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.


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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Decolonise! Activations of Natural History Collections by International Contemporary Artists

Presented by Dr Bergit Arends, University of Bristol.


Nowhere else is the encounter between Western science and the cultures of non-European peoples so evident than in the collections of European museums. These encounters are reflected in the collecting practices, the archiving and documenting, the conservation of objects and in the ordering systems through which these artefacts are interpreted. But in Western museums we need to learn how to recognise and how to acknowledge these encounters.

Museum collections are sources of both cultural and environmental knowledge (Thomas, 2018), particularly natural science collections. Moreover, taxonomic systems of the past, particularly in the natural sciences, are now considered to be one of the most important resources for understanding the interconnections of science and culture (Browne, 1989). How can historic collections be mobilised to address contemporary issues? How can the natural sciences be understood as cultural practice? How can the violence of past
scientific practices be acknowledged in natural history museums?

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Mo Koundje: How Gorilla Histories Can Help Decolonise Our Collections

Presented by Rebecca Machin, Leeds Museums and Galleries.


Mo Koundje (‘Mok’) is a Western Lowland Gorilla in the collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries (LMG). His taxidermied skin is displayed at Leeds City Museum, while his skeleton is in the store at Leeds Discovery Centre. At present, his remains are used as an example of ‘gorilla’ in the Life on Earth gallery, but they have the potential to tell us so much more. Using archives from the Zoological Society of London, the Natural History Museum, and the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, as well as French and British press archives, I have found out more about Mok’s life. His story touches on domestic life in French colonies, the interaction between colonists and colonised communities, and the illegal hunting and trade in gorillas, which continues today. The remains of animals from once colonised countries have the potential to reveal stories not only of their own experiences, but of the people whose lives were affected by colonisation. By entering colonial homes, gorillas enable us to look at racial and gendered hierarchies imposed by European colonisers from a new perspective. We can, and should, use these stories to engage our audiences with a range of political and environmental issues still relevant today.

This presentation contains distressing images.

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Project Update: Accessing Staffordshire Geology

Written by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

About this time last year, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery was successful in a bid to the Arts Council England Designation Development Fund, securing funding of £72,500 to catalogue and display its nationally significant geology collections. The Designation Development Fund provides funding for projects which ensures long-term care of Designated collections and maximises their public value.

Ammonites in Ted’s collection before it was transferred to the Museum. © The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

In early March 2020, just days before the museum closed and the country sank into lockdown due to Covid-19, I contributed a summary of the project to the Geological Curators’ Group blog (you can read it here). It really does show how quickly everything changed – at the time of writing the original blog, we were expecting the project to kick off in June 2020, beginning with the recruitment of an Assistant Curator to carry out the documentation of geological specimens bequeathed to the museum by Ted Watkin. This collection, comprised of about 2,000 fossils mostly originating from around Staffordshire, is to form the basis of the project and the new displays, highlighting the history and importance of the Carboniferous coal fields under Stoke-on-Trent.

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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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