A skeleton of a gorilla

I am lucky to work with 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 my job is to help visitors to Leeds Museums and Galleries 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.

The specimens in our collection did not arrive in Leeds 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.

This trophy mount of an Oryx head, on open storage at Leeds Discovery Centre, is a good example. Unfortunately, we don’t have much specific information about it. Our database tells us it was collected in 1910 from ‘British East Africa’.  Although this information isn’t much to go on, if we use it thoughtfully, it can tell us a lot. We know, for instance, that the Oryx was taken from a part of Africa under British colonial rule. This enabled white people from Britain to undertake hunting trips in Africa, and to hire dozens, sometimes hundreds of black people as ‘porters’ and other staff to assist them. Colonised African people were routinely paid very low wages, or were paid only in meagre daily food rations, to carry huge weights and work long hours, often in dangerous conditions. While white British people would have had the luxuries of mosquito nets and tents, African workers were often left to sleep in the open, exposed to diseases, cold, damp and even predation. For this Oryx head to reach Leeds, it was not only killed, but also transported, skinned, and preserved before leaving Africa. These jobs aren’t pleasant at the best of times, but in the heat, with no PPE, or access to sanitation, they would have been grim. You can bet this work wouldn’t have been done by whoever ‘collected’ the Oryx.

The taxidermy mounted head of an Oryx.

The trophy head of an Oryx.

Another example of alternative object history comes from my colleague Clare Brown’s research on Dodo bones in our collection (in press). Harry Pasley Higginson, who sent the Dodo bones to Leeds, is credited with their discovery at Mare aux Songes, Mauritius. While the credit may be also be due to other white men, the bones were likely to have been found first by indigenous Mauritians, or by the indentured labourers sent to Mauritius from India, then part of the British empire.

Names are important in natural science. The names given to animals and plants by scientists reflect what they are, and how they relate to other species. Names are also used to honour people, and can reflect colonial history. Some scientific names honour people with money and power (almost always white men) who held racist views, were involved in slave trading, or other oppression of black people. For example, Twinleaf plants (Jeffersonia), a mammoth (Mammuthus jeffersonii), a ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii), and a scallop (Pecten jeffersonius) have all been named after Thomas Jefferson, third US president, who owned and traded slaves. Our collection includes specimens of a variety of the mineral Augite, named Jeffersonite. There aren’t, to my knowledge, any animals or plants named after Sally Hemings, a slave ‘owned’ by Jefferson, thought by some to be the mother of some of his children. While some animals and plants are named after historical white figures, some species are named using racial stereotypes or slurs. This article describes how in Sweden, certain bird names have been banned because of this. The common names of several plant species, for example, include racist words.

A brazil nut with a scale on the bottom that shows it's width is 5cm.

A brazil nut and pod. One of the colloquial names for this plant contains offensive racist language.

Individual animals may be named in ways which reflect colonial attitudes, or other racist views. I have been researching the life of a Western Lowland Gorilla in our collection. He was kept as a pet in the former French Congo (now Republic of Congo) by a colonial administrator, along with a female gorilla. The young gorillas were named Mo Koundje and Moina Massa, thought to mean Little Chief and Little Lady in a local Congolese language. Using a native language to name the gorillas may simply have been a mark of respect to colonised Africans, or an acknowledgement of the gorillas’ home country. However, it is also possible that Mo Koundje’s name was meant to mock the appearance of the local people living under colonial control, perhaps even a specific local tribal chief. Unfortunately, gorillas are still used as the basis for racist abuse today.

A taxidermy mount of a gorilla

Mo Koundje, a Western Lowland Gorilla.

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. Natural science curators, and all those engaging with natural science collections, can, and must, reveal these layers of knowledge. A fantastic presentation by Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe at the 2017 Natural Sciences Collections Association conference was a huge inspiration for me. The atmosphere in the room shifted palpably as they spoke, and we all realised we had to do better at interpreting our collections more fully and sensitively. I had presented at the conference, talking about Mo Koundje and arguing for the repatriation of natural science specimens and natural heritage. But I hadn’t begun to think properly about the colonised Africans who had contributed to our collections, and were exploited by the white people whose names we have recorded in our archives. Even if we don’t have their names, they can still be recognised and remembered.

As a natural science curator, there is a lot I can do better. I’ve called out gender biases in natural science, and similar ways of righting outdated views can be applied to help here. The Natural History Museum and the Grant Museum in London have made some changes to their displays to reflect the significance of colonial history and race in their collections. When we write exhibition text, we don’t have to focus on the rich white men whose names are associated with objects. We can talk about the people who did most of the hard work, which is usually more interesting any way. We don’t have to use racist names for plants and animals. If we think we can’t avoid it, we can talk about why it’s wrong. There are lots of small decisions we make every day in our work, and each of these can be made with a little internal check for how these decisions reflect race in our museums. We need to look again at our collections, with fresh, colour-sensitive eyes, to make our collections relevant and interesting to everyone.

By Rebecca Machin, Curator of Natural Science.