Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum.

Decolonising museums is in the headlines a lot at the moment and so it should be. I’ve chatted to a few people about this recently and it isn’t very clear what it means, how it relates to natural science collections and how we can start to decolonise our collections, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Much of the discussion in the museum sector has been around ethnography collections with some great work that goes some way to redress our colonial past (including from my own institution Manchester Museum who have returned sacred aboriginal objects). Some ethnography objects are made from bark, fur or ivory, but these materials don’t often form part of the decolonisation debate.

The reality is that many natural history collections, particularly in the western world have a colonial origin. Many objects were traded on slave ships and were an attempt to map and tame the British Empire. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das have done some brilliant work to highlight this and the Grant Museum’s new exhibition on their Colonial Histories is a great first step in bringing this to the public.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – August

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

Welcome to the August edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

What Should I Read?

We’ve got three great NatSCA blogs to read this month. Donna Young, Herbarium Curator at World Museum, Liverpool, writes of her quest to map and document botanical models manufactured by the Brendel Company of Berlin, now found in collections across the world. Be sure to fill in the survey if you have any in your institution.

A blog by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, tells us about the aims and processes behind a new art exhibition at the museum, ‘Evolution as Inspiration’.

Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums, writes about the HLF (or NHLF) funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections, ‘Wild about Portsmouth’.

The Museums Association has published articles covering a range of political issues affecting the sector. Nicky Morgan has become the latest Culture Secretary through the rotating door of cabinet members, and further cuts to local authorities have put museums in Bradford under threat of redundancies and closure. The sector-wide discussions surrounding the decolonisation of collections, human rights and corporate sponsorship continue as Ahdaf Soueif resigns from the British Museum’s board of trustees, citing the museums lack of a ‘clear ethical position’ on such issues.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

Compiled by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

What Should I Read?

You may or may not own/have heard of ‘Dinosaurs, How They Lived and Evolved‘ by Dr Darren Naish and Dr Paul Barrett, but either way the good news is there’s now a literally-just-released-second-edition, which is the most up to date a (printed) book can possibly be really. There is a lot of talk about it already but my tuppence is- I have a copy and it’s brilliant. That description fully extends to the captivating cover art by Bob Nicholls of Paleocreations, featuring a hungry Tianyulong (that’s a dinosaur, in case you weren’t sure).

I came across a charming article about getting children into natural sciences recently called ‘Kids and caterpillars: Fostering a child’s interest in nature by rearing Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) larvae‘. I’m not suggesting we all go out and start rearing leps, but in an age where human lives are ruled by technology, it’s a beautiful story and heart warming example of an intra-familial cross-generational citizen science project by an Assistant Curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and his son.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – September

Lost Treasures- A Statement from the Chair

Dear all,

As most of you will no doubt be aware, the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, suffered a catastrophic fire that started in the evening of 2nd September 2018. Fortunately no people were killed in the blaze, but the majority of the collections housed in the building are thought to be lost. While the cause of the fire is still as yet uncertain, a significant proportion of the blame for the devastation caused has fallen on the Brazilian government, due to ongoing under-investment in the Museum’s infrastructure. This serves as a stark warning of the dangers faced by museums with inadequate support.

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Collections 2030: What’s Next for Museum Collections?

What does the next decade look like for museum collections in the UK? This is the question that the Museums Association’s new research project, Collections 2030, is asking.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be working with museum workers, researchers and users to think about the big issues that the sector needs to have on its radar as we plan for the next decade. What trends do we need to adapt to? Will the way that we treat and value collections change? What are the implications of a new generation taking charge in our museums? And will we have the infrastructure that we need not only to pass on collections, but to make them valued by the wider public?

When asked about the future, it can be tempting to let our imaginations run away with ourselves.

But if we’re going to consider what museum collections might look like in 12 years or so, it’s worth casting our minds back the same distance. Over that period, technological changes have been huge, and have led to much experimentation in museums but not always greater impact. The financial crisis has radically changed the workforce and business model for many museums, with major implications for collections knowledge and management.

But our museum collections themselves can seem oddly absent from this picture of change.

Collections have not grown much, and to the extent that ‘pure’ collections issues enter into our discussions, we have seen a period with much to talk about. But not a huge amount of change in practice, about disposals, about storage, about where to put everything, and occasionally, and with much trepidation, whether we should give some of our stuff back to those who made it.

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