose at Stepney Museum’s Nature Study Centre, he was successful in getting the job and in 1909 left Oldham for London. Completing the booklet, ‘The Birds of Oldham’ in 1910.

Returning to Oldham in April 1919 he became the Deputy Librarian and Curator at the Library and Museum. He became president of the Yorkshire Natural History Society; was a member of the Beautiful Oldham Society and help found the Oldham Society of Artists. He worked at the Library and Museum until his death caused by pneumonia in 1932.

Continue reading

NatSCA User Survey 2020 – Help us Target Our Future Support for Natural Science Collections and Community

Written by Isla Gladstone, Chair of NatSCA and Senior Curator for Natural Science, Bristol Museums.

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.

Continue reading

‘Tahemaa Transformed’ The Conservation of the Mummy Coffin at The Bournemouth Natural Science Society.

Written by Bethany Palumbo, ACR, Founder and Owner of Palumbo Conservation Services on behalf of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.

Tahemaa has been a resident of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society since 1922, when she was donated from the Salisbury museum (fig. 1). New research indicates that she arrived in the UK in 1823 from the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor, on the river Nile. Her coffin is dated from 700 BC making her approximately 2700 years old. We know from the hieroglyphics on the side of her coffin that she was the daughter of a Hor a high priest of Montu, the Flacon-God of War. Other than this we know very little about her and her life in Egypt.

Figure 1. Tahemaa the Mummy at the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.

Tahemaa has been at the Society for nearly 100 years but she has spent most of this time locked away from public view. In 1993, the Society decided to put her on permanent display in the Egyptology exhibition. Since then she has been seen by thousands of admirers, however due to her age and fragile condition, she is in need of urgent conservation treatment. Hundreds of years in an unstable environment have caused significant damage to the coffin. The fluctuations have caused the wood, plaster layers and paint to crack and flake. The layers of the coffin have even separated in some areas, lifting away from the wooden frame (fig 2). Many years without a display case has also resulted in a thick layer of dark, engrained dirt concealing the original colours of her decorative paintwork (fig 3).

Figure 2. Layers of the coffin structure peeling away.

Figure 3. Original colours are darkened with the build-up of surface dirt.

Continue reading