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.
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?
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.
The history of Black people, people from indigenous cultures and the role of empire in museum natural history collections is largely ignored. This talk uses Manchester Museum’s mineral collection to take the first steps to uncover these stories, analyse the role of empire and expose racism. For the first time, archive photographs from the early 1900s are used in a new display, to tell the story of the people who mined the Museum’s South African gold ore specimens. Recent research and the Museum’s Sierra Leone diamond are used to tell the story of ‘Blood Diamonds’. Data analysis of the mineral collection reveals that 24% of the collection comes from colonial countries. 50% of the Museum’s minerals from the British Empire are Australian, of which 33% came from the Imperial Institute. This research has shown that Manchester Museum’s mineral collection is intimately connected to empire, but the history of Black and indigenous people is ignored or unknown. This is institutional racism and museums need to be proactive in addressing this. There are enormous opportunities to develop this research through fostering partnerships with source communities around the world. This paper is a call to action.
There has been an enthusiastic uptake of ideas and practices around decolonising the natural history museum in the wake of the publication of our paper ‘Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Natural History Collections’ in the NatSCA Journal in 2018. People have written blogs, there have been exhibitions relating to the topic and even the Daily Mail scare quoted cancel culture fears when they heard the Natural History Museum in London was reviewing the colonial histories of its collections. A highlight moment was when Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, complimented one of the co-authors of the
paper, saying he had read all sixteen pages and how it was accessible and easy to read. We are gladdened by the national and international impact of our words and research, and this has encouraged us to reflect on this success and raise some other related issues that we would like to share with you in this keynote presentation. In addition to listing recent successes within our own organisations and some plans for future work, we also plan to talk about two further topics about decolonising natural history museums. The first will consider the colonial roots and context of the environmentalist movement, while the second will examine the question of representation in the natural history museum workforce. We will consider the current state of the discourse around decolonising museums, and discuss what continues to be required in the interests of long-term, equitable change.