The gilded canopy of the Natural History Museum

Natural history museums often have their origins in colonialism. How they engage with this past will determine how they move forward ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London 

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Are natural history museums inherently racist?

Many natural history collections throughout Europe and the western world have their origins in colonialism. Their early specimens were often shipped on board slave ships and trading missions.

How these institutions now engage with this history is crucial in how they move forward to make their collections more accessible.

The history of colonialism is reflected in the collections held in natural history museums.

Museums have a history of glorifying empire. In the nineteenth century, they were used to showcase the empires built by western powers as they seized control of other countries.

They displayed not only the cultures and curios found in these faraway places, but also the wealth of natural resources that those in power believed were ripe for exploitation.  

This can be seen in every nook and cranny of natural history collections, from the origin countries of specimens to the economically valuable plants that often formed some of the first key collections.

However, cultural institutions have a history of denying and ignoring the violence, trauma and exploitation that this desire to collect inflicted upon others.

Hans Sloane: a case study

Sir Hans Sloane was an Irish physician and prolific collector during the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, just as European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade was beginning.

Sloane worked as a physician on slave plantations in the Caribbean, where he started to record the plant specimens that enslaved Ghanaian men and women collected for him.

Sir Hans Sloane's extensive collection of plants from around the world formed the foundations of what would eventually become the Natural History Museum ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Returning to London, he then used his power, wealth and influence to send out surgeon-come-naturalists on slave ships, while also receiving specimens from other people collecting in remote outposts.    

After his death in 1753, Sloane's extensive herbarium was bought by the British Museum. It contained specimens from as far afield as Jamaica and North America, western Africa and southern Asia. This collection eventually became one of the foundations of the Natural History Museum.   

How collections such as the Museum's are connected to slavery and how this history should be dealt with are explored in a new paper published in the Journal of Natural Science Collections.

Miranda Lowe, the Museum's principal curator of crustaceans and co-author of the paper, says, 'The UK and natural history museums have to accept that we profited off the back of slavery.

'There is nothing we can do about the past, but it is the acknowledgement of that and what that then means to people of colour if natural history museums accept that they have collections built on the slave trade that matters.

'It's being open about this history and acknowledging it as an institution, because still there are people who think that things are being hidden and that we're not telling the truth.'

The slave trade is inextricably linked to many plant commodities including this cocoa specimen collected for Sloane in Jamaica ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Acknowledging the past

Over the last few years there has been an effort by cultural institutions such as art galleries and history museums to address the issues of representation and colonialism. In particular, there has been critical discourse around how people and stories from non-European cultures are depicted, included and represented.  

Science and natural history museums have generally been slower to understand, acknowledge and respond to these histories, as science is frequently (and wrongly) seen as being somehow above these issues. 

'We've been seeing this decolonial practice rising up in art museums and other places of culture such as the British Museum,' explains Miranda. 'But there is this feeling that natural history and science museums have been flying under the radar, but this is something that they really need to get a grip of.'   

There is often a reluctance to talk about these histories in an honest way. By opening up and discussing the origins of our collections and the range of histories hidden within them, museums can start to look towards a more positive future and inclusive practise.

Old Museum display showing the game animals of the empire

The Museum used to have a 'Game Animals of the Empire' display in the Whale Hall, to showcase the natural riches of the UK's colonies ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Part of this work is acknowledging that the slave trade is inextricably linked to many natural history collections, including that of the Natural History Museum, particularly as the trade in plants including tea, coffee and chocolate expanded. But we must also uncover the people of colour and indigenous peoples whose lives, talents and stories have frequently been whitewashed out of history books.

'At the moment, I'm specifically interested the hidden histories and stories of people of colour in natural history and their contribution to science,' says Miranda.

'Despite the time period that these early European scientists were working in, biographies often don't actually say that it was during a time of deep fighting and slavery. It all seems like a happy occasion in which these scientists are just wandering through the Amazon and exploring.'

This distortion of history  stems in part from how these explorers very rarely acknowledged the tremendous work of their local guides.

'The local guides were giving the explorers knowledge that was - unbeknown to those guides - often scientific,' says Miranda. 'And yet they rarely got any credit.'

Kwasi used his knowledge of plants to gain influence amongst the Dutch colonists before becoming the first person to describe the bitter ash, which is now featured on the gilded canopy in the Museum's Hintze Hall © The William Blake Archives/The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Hidden histories

While many of these people, such as the enslaved men and women under Sloane, remain unnamed, some stories do still exist. It's just that more work is needed to uncover and reveal them.

One such story is that of Kwasimukamba, or Graman Quassi (also known as Kwasi).

Born in western Africa in around 1690, Kwasi was enslaved and transported to Suriname in South America as a young man, where he became a healer for other enslaved people on sugar plantations. He was able to use his knowledge of plants to gain influence not only among them but also the Dutch colonists.

He became the first person to formally describe the bitter ash, a plant that he used to treat fever. The shrub was named Quassia amara in his honour and is featured on the gilded canopy of the Museum's Hintze Hall. But the man's story has been largely forgotten.     

'It is not all doom and gloom, though,' explains Miranda. 'I do talk about Alfred Russell Wallace and his Malay guide, a boy called Ali - or Ali Wallace as he was nicknamed.  

'That was a totally different relationship to others from that time, and it was good that Wallace acknowledged Ali. He wrote about him in his biography, detailing the relationship that they had, not only in the terms of collecting but also in supporting one another. When Ali was sick, Wallace would look after him, and vice versa.'

Ali Wallace, the local Malay quite of Russel Alfred Wallace

Unusually for the time period, Alfred Russell Wallace not only acknowledged his local guide Ali, but talked about how they supported each other during their collecting trips © Alfred Russel Wallace/Wikimedia Commons

Improving access

There are numerous ways to engage with historical racism in European natural history museums, including talking about these forgotten narratives and creating equal opportunities in scientific study.

'I always make it clear that when I'm talking about this subject, I am not accusing any individual today of this racism,' says Miranda. 'I'm just saying that this is the institutional history.

'We have to make sure that it doesn't repeat itself.'

Part of how this can be achieved is through improving accessibility to the vast resources held in institutions such as the Museum - both for scientists worldwide and for the general public. Many people are not aware that museums have archives and libraries, says Miranda.

'The majority of people - and this links to how science is taught in schools - think these things are far too complex and so will therefore be intimidated to come into a museum and do their own research,' Miranda continues.  

'They need to know how to navigate these resources and feel empowered to be there. They have to be made to feel welcome to step over the threshold and then made to feel comfortable within the space, of what they are seeing and what they are learning.'

By opening up this discussion, crediting the sources of our collections and showing people from all backgrounds where to find these histories and how to use these resources, only then can we render natural history collections truly inclusive.