Journal Article

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  • Legacies of colonial violence in natural history collections
    Ashby, J., Machin, R.
    Journal of Natural Science Collections, Volume 8, pages 44 - 54

    Most stories told by natural history museums inevitably concern natural history, using collections to engage people with biological and geological mechanisms behind life on earth. Such institutions typically aim to inspire visitors and other audiences to care for the natural world. However, including narratives exploring troubling social histories attached to the acquisition of natural history specimens is an important step towards decolonising natural history museums. Telling these stories is vital in enabling museums to better reflect the societies they serve. In this paper we use the specific histories of two specimens as case studies that involve issues which museums interested in decolonising their collections could explore and share with their audiences. Through a gorilla in Leeds, we consider exploitative attitudes of colonial collectors and the legacy of collecting in today’s distribu-tion of natural heritage. Through a springhare in Cambridge, collected by a soldier at a British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War, we demonstrate how extraordinary acts of military violence took place in amassing Western museum collec-tions. Collecting at or beyond frontiers of imperial invasions can represent a particularly brutal aspect of already violent colonial histories. Finally, we consider the challenge museums face in tackling these issues, including the constraints faced by curators in undertaking
    research of this kind.

    Keywords: Decolonisation, decolonial approaches; history of science; natural history; curation; museum interpretation; museum ethics; social justice; documentation; specimen-based research