Leeds Museums and Galleries holds an amazing museum collection of around 800,000 specimens of animals, plants and geology from around the world. One of the most important parts of the job of the curator of natural sciences is to help visitors to the museums learn from these objects, and to inspire them to enjoy and protect the natural world. But we can also learn a lot about ourselves and our history from the way we collect the natural world.
Although natural science collections may not initially appear racist, dealing as they do with non-humans, scratching under the surface can reveal information which links them to the slave trade, colonialism and other forms of oppression.
The specimens in the Leeds collection did not arrive by chance. Each pinned insect or dried plant represents work. But not just (or, not even) the work of the person named as its collector or donor. Objects from overseas often required work from many other people who are unacknowledged on specimen labels or exhibition text, and would not exist in our collections without them. Unfortunately, museums haven’t tended to look beyond the usually white, male surface of objects’ histories when interpreting them to engage the public.
There is a need to think properly to recognise and remember the colonised people who had contributed to our collections, and were exploited by the white people whose names we have recorded in our archives.