Time To Figure Out Where Specimens Are Really From

By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

In 2020 the Vertebrate Zoology collection at World Museum took a step towards ‘FAIR’ data sharing and began adding datasets of specimen records to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). There is always a trade-off between releasing datasets as soon as possible and ensuring they contain the most precise and reliable data possible. We’ve taken the view that through releasing these datasets, and encouraging their use, a positive feedback loop will incrementally improve data quality. That said, due to restrictions on other activities, one side effect of the Covid pandemic has been a little more time for in-house provenance research.

Banded Broadbill – Eurylaimus javanicus Horsfield, 1821 [accession number: NML 31.12.14.56a]. Collected at ‘Kao Nawng’, Surat Thani, Thailand on 1913-07-21 © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

One collection I’ve focussed on during this time is that of prolific collecting duo, Herbert Christopher Robinson and Cecil Boden Kloss, which came to World Museum from the Federated Malay States Museums (FMSM) in 1914. Robinson, a former assistant at the Liverpool Museums, directed the FMSM from 1908 until 1926; Boden Kloss was the colleague ‘to whom he was much attached’. It seems that the FMSM specimens arrived in Liverpool without any additional documentation, so the collection locality information in our database (at National Museums Liverpool we use Mimsy XG) must have originally been transcribed from specimen labels with ‘place collected’ presumed to be Malaysia. Continue reading

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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Colonial Critters: Decolonising The Powell-Cotton Museum

Presented by Rachel Jennings, Powell-Cotton Museum.

Abstract

The Powell-Cotton Museum’s dioramas are visual spectacles that delight audiences, but they aren’t representations of ‘real life’. Starting in September 2020, we are undertaking a project called ‘Colonial Critters’, which will look critically at the context in which these displays were created. In this project we will delve into the history of the Museum and uncover the ‘hidden’ stories in our extensive archive,
including those of the communities with whom Percy Powell-Cotton worked across the African continent, in India, and in Kent to make this place. We will engage our staff and audiences in the process to find out what stories they would like the Museum to tell, giving the opportunity for some uncomfortable – but ultimately more rounded – histories to be displayed. The aim of decolonisation is not to re-write history, but to be more open and transparent about the origins of our collections.

This presentation will outline the Colonial Critters project, and discuss what decolonisation means to us at the Powell-Cotton Museum.

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