In the last post, I wrote about how difficult it is to define the digital humanities. The same holds true for decolonizing collections, which is basically about viewing collections in a broader cultural perspective as well as returning items that were inappropriately acquired. It also means bringing to light what have often been aspects of natural history long hidden by colonial powers who downplayed or ignored those who actually collected specimens, played a role in directing the search, and explained the significance of finds. I used the term in the title of this post as shorthand for opening up collections by expanding the questions asked about them beyond the purely scientific. As I mentioned, this is an aspect of the extended specimen concept that is underplayed.
There is a great article by Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe (2018) on: “Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections.” The term “decolonial” seems better than “decolonize.” The latter more precisely describes the process by which colonial nations became independent, more than ferreting out how natural history collections were shaped by colonial power. Das and Lowe begin quite directly with a Twitter comment by Danny Birchall of the Wellcome Collection to the effect that natural history museums are more racist than anyone will admit. The challenge is to describe this racism and find ways to change the situation.
This piece includes an analysis of the racist nature of many anthropological exhibits in natural history museums. Then the authors discuss what is missing in zoological and botanical exhibits, such as an exhibit on Colombian butterflies in which the cultural history of Colombian science was ignored. They attribute this to the “hard science” lens used in creating natural history exhibits. The thought crossed my mind that this may be why so many economic botany exhibits and even collections have disappeared: they were too much about culture and not enough about the plants themselves in the way taxonomists see them.
Lowe and Das then present a section on hidden figures: the collectors, elders, artists, and assistants of all kinds from porters to cooks to scouts, who were essential to the work collectors did all over the world. They lay out several cases where contributions have been neglected, including an enslaved Ghanaian named Graman Quassi who was taken to Suriname by the Dutch where he worked as a scout and negotiator. He was able to buy his freedom and became a noted healer who discovered that a plant, which Linnaeus later named after him, could be made into a tea to treat intestinal parasitic infections. It is still used today. And there is John Edmondstone, a freed Guianan slave, who taught taxidermy to Charles Darwin, then a student in Edinburgh. They also mention Hans Sloane’s extensive notes on enslaved Africans’ knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses.
Das and Lowe make the argument that ignoring these aspects of collections alienates audiences who could be more interested in the scientific aspects of plants if they saw a relationship to their own culture and experiences. And I would add, these stories are fascinating, no matter what your background. They are coming to light in such projects as the Plant Humanities Lab narratives that I wrote about in the last post. However, there is so much more to do. In its new science strategy, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew recognizes the need to tackle the issue and acknowledges it central role in British colonial management of plant wealth around the world. One response is the new Plant Humanities Centre being planned. Kew has already had an important conference, Botany, Trade and Empire, on the colonial botanic gardens that were administered by Kew and resulted in the cultivation and dissemination of everything from rubber to cinchona to hemp worldwide (Brockway, 1979). The conference focus was on what were designated Miscellaneous Reports that the garden directors sent to Kew. Now digitized, these are a storehouse of information that has only begun to be mined, with interesting case studies done on cinchona, for example.
There is also a massive correspondence archive at Kew. J’nese Williams of Notre Dame University has used this, among many other sources, in her study of Alexander Anderson, who was curator of the St. Vincent Botanic Gardens from 1785 to 1811, and John Tyley, a free person of color, who worked there as an illustrator. Williams presented at a conference on Natural History and Visual Art from the Margins sponsored by the Linnaean Society that also included papers by Josepha Richard of the University of Bristol on the British trader John Bradby Blake’s work with the Chinese botanical artist, Mak Sau in Canton, and by Malini Roy of the British Library on a collection of Indian zoological illustrations by an artist identified at Haludar. These presentations required digging into the archives of a number of institutions and finding links between disparate types of information. They are in essence treasure hunts, which make them all the more interesting. As more archives come online, the hunts will be easier to do, but only if the data is prepared in a way that is highly searchable, and that can be linked to taxonomic databases so specimens that may be related to these stories can also be studied. This is hardly a trivial matter. But the stories that have been uncovered so far make is clear that the work involved is worth it to blur the line between science and the humanities.
Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.
Das, S., & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 4–14.