Displays of Power: A Natural History of Empire
Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London
Mahogany cabinets, taxidermy, formalin jars and skeletons contribute to the gothic charm of the Grant Museum of Zoology, home to one of the oldest natural history collections in the UK. A fantastic cast of extinct animal remains, like those of the Quagga and Thylacine, add to the sense of phantasmagoria, but are the impressions set off by natural history collections problematic? And do they conceal a darker story?
A new exhibition at the museum arrives on the back of a paper published in the journal of Natural Sciences Collections Association, in which authors Miranda Lowe of the Natural History Museum and Subhadra Das of UCL argue that the colonial origins of natural history collections ought to be made visible to the public. In Displays of Power
curators at the Grant Museum have done just that.
Specimens have been singled out, from beaver to pangolin. Whether furry or scaley, behind each animal lie different strands of a predominantly destructive and violent human history: the international trade in extinction our material desires precipitated; the blood sports that sailed with the colonists; even the voracious self-defeating arms race to supply collectors and collections such as those begun by Robert Grant – Empire is the common thread that knits these stories together. The Grant Museum have not overlooked the more banal aspects of trade across empire either; consider the Shipworm specimens sent back for study to aid in fairer sailing, or a note on the practice of exchanging tropical birds
between collections – a nineteenth-century form of Pokemon.
Writing in 1913, zoologist William Temple Hornaday warned that vanishing bird populations would not survive the 'hounds of commerce'. One of the pioneers of species and habitat conservation, Hornaday also imprisoned a Mbuti man in his Bronx zoo as an exhibit for the public. Here in the Grant Museum certain specimens manifest colonial attitudes of superiority towards the colonised – the bengal tigers, the exhibition argues, were hunted as a display of imperial muscle, and the eventual conservation policies applied to Asian elephants, used to exploit the land, were merely a way of justifying British monopoly over the elephant trade in India. On the floor of the effulgent Micrarium a display quotes former
curator EA Minchin who thought the discoveries made using microscopes would 'make the Tropics habitable by white men'.
One could argue that the museum is not quite bold enough. The display signs on the glass panels – perhaps symbolically – are difficult to find among the heady assortment of pelt and bone. However, as you cast your eyes over the dance of specimens, the signs, once discovered, make for a stiff and slow-acting medicine whose effect is to radically shift your perspective on the entire collection – and when a museum can you make you rethink and reimagine its collection, it has done something extraordinary.
Admittedly, this is quite a long review, but it's by no means comprehensive! There's plenty more to discover on the KQ Private View of the exhibition on 22 October.
Join the Knowledge Quarter Private View of Displays of Power at the Grant Museum of Zoology, Tuesday 22 October, 8:30-10:00
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Until 7 March 2020
Grant Museum of Zoology, Rockefeller Building, 21 University Street, WC1E 6DE