Introducing the members of The Collection Ecologies Research Collective – Part 6

As the Collective is ever growing (hurray!), we are very happy to introduce more members of the collective in the upcoming months. Today, dear reader, you will get to know Katherine Arnold, Jeanne Robinson and Didi van Trijp and their work with and about collections and environmental history, humanities and science.

We will start with you, Katherine. Could you please introduce yourself?  

Hello everyone! My name is Katherine and I have just recently passed my PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science studying imperial history and the history of science and the environment. My dissertation, ‘German Natural History Collectors in Southern Africa, 1815-1867’ examines the role of German ‘entrepreneurial’ natural history collectors in early nineteenth-century southern Africa. By focusing on this rather underrepresented period, I suggest that the ‘decline’, or stagnation, of Kew Gardens (1820-1841) was a moment of void in British imperial botany. It allowed for the taxonomic and morphological determinations of more unusual plants to take precedence (rather than plants of economic, medicinal, or agricultural significance) and provided an opportunity for a rather unconventional set of European actors to participate in the British imperial project. The material and intellectual chaos that ensued, resulting from these actors’ commercial competition with one another, challenges any preconception that processes of Western knowledge production were simple, straightforward, or friendly, offering an alternative to the sometimes-unconscious acceptance of certain narratives about the ‘advance’ of Western science. Thus, this particular set of actors and their collections are an extremely attractive object of enquiry. My interests under the umbrella of ‘natural history’ and ‘collections’ are extremely varied and include topics like fieldwork practices; the role of apothecaries in the growth of commercial natural history; trust in science; botanic gardens; nomenclatural debates; plant parasitism; multispecies encounters; biogeography; and the biodiversity of the Cape Floristic Region. Likewise, I study the movement of ideas, people, and objects across class lines and national boundaries, especially Germans prior to the formation of the German nation-state in 1871.

Hydnora Africana, plate 44 in: Rudolf Marloth, The flora of South Africa with synoptical tables of the genera of the higher plants, Capetown, Darter Bros. & Co.; 1913-32 , Biodiversity Heritage Library, DOI:

This is fascinating and a very welcome perspective. How does your work relate to collection ecologies?

My interest in this group is to learn from, and collaborate with, a diverse group of scholars who’s work will inspire me to formulate new research questions about the history of natural history and collections. There is so much to learn about how we can use collections from generous exchanges with the CollEcologists, which is one of the most rewarding parts of conducting research. As Anna Svensson very rightly said in her introduction: “collections are best explored collectively!” Similarly, by using natural history collections and their collectors as the point of departure, it offers fresh directions for exploring the deep and lasting entanglements between imperialism, natural history, object histories, and their ties to ecological and environmental change, in ways that don’t necessarily privilege anthropocentrism or Eurocentrism. It advances dynamic and creative ways to approach traditional histories, allowing us to tell new stories about the role of natural history and collections in the past and present.

Thank you Katherine, speaking of the present: the collective is very happy to have curators of natural history collections as members who care for historic collections and therefore are vital in our endeavour to approach collections from a diverse disciplinary and practitioner background. Jeanne, could you tell us a little about yourself and your work?

I am the Curator of Entomology at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. I am the secretary of the Insect Collection Managers Group for Great Britain. I am a new committee member of the Society for the History of Natural History.  I trained in Applied Entomology at Imperial College London.  I worked for the Invertebrate Diagnostics team of the Plant Health department for DEFRA providing identification, consultancy and training before moving into museums. I have now worked with Natural History collections for around 20 years. The collections at the Hunterian have allowed me to work extensively on 18th century insect material, which is incredibly rich and global, entomologically and historically.  I was one of the curators that worked on the touring exhibition and catalogue of “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the modern museum“, published by Yale University Press (2018). More recent publications include ‘A specimen of Tirumala hamata hamata (Macleay, 1826) (Lepidoptera: Danainae) from Captain Cook’s first voyage’, produced in collaboration with Dick Vane-Wright.  Whilst my work has concentrated predominantly on insects, I have even published on the animal history of elephants in ‘ The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie (2013). I teach and supervise student projects in all aspects of entomology, including food security, medical entomology and ecology. I also teach ‘curating entomology collections’ to our Museum Studies postgraduates.  

Blue tiger butterfly Papilio similis (Linnaeus, 1758) now Tirumala hamata hamata (MacLeay, 1826). Australia. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow GLAHM 127067

How would you describe your connection to collection ecologies in one sentence, Jeanne?

As a curator with zoological training, with practical experience of fieldwork, taxonomy and science and experience who works with historical collections the Collective feels very much like my natural home. 

Thank you Jeanne, this is precisely what we want the collective to become, a home. We hope this is also the case for you Didi, could you tell us a little about yourself and your work?

I am a historian of science. I have received my training at Utrecht University, University of California, Berkeley, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. In 2021, I defended my dissertation at Leiden University, which analyzed eighteenth-century natural historical studies into the watery part of the world. This research entailed examining volumes of, often beautifully illustrated, books on aquatic creatures as well as visiting collections of natural historical specimens in various museums across Europe. I am now working as a curator of Nature and Technology at the Museon in The Hague. This Spring, I will take up research leave to conduct a fellowship at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia to further examine illustration practices and techniques in natural history.

