James J. Harrison: Unnatural History

Presented by Jim Middleton, Scarborough Museums Trust.

Abstract

Scarborough Museums Trust holds an archive of the big game hunter James Jonathan Harrison (1857-1923) comprising of not only the usual hunting trophies, but also a large number of photographs and nine hunting diaries. Shortly after his death, his collection was donated to Scarborough Corporation, where for many years it was displayed in the upper rooms of the library before eventually making its way to the towns Natural History Museum when that opened in 1952.

After several years of neglect, many of the mounts and trophy heads were destroyed or removed from cases and only through careful detective work have a number of mounts been able to be definitively attributed to this collection.

One of the more interesting aspects of this collection are the photographs and diaries which give an insight into his privileged lifestyle and insatiable appetite for shooting. In 2021/22 the museum is planning an exhibition based around Harrison’s photography which will have to address a number of difficult issues regarding not only the slaughter of hundreds of animals but also the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and especially the Congo.

In 1904/5 Harrison brought six ‘Pygmies’ from the Congo which at the time was under the brutal rule of the Belgians and toured them around the UK before returning them home. This historically has always been related in a cheery, anecdotal way with little regard for the clearly exploitative nature of the venture (bearing in mind that at around the same time the Bronx Zoo had a Congolese man on display in a cage). This aspect of the narrative will be retold in a way which makes people think a little more about the inherent racism within collections and how we can redress this.

This presentation contains distressing images.

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The Lost Artists Of British Enlightenment Natural History

Presented by Isabelle Charmantier, The Linnean Society of London.

Abstract

Taking the art collection of the Linnean Society of London as a case study, this paper looks at the many drawings, paintings and illustrations of the natural world collected and commissioned by the Society’s Fellows in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These Fellows came from varied backgrounds, including surgeons, medical doctors, reverends and army soldiers. They were part of the British colonial enterprise, exploring and settling in Burma, Nepal, India and the West Indies. Their observations about the botany and zoology they studied were sent back to the Society to be read to other Fellows at meetings and published in the Society’s journals. Yet the artwork accompanying these observations was not generally drawn by the authors themselves but by local or indigenous artists they employed. The identities of these artists remain unknown in most cases, but the images they drew were of paramount importance in the construction of natural historical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain. The images they drew to accompany textual descriptions of new plants and animals were often the first to be seen in Europe. These artists were steeped in their own visual and technical traditions, yet they were expected to conform to Western standards of depicting plants and animals, that mirrored taxonomic and nomenclatural objectives. The resulting works reflect the meeting of different cultural, sociological and ecological concerns. The talk will present three specific examples from the Society’s collections and explore what can be done to decolonise the collections, to resurrect these artists, and give back the recognition they deserve.

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Displays of Power: A Natural History Of Empire

Presented by Hannan Cornish, Luanne Meehitiya, Tannis Davidson, Subhadra Das, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL Culture.

Abstract

The Displays of Power exhibition explores the zoology collections of the Grant Museum, motivated by the conviction that, “there are stories of empire in any natural history collection – if you know how to look”.

Research found that empire played a key role in the development of the Grant Museum. The map of the British Empire was reflected in where the specimens were collected and empire helped to turn animals into objects for worldwide trade. Teaching specimens were used to promote racism and colonialism. Specimens hunted to extinction by colonists evidenced how empire affected the natural world. Hunting trophies demonstrated imperial attitudes towards animals that persist.

Displays of Power was inspired by a paper co-authored by Subhadra Das, one of our curatorial team, and Miranda Lowe, a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum, which argues that natural history museums perpetuate racism and alienate BAME visitors by ignoring colonial histories. To remedy this erasure, Displays of Power foregrounds the legacy of empire throughout the museum display.

The exhibition takes the unusual approach of reframing and reinterpreting objects that are already on display. In this way, we turned a lack of temporary exhibition space into an opportunity to show that stories of empire are ubiquitous but untold throughout collections. Displays of Power was created as a means to open up the conversation around empire in as many different ways as possible. This includes a collaboration with poet Yomi Sode, visitor conversations with trained front of house staff and family and school activities and resources. Associated events include a community take over day and evenings exploring privilege through comedy and a giant immersive game of snakes and ladders. Visitor feedback highlights the deep personal impact of the exhibition. Visitors are sending a strong message that we (and other museums) need to continue decolonising our collections and that is what we intend to do.

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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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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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