Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 1.

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

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.


Figure 1. A rack of game trophies from the Chapman collection in the Great North Museum resource centre (Copyright Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

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.

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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.

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Collecting with Lao Chao [Zhao Chengzhang]: Decolonising the Collecting Trips of George Forrest

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley.

Lao Chao (left) and team. McLean (2004: 193) wrote that Forrest called Lao Chao his ‘best card in this business’ © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

This is the essence of a talk that was recently presented at the virtual conference of the US based Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). Inspired by Das & Lowe in their 2017 NatSCA conference talk and subsequent paper (2018), in a similar way mentioned by Machin (2020) in her recent blog, I have started looking at stories by and about some of our revered plant collectors, or rather, hunting for small clues about their escapades from the perspective of others on their teams. This is with the aim of decolonising narratives for present and future interpretation, having finally opened my eyes and realised that current interpretation for living collections can fall way short of acknowledging what really happened and where credit should lie. And being mindful of different concepts of decolonisation, discussed by Gelsthorpe (2020) in an earlier blog.

For years, the curators of museums and living collections, and their visitors have been programmed to respond to and expect talks of the grand, death-defying adventures of our collectors – so much so that we appear to have closed our minds to the realities and injustices of what really happened on expeditions.

George Forrest © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

The main focus here is on George Forrest, born in 1873, the Scottish plant collector whose collections still have a huge impact on what is grown in our gardens today. Son of a draper’s shop assistant, Forrest had an interesting earlier career after leaving school at 18 – he worked in a pharmaceutical chemists prior to getting a small inheritance that gave him the opportunity to travel to Australia where he undertook a few jobs including sheep shearing and gold-mining (McLean 2004). On his return to the UK, through a serendipitous stroke of luck in discovering a rare archaeological find whilst out botanising, he landed a job as an assistant in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1903 – gaining curatorial skills and insights necessary to make him an ideal plant collector in the field.

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The Power of People and Collections in the Climate Emergency

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum and Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth (formerly Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery).

Museums are most powerful when they connect real objects and research with real people. Natural science objects elicit deep emotional responses to the climate emergency; they help people to care and when done right, empower action.

This message is central to the NatSCA conference this year:

Changing the World: Environmental Breakdown, Decolonisation and Natural Science Collections

We’d love to hear your experience in a talk at the conference, the deadline for submissions is the 7th February.

Natural science collections are unique records of past biodiversity and climate across Britain, and the world, and are essential for climate change research taking place in museums every day. They allow access to historical information about millions of different species, providing an incredible amount of detail. They show how plants and animals have responded to past climate change, they show long-term population trends, and they show what we have lost.

These are all stories essential to bring clear factual science to an emotionally-charged debate. Research on these collections has directly shaped conservation work and climate change mitigation. In short, natural science collections are a powerful way to help save the world and give people hope for a better future.

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