Specimen of fossilized seed fern © Louisiana van Onna, 10 frames on climate (2022) In this project, the research-based photographer Louisiana van Onna draws on items from the collection of the Museon to investigate the past, present and future of climate change.

Why did you want to become involved in the collective, Didi?

Whereas I first examined collections while based at the university, I now do so from a museum setting. This means I have a more active hand in shaping these collections and how they are presented to the public than I did as a researcher. Our museum centers stories on sustainable development, in a broad sense: from social equality and inclusion to biodiversity and climate action. As a newly minted curator, I want to explore what new approaches museums can take with their collections – both in terms of acquisitions and of looking at previously collected objects with fresh eyes. This is why it is so urgent for me to be part of this Collective. It helps me maintain my curiosity and enables me to participate in discussions on collection practices of both past and present.

Thank you so much, Katherine, Jeanne and Didi. We very much look forward to your contributions to the collective and working together. Stay tuned for further short interviews with members in the upcoming months.

Of cave bears and country artisans

When words are sparse, objects can help in the telling. Such is the case of the family Wunder, a line of wainwrights who lived in the mountain village of Muggendorf. Notched in the limestone highlands of Franconia in southern Germany, Muggendorf became an unlikely nexus of natural inquiry around 1800 (Illmann, 2010). Villagers had long driven cattle to annual markets in Nuremberg some 50 kilometers south, carted brandy to all points within eight hours, and sold beer in the surrounding valleys. But beginning in the 1780s, they saw an influx of wealthy lowlanders, come to purchase natural objects from the local “Kabinetchen,” a small cabinet inside the Wunder home. There is no record of sale, save for scant notes taken by travelers themselves. The Romantic writer Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder made off with some marine fossils and a “heathen urn” (Wackenroder, 1938), while the English geologist William Buckland bagged “a fine Bears head” (Rudwick, 2005). The extinct “cave bear” (Ursus spelaeus), so named by one of the Wunders’ lowland collaborators, was Muggendorf’s most prized commodity. Posted as far as Paris and St. Petersburg, bear skulls drawn from Muggendorf’s many caves served as evidence for competing theories of earth history (Anthony, 2021). 

Photo: dpa, Stuttgarter Zeitung (2019). The cave bear reconstructed in Museum Wiesbaden.

Today, the cave bear is ubiquitous in natural history museums across central Europe. A denizen of the Pleistocene, Ursus spelaeus is sometimes shown as a skeletal carcass, in one case even as a unicorn, according to Leibniz’s interpretation of fossils found in the Harz. More frequently the bear appears as a fearsome fang-bearing predator with a wooly coat. Subdued by modern paleontologists, who generally agree that human predation combined with climate change to extinguish the bear during the Last Glacial Maximum, Ursus spelaeus survives as a cuddly creature in several children’s books and can even be taken for a ride in some folk festivals.

Yet there is a striking asymmetry between the cave bear, with its varied afterlife, and the country artisans who first systematically collected it. Of the Wunders we know almost nothing. Their history must therefore be read in the bones—in the expansive economy of naturalia whose silent center was said to be a “rickety hut.”

The silent center

Natural history cabinets of this period are generally understood as the provenance of great men of rank and learning. Precursors to modern museums, cabinets exhibited the prestige of royal patrons, or the imperious gaze cast by colonial collecting networks. A lesser-known lineage stretches back to a rural artisan home (see also Cooper, 2021), where the commerce of natural objects supplemented a meagre income the Wunders drew from woodwork. Alongside their workshop, the Wunders kept “a small room” strewn with “fossils, teeth, jawbones, and whole heads of unknown beasts,” all gathered from local caves and cliffs where they led visitors (Köppel, 1794; Rieselsberger, 1820). Another account of the Wunder home boasts of “a great many stalagmites, | spar, crystal, sea urchin…

Echinites, ammonites etc.                          Echiniten, Amoniten etc.    

Polar bear skulls, jaws, teeth,                    Eisbären-Köpf, Kinnlad, Zähn,       

And more –ites –ites galore….                  Und dergleichen –iten –iten….

The poem would have us imagine bear skulls behind glass and stuffed owls hung from the ceiling. But more sober accounts are no less remarkable. Records of the collection’s purchase by the Bavarian state in 1819 note the fossils of cave wolves, lions, and hyenas as well as bears (Illmann, 2010). One paleontologist said the Wunders had excavated 150 bear skulls from a single cavern in just three years (Goldfuß, 1810). Other records indicate the family’s fossil yield over three generations. The first generation of Wunder collectors began supplying the natural history cabinet in Bayreuth with fossils in the 1780s (Hirschung, 1789). By 1840, one in every five of Bayreuth’s fossils hailed from the Muggendorf Mountains, totaling nearly 1500 individual specimens. The poem above was not far from the mark. Muggendorf accounted for a quarter of Bayreuth’s marine invertebrates—corals, sponges, anemones and the like lodged in the Jura limestone—and several large mammal skeletons besides. 

Share of Bayreuth’s fossils from the “Muggendorfer Gebirge,” Verzeichniss der in der Kreis-Naturalien-Sammlung zu Bayreuth befindlichen Petrefacten (Leipzig: Voss, 1840).

The Wunders had personal as well as material ties to collections in the university town of Erlangen, a day’s ride to the southwest. Their quiet commerce spread like the branches of a family tree through Erlangen and beyond, from one collection to another. In fact, the director of the university’s collections was the brother of the pastor, Johann Friedrich Esper, who first published on Muggendorf’s “polar bear” in 1774. Esper inspired a new generation of Erlangen students to visit Muggendorf, among them the anatomist Johann Christian Rosenmüller, who gave the bear its Latin binomial in 1794.

Ursus spelaeus in Johann Christian Rosenmüller, Abbildungen und Beschreibungen der Fossilen Knochen des Höhlenbären (Weimar: Landes-Industrie-Comptoir, 1804).

In the 1810s, the Erlangen cabinet purchased the private collections of several university professors who benefited from a long collaboration with the Wunders. The Wunders took from this exchange lessons in the nomenclature of Linnaean classification. And in 1813, the paleontologist August Goldfuß, who recently authored a major work on the Pleistocene mammals of Muggendorf, turned the university’s cabinet into Erlangen’s first Natural History Museum—an operation he soon repeated in Bonn. When the second generation Wunder collector died in 1819, his wife (unnamed in the sources) stepped into the breach, guiding visitors to local curiosities. Meanwhile, their son, Daniel, went down to Erlangen to study natural history at the university, whose instructors, one chronicler wrote, had his family “to thank” for “naturalia once thought to be found only in distant lands” (Hirschung, 1789). To think that a wainwright’s son would have found in Erlangen’s cabinets a semblance of his own home!

Bones, beer & broken axles

To contemporaries, bear bones and marine fossils told a story about the natural history of the earth (Rudwick, 2005). Esper speculated that his “polar bear” had been swept into Germany from colder climes during the Noachian Deluge. Rosenmüller harnessed early evolutionary thinking to argue that the “cave bear” was, as its new name suggested, a denizen of the caverns where it was found, an indigenous species that had either been hunted into extinction by early human inhabitants or forced into new a climate where it “degenerated” into an extant species of bear. Goldfuß blended the two, believing the highlands of Franconia once rose like islands in a primordial sea, and that a catastrophic flood drowned the large mammals who dwelt in their caverns.

Today, these fossils might tell another story. The stuff of geo-historical imagination helps to reconstruct an historical ecology of collections. This is a history alive to the ways in which local environmental and economic forces shaped the conditions of possibility for geo-theory. And it gives equal footing to those who excavated fossils and those who named them. 

Consider the roads that linked upland and lowland communities, and which were the Wunders’ traditional source of income. The same karst landscape of soluble bedrock that accounted for Muggendorf’s many caverns, and whose fossil-rich limestone drew naturalists to the area, also made for notoriously sandy, washed out roads. Spring floods turned several stretches of road into a “seafloor” (Köppel, 1794; Buckland, 1823). So wrote one traveler in 1794, evoking the diluvial theory of the region’s formation, as he sent his coachman to fetch a wainwright to repair their broken axle. But bad roads were good for business (Schremmer, 1970); and it was for this reason, as Rosenmüller remarked, that locals were not hasty in repairing the roads. Hence the artisan song (Pillwein, 1824):

If you wish to travel over land,                   Wollt ihr reisen über Land,

Best have a wainwright on hand.              Muß der Wagner seyn zur Hand.

Broken axles and rutty roads not only brought travelers into contact with the wainwright of Muggendorf; being waylaid became a regular motif in Franconian travelogues—a happy circumstance for villagers who welcomed traffic.

The sandy “seafloor” streets of the Wiesent Valley, en route to Muggendorf. 
From Joseph Heller, Muggendorf und seine Umgebung (Bamberg, 1829).

Muggendorf’s great quantity of caverns was matched only by its twelve taverns, a noteworthy number in a village of just 53 houses. Before the Wunders’ far-flung fossil trade landed an ammonite on the valley’s crest, Muggendorf was better known as a village where all citizens were permitted to brew beer, and where hops lined the valley floor. Indeed, Muggendorf’s many taverns were not a result of an influx of travelers; they provided the infrastructure for it. Innkeepers and wagon-makers were an important alliance in upland natural history. The Wunders collaborated with several tavern owners in developing new caverns, employing also local stonemasons and woodworkers to hew passages and erect intricate stairways and platforms, as in a mine (Rosenmüller, 1804). It truly took a village to create a center of scientific activity in the highlands of Franconia. 

Tracing the bones of the cave bear back to their source, from modern museums to an obscure mountain village, we encounter a rather new image of natural history collecting as a rural family business. Natural history appears here as artisanry, a craft passed down through generations, practiced amidst breweries, broken axles, and other aspects of upland life. Ultimately, the asymmetry in historical memory, where cave bears abound and their country collectors seem an extinct species, reflects the inequities of the Franconian fossil exchange. Muggendorf’s fossils made the careers of several eminent men of science; for the Wunders, they hardly made a living. 

Patrick Anthony


Anthony, Patrick. “Making Historicity: Paleontology and the Proximity of the Past in Germany, 1775-1825.” Journal of the History of Ideas 82, no. 2 (April 2021): 231-256.

Buckland, William. Reliquiæ diluvianæ, or observations on the organic remains contained in caves, fissures, and diluvial gravel…. London, 1823.

Cooper, Alix. “Natural History as a Family Enterprise: Kinship and Inheritance in Eighteenth-Century Science,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 44 (2021): 211-227.

Esper, Johann Friedrich. Ausführliche Nachricht von neuentdeckten Zoolithen…. Nürnberg, 1774.

Goldfuß, Georg August. Die Umgebung von Muggendorf. Erlangen 1810.

Hirschung, Friedrich Karl Gottlob. Nachrichten von sehenswürdigen Gemälde- und Kupferstichsammlungen, Münz- Gemmen- Kunst- und Naturalienkabinetten… in Teutschland, vol. 3. Erlangen: Johann Jakob Palm, 1789.

Illmann, Renate. “Die Geschichte der Rosenmüllershöhle – nach historischen Dokumenten,” Jahresmitteilungen der naturhistorischen Gesellschaft Nürnberg e.V., Natur und Mensch (2010): 129-146.

Köppel, Johann Gottfried. Briefe über die beiden fränkischen Fürstenthümer Bayreuth und Ansbach: Auf einer Sommerreise in den Jahren 1792 und 1793 geschrieben, vol. 1. Erlangen: Wolfgang Walther 1794.

Pillwein, Benedikt. Praktische Blicke in das Leben der Künstler und Handwerker. Linz, 1824.

Reiselsberger, Jakob. Die kleine Schweiz oder Einladung zur Reisen ach Streitberg, Muggendorf, Weischenfeld etc. und deren Umgebungen. Weischenfeld: Selbst-Verlage des Verfassers, 1820.

Rosenmüller, J. C. Beiträge zur Geschichte und nähern Kenntniss fossiler Knochen. Leipzig: Beer, 1795.

Rosenmüller, Johann Christian. Die Merkwürdigkeiten der Gegend um Muggendorf. Berlin: Unger, 1804.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Schremmer, E. Die Wirtschaft Bayerns. Vom hohen Mittelalter bis zur Industrialisierung. Bergbau, Gewerbe, Handel. Munich, 1970.

Wackenroder, Wilhelm Heinrich. Reisebriefe. Edited by Heinrich Höhn. Berlin, 1938.

Sloane’s Ecosystems

In what ways can we understand Sloane’s collections and collection management as collection<>ecologies?

“Within traditional museological conceptions of time (often as chronology), space (as belonging), and history/heritage (as past), how do we account for a group of peoples whose originary formation is not so much located in the land of their current negotiations of identity and belonging but rather within a colonial formation characterized by forced migration, disjuncture, and loss? How might we rethink the object-based museum or heritage model, where objects act as sites of memory that connect us to our past, to account for the “new ethnicities” (Hall 1996) that now characterize the Caribbean? How, in short, do we account for a people who, through a specific colonial formation have always been modern?”

Wayne Modest, “We’ve Always Been Modern: Museums, Collections and Modernity.” Museum Anthropology 35(1), 2012.

A few short weeks ago, an advertisement for a doctoral studentship held jointly by Queen Mary University of London and the Natural History Museum appeared on several academic websites.  Entitled ‘Decolonising the Sloane Herbarium’ the doctoral project itself is vast in scale and propels the NHM into one of the most significant areas of museological practice today:

“‘Decolonising the Sloane Herbarium’ will investigate a foundation collection of the Natural History Museum (NHM) in order to re-imagine our understanding of its global and imperial dimensions. The Sloane Herbarium was created between c.1680–1753 by the de facto founder of NHM, Sir Hans Sloane, and comprises around 120,000 dried plants mounted in 265 folio volumes. The specimens come from over 70 countries and dependencies, having been contributed by upwards of 300 individuals. Many of these collectors operated within commercial and political enterprises immersed within nascent British imperialism, including the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, but these historical entanglements have never been comprehensively mapped and analysed.”

If I was 30 years old and had just completed my MA, I would most definitely have applied for this studentship; an outstanding opportunity to break new ground in collections-based research, re-shape the history of science for the better, and to make a profound difference to the way that natural history collections are understood and used.

Sadly, I am no longer 30 years old, but rather I am old enough to have sat on numerous interview panels for the award of studentships of this kind.  And today I would not vote to award my 30-year-old self this opportunity.  I would hope that an amazing student of Jamaican heritage — or who hails from any one of the many parts of the globe represented in Sloane’s collections that were colonised in the same period in which he (and many others) collected — will have been appointed.  Someone who would bring to the project bodies of traditional knowledge and community histories and lived experiences that such a project requires, over and above the many skills and methods that the call quite rightly requests.

At the heart of the Sloane herbarium is his collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’, which has also been the object of an earlier ‘Collaborative Doctoral Award’ project held by Dr Victoria Pickering, and which had quite different research questions. James Delbourgo, whose magisterial Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum was published in 2017, has also written about the Vegetable Substances for Cabinet Magazine (“What’s in the Box?” Issue 41 – Infrastructures, Spring 2011:  paywall)  

Roughly the first third of Sloane’s own manuscript catalogue of his Vegetable Substances describes the botanical materials he brought back with him from his sojourn in Jamaica (1687-1689), but the scale of his wider herbarium encompasses the entire network of trade and colonial commerce of the 17th and 18th centuries, fuelled by the expansionist aspirations of the majority of European nations.  As Delbourgo notes in Cabinet Magazine concerning Sloane’s catalogues, “in effect, his lists inventoried British colonization in Asia, West Africa, and the Americas, in a dynamic period of global expansion.”

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane in the Museum’s Historical Collections Room which holds Sloane’s herbarium (along the wall) and his Vegetable Substances (in drawers out of view). The latter are mostly botanical objects, numbered and sealed in decorative glass boxes. Sloane carefully catalogued where they came from, who had sent them to him and what they were used for.

I spent many hours in the Sloane Herbarium with James Delbourgo and other researchers as the Sloane Consortium’s Project Manager and Senior Research Associate from 2010 to 2019.  The photograph below was taken during one such session with James in 2010.  It shows a page of Sloane’s catalogue of his Vegetable Substances, with a specimen sitting right on the page and right beside its own list entry.  Each numbered item was entered chronologically in order of acquisition, in Sloane’s own hand, and with his own commentary: but this is not just a list, as each item is accorded a ‘descriptor’, in this case one designed in observational relation to other similar yet different specimens. With Sloane’s cataloguing, we are witnessing the emergence of indexical practices in relation to natural materials: this activity is a pre-requisite for the development of classification and of taxonomy.  It is worth remembering that the idea of speciation was not fully formed at this time, and that Sloane’s collection management was a stepping stone to formulating a theory of speciation for both John Ray and Linnaeus.

A cocoon bean from Sloane’s ‘vegetable substances’ collection sits on the page of Sloane’s catalogue alongside its ‘descriptor’ — we also see the inventory number ‘366’ in both the list and inscribed on the specimen itself.

With Sloane’s cataloguing, we are also witnessing one of the sites of the emergence of morphological taxonomy, and concurrently the tip of a ‘tacit knowledge’ iceberg.  Sloane is at pains to differentiate specimens by their shapes in his descriptors.  Morphology is a quintessentially observational activity.  Morphological descriptors need to be precise and concise, and indexically linked to individual specimens in order to be able to circulate effectively as text and images to those who cannot see the specimens for themselves. The entire scaffolding of early modern representational practices in natural history is obligated by the comparative difficulty of travel for those collecting and studying this material — the difficulty of obtaining, maintaining and sharing actual unique specimens for the purposes of comparison.  This scaffolding encompasses descriptors that appear in correspondence and in both manuscript and print-published catalogues, the creation of unique scientific visualisations and their multiply-reproduced facsimiles, often in the form of engravings. 

At a recent research closed workshop of the ‘Enlightenment Architectures’ project (PI Dr Kim Sloan, Co-I Dr Julianne Nyhan) Staffan Müller-Wille made the important point that in the early modern period (pre-dating Linnean binomial nomenclature), the long Republic-of-Letters-Latin descriptors of natural historical specimens are in themselves understood as names of species.  Sloane’s catalogues are the place where the specimen description, that first surrogate, is lifted from the object and concurrently linked to it numerically, making it possible for the specimen itself to be mobile, to be arranged and rearranged alongside other morphologically related specimens, as well as to enable it to be both preserved in a drawer and quickly retrieved.  It also enabled natural historians to compare their actual specimens to the printed images of specimens of other distant colleagues, and to triangulate these with a written descriptor in Latin, in order to differentiate between kinds.

It is my belief that it is not only specimens and their image/text surrogates that travelled around the world through epistolary and personal routes, but also collection management practices.  If we are able to trace the circulation and adoption of this panoply of practices too, we might well be able to see how they leveraged and triangulated with the sensory experience that, through what we have called ‘tacit knowledge’, created cognitive leaps in understanding.  Tracing the adoption of different collection management techniques might well be able to help us reconstruct precisely what actions of manipulation of which natural materials produced what kinds of knowledge.  

Where might Sloane have learned to list?  Bibliography of course, and also, as Delbourgo notes: 

“From the expanding inventories of merchants’ goods to the tables of commodity and stock prices being published in London, it was the age of the commercial list and Sloane became a master of the form, tallying the loading and unloading of ships at Port Royal [Jamaica].”  (Delbourgo, Collecting the World, p. 69)

In what ways can we understand Sloane’s collections, cataloguing, and collection management as collection<>ecologies?  They are multiple — nested, intercalated, epistemic.  

1)  The specimen collections themselves constitute valuable environmental microhistories of pre-Anthropocene localities that would include mangrove swamps and old-growth forests, as well as geological deep-time that was not then understood as such.  

2)  Sloane’s collections are also evidence of historically bound social, political and cultural environments. The items Sloane collected and that we would now consider anthropological materials were created in some instances within the ‘salvage paradigm,’ framed by an innate understanding of the destructive nature of colonial methods.

3)  The multiple and varied physical environments in which these collections have been held over time are also significant as collection<>ecologies: passing from their original habitats to colonial settler communities and then into ships’ holds travelling towards the metropole; then to Sloane’s private homes — of increasing sizes — and to several incarnations of the British Museum before being partially re-distributed to the 1888 Natural History Museum, South Kensington, and the new British Library in the 1990s.  The logistics and labour histories of these object translocations are also ‘environments’, including the ecosystems of ‘sherpas’ and amanuensi.

4)  Further collection<>ecology instances that these collections embody are perhaps more conceptual or indeed epistemic: the networks of colonial trade and collection of which Sloane was a significant commercial as well as intellectual member; the complex of catalogues, lists, indexes, references, images and publications in which the specimen collections are deployed (for example, the Philosophical Transactions of which Sloane was an early editor) and through which new knowledge is produced from their study.  

And here we arrive at a crucial question for collection<>ecologists: to what degree is the natural history that we have today, based as it is on taxonomy and nomenclature practices that issue epistemically from these contexts and processes, in some way itself a product of the colonial enterprise?  

I ask this question and look at some conjectural responses in my chapter ‘What Goes Around Comes Around: Mobility’s Modernity’ for the recent open access publication Mobile Museums: Collections in Circulation, edited by Felix Driver, Mark Nesbitt and Caroline Cornish. Mobile Museums addresses Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, and wider collections too: the book is “…an argument for the importance of circulation in the study of museum collections, past and present… it brings together an impressive array of international scholars and curators from a wide variety of disciplines – including the history of science, museum anthropology and postcolonial history.”  The book is packed with stellar contributions from scholars who — like me — straddle museums, collections and the academy.  

Martha Fleming

Introducing the members of The Collection Ecologies Research Collective – Part 5

It’s a great pleasure to introduce three more members of the collective today. We will start with Anna Toledano. Anna, could you tell us a little about yourseld and your work?

I’m a PhD candidate at Stanford University studying history of science. My dissertation, “Collecting Empire: The Science and Politics of Natural History Museums in New Spain, 1770–1820,” focuses on natural history collecting in eighteenth-century Spain and Spanish America. Most recently, I published a co-authored chapter with Paula Findlen,“The Materials of Natural History,” in the edited volume Worlds of Natural History. Next academic year I’ll be a Dissertation Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. I’m also a museum professional and have developed interpretive and educational content at a variety of museum institutions.

How does this connect to the Collective, Anna?

I combine the skills and methods I’ve learned working both in academia and in museums in my work. For my doctoral research, I not only visited textual archives, but also embedded myself within museum collections. In Madrid, for example, while I spent many days scrolling through microfilms in the archives of the science museum, I also labeled newly collected mouse bones and catalogued bird specimens in order to have personal interactions with the curators and their collections there. I see the focus of the Collective at this intersection of research and practice. While some of our members are more firmly situated in traditional academic contexts and others find themselves in varied professional contexts, we all embrace a diversity of methods, from the historical to the anthropological and beyond.

Birds in the National Museum of Natural Sciences collection, Madrid, 2019, photo by Anna Toledano

Thanks so much Anna. This sounds fascinating. Working across multiple institutions seems to be what we collection ecologists do, right Alice Marples? Tell us about yourself and your work!

I am a historian of science and medicine in Britain and its colonies between 1650 and 1850, and my work focuses on the collection and exchange of natural historical knowledge across a variety of material forms as well as physical and figurative spaces, exploring wide-ranging connections between environments, both urban and natural, and epistemology. My first book, based on my PhD at King’s College London (awarded 2016), is entitled The Transactioneer: Hans Sloane and the Rise of Public Natural History in Eighteenth-Century Britain. It uses the collections and correspondence networks of the founder of the British Museum to demonstrate the relationship between everyday knowledge practices and changing conceptions of society, economy, and nation, and how these significantly altered the priorities and representation of natural philosophical work and, specifically, the operation of the Royal Society. I have published widely on the history of British collecting networks and institutions, from private museums to medical schools, with articles in Archives of Natural History, Historical Research, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, and the Journal for the History of Collections. I am currently based at the University of Oxford on a project examining Isaac Newton’s work at the Royal Mint, where I am focusing on the development of metallurgical and mining knowledge alongside the new financial cultures of early modern Britain.

What draws you to Collection Ecologies, Alice?

Most of my research roles have involved working collaboratively as part of large, multi-institutional and cross-disciplinary projects involving a host of academics, curators, archivists, and other collections specialists. This experience has informed my research on the pluralities of early modern knowledge production, and the changing formations and representations of collections across time and space. As a postdoc at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library at the University of Manchester (2016-2019), I helped co-found the Manchester Centre for Correspondence Studies, and I am currently Heritage and Public Engagement Officer for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. I think initiatives such as Collection Ecologies can help foster dynamic collaborative research and teaching and increase public understanding of the historical role of museum and library collections in the development of science and society.

Thank you very much, Alice. We are closing today’s introduction with another Early Modernist, Kelly Whitmer. Kelly, tell us a bit about yourself and your latest projects and collaborations?

Hello to all ~ I am an Associate Professor of History at Sewanee: the University of the South, where my research and teaching focuses on the history of science, education and youth in early modernity. Over the years I have pursued an interest in the role of teaching, learning and futurity in the history of collections and collecting practices. I began pursuing this interest in earnest while writing my first book, The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community (Chicago, 2015), which explored how members of this organization (c. 1700) used models and materials to practice eclecticism as a kind of applied teaching technique. But I still have many lingering questions. This has led me to several related projects, including a collaborative workshop on “Pedagogy and Academic Collections” with wonderful colleagues from the University of Hamburg and Goettingen, where I am currently based as an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow. I am writing a new book now about efforts to cultivate the “material literacy” of young people using collections in several kinds of higher schools, while traveling and at home. “Object lessons” in these contexts were often performative, playful and ideal-imaginary. They were also about learning to apprehend productive practices, social roles and relationships that made realia useful. The object pedagogies I am studying often emphasized the untapped potential of materials in collections and young people, stressing the power of the young imagination and body.     

Neu-eröffnete Kunst- und Schatz-Kammer rarer und neuer Curiositäten, Hamburg 1707

What are some of the reflections and questions you would like to explore in this collective, Kelly?

As I write this new book, I am looking more closely than I have before at the role of natural and political economy, empire, ecology and the role of resource management in the history of collecting more generally. There is so much to read and to learn. In my focus on “youth” as a category of analysis, I am trying to foreground issues of biopolitics and “the uses of use” (following Sarah Ahmed) in collecting, including acts of appropriation and exclusion embedded in collections as material archives. I think I am also really drawn to the group’s interest in the role of labor or work in collecting, including all of the time, logistics and training that maintaining collections involves.  

This is so fascinating too, Kelly. Thank you. There are some really interesting conections between all of your work, Anna, Alice and Kelly and also to the research of other collection ecologists. We cannot wait to exploring all the links and connections together in our collective work. Stay tuned for more!

Introducing the members of The Collection Ecologies Research Collective – Part 4 —

Hello, everyone. Please join me in this new weekly post introducing another set of incredible CollEcologists! This time we have again a good display of the interdisciplinary cross-pollination we want to represent with our collective. It is my pleasure to present three brilliant members: Sybille Neumeyer, Andreas Weber, and Mareike Vennen.

Let’s start with you Sybille, tell us a bit about yourself and your latest projects and collaborations:

I am an interdependent* artist and researcher with a background in art history, linguistics, ethnology and visual communication, based in Berlin. Currently I am affiliated with the IASS– Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam and guest researcher at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. My artworks and participatory workshops are often developed in exchange and dialogue with researchers and scientists, and are based on archival research and cross-disciplinary thought. Some of my recent projects include: “souvenirs entomologiques” in collaboration with the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe (SMNK) and the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, where I examined journeys of insects as specimen, as data, and as organisms (chapter I: odonata/weathering data is currently on view at ZKM Karlsruhe as part of the exhibition Critical Zones); and “voicing encounters – a narrative cartography of virus”, a series of group walks in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, and around it, that draw together polyphonic (hi)stories on microorganisms, pests and parasites.

(* working within and supported by a rhizome of colleagues, institutions, researchers and more-than-human communities)

This sounds fascinating, and indeed thought-provoking. What are some of the reflections and questions you would like to explore in this collective?

I am reflecting on environmental issues and nature-cultures and thus am interested in natural histories and futures and, of course, collections and archives as sites where these unfold. Here I am researching about intersecting ecologies of care and control: practices and politics of collecting, logistics, conservation of spaces, subjects and objects, and archives. My current focus is on museum pests, conservation matters and animaterialities. So, how do these practices inform perspectives on environmental issues and multispecies health? How can they inspire more symbiotic assemblages? And how do they shape human-nature-relationships in pasts, presents and futures? 

Indeed this collective is shaping up to become a great place to start these compelling reflections. Thank you! And, how about you, Mareike? Please tell us about some of your research interests.

I am a cultural scientist, currently working at the Humboldt University in Berlin. I am interested in the material culture and logistics of and in natural history; the politics of (colonial) collecting and as well as the environmental history of urban spaces. I am especially concerned with the circulation of objects, knowledge and practices and their entanglements with infrastructural, governmental and environmental issues. My first book and PhD explores the early history of the aquarium in nineteenth century Britain and Germany. Following the aquatic animals from the sea into private aquariums in the middle of the city is what made me wonder about the history of artificial, miniaturised (watery) environments, their material and epistemic worlds and their imaginaries. After having then worked on questions of colonial collecting in a project investigating Dinosaurs in Berlin’s natural history museum, my current research in the cooperative project “Animals as Objects” again focuses on collecting and collections of animals in urban environments. It explores the entangled history between zoos and natural history museums, tracing the material, data and discursive ecologies, which form and inform the care, conservation and unruliness of animals, both dead and alive. This research is also the basis for a broader project on urban nature in twentieth century Berlin. 

So many interesting research directions! Do you want to share with us an example of how your work deals with these connections as a CollEcologist?

What might best describe my interest in Collection < > Ecologies is a wood sample, completely riddled with holes, infested by a shipworm in the nineteenth century, today stored in a cabinet at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. This object reminded me that the natural history of the animal that bored through the wood and sunk hundreds of wooden vessels and underwater piers cannot be detached from the material, scientific and commercial and military history of wood and of ships, of museum collections, maritime infrastructures and colonialism. Tracing its history means to explore the entanglements between imperial trade, natural history collecting and maritime infrastructure as well as their ecological effects and changes in marine biodiversity. Collection < > Ecologies provides me with both a historical and conceptual framework: a new take on questions about environmental histories in and of collections that connects the history of scientific classification and its moral economies to a political history of stowaways. 

Thank you, that was such a stimulating way to frame our future collaborations! Now, to wrap things up, let me introduce you to Andreas. Please tell us a little about your current work:

I am an assistant professor in the research group of Science, Technology and Policy Studies (STePS) at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. In my research and teaching, I examine the relationship between Science, Technology and Culture (STC) from a long-term and global perspective. I have a special interest in the history of natural history, natural historical collections and chemistry in insular Southeast Asia and Europe. This includes research into how computational technologies can be used to contextualize and provide access to valuable digitized scientific collections, e.g., in the field of natural history.

This is such an innovative field! Tell us more about how you use this expertise to think of collection < > ecologies.

Together with curators and computer scientists I am reflecting upon how digital technologies can be used to develop a more nuanced understanding of ‘biodiversity’ heritage in which collection circumstances (in particular in former colonial areas) and historically evolving interpretations of specimens play a more central role. I am also one of the editors of the book series Emergence of Natural History (ENH) published by Brill in Leiden. 

And that’s it from us this week! Thank you again, Sybille, Mareike, and Andreas, for your remarkable contributions to the collective! Please stay tuned for more introductions, and more content, in the upcoming weeks.

Introducing the members of The Collection Ecologies Research Collective – Part 3 —

Our collective stemmed from conversations about the connections between environmental history/humanities and collections and how much those connections are unexplored. The first steps of the collective history were exposed in the previous post which you can read here.

This week, we wish to further introduce our collective and we have asked three additional members,  Linda Andersson Burnett, Taylor Moore, and Anna Svensson to briefly introduce themselves and present their interest in the collective’s project.

Bullock’s Museum (Egyptian Hall or London Museum), 1810. Credit: Wellcome Collection, Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


Hello Linda, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your interest in the collective?

I am a historian of Science and Ideas at Uppsala University. I am interested in the movement of natural-history ideas, people and material objects across different strata of society and across national boundaries. My particular focus is on the movement and entanglement of scientific ideas, objects and practices between Sweden and Britain in national and colonial settings. I hold a PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh (2012). Thereafter I was the Simon Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in Edinburgh before returning to Sweden in 2013.

I am delighted to be part of the Collection Ecologies research collective. My two current projects deal with instructed natural-history and anatomical collecting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They address how museum collections were assembled through engagement between universities, museums and the lay public in this period.

In my research I try to combine a participatory agenda with an awareness of the asymmetry of power relations and, at times, tensions, conflict and violence that permeated collecting networks. This is particularly important to me when researching networks that included enslaved or Indigenous peoples. I am already learning so much from my fellow collection ecologists and I am very much looking forward to our future collaborations.

Talisman Display Case at Egyptian Geographical Society’s Ethnographic Museum, Photo by Author, Cairo, 2016.

Now your turn Taylor: who are you? Why have you joined this group?

I am a historian of science, technology, medicine/healing, and the occult in Egypt and the late Ottoman world. My research interests lie at the intersections of decolonial materiality studies, critical race studies, gender and sexuality studies, and STS. My work utilizes objects from ethnographic, medical, and natural history collections as archival sources that illuminate the occult(ed) networks, economies, and actors whose knowledge, bodies, and labor are generally rendered invisible in Eurocentric histories of global science.

I am currently a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I will join the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies for the AYs 2021-2023 where I will be working on my book project, Superstitious Women: Race, Magic, and Medicine in Egypt. My book combines amuletic objects collected in Egypt in the early twentieth century with sources in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish to reconstruct the role that Upper Egyptian female healers played in the global development of anthropological expertise and the robust political and spiritual economies of healing in late Ottoman Egypt. I am also working on projects that investigate Ottoman-Egyptian collecting and ethnographic practices as a part of the government’s attempts to colonize Nilotic East Africa and racialize Black African populations in the late nineteenth century.

My interest in Collection Ecologies is in exploring methods to use (what are generally colonial) scientific collections to write emancipatory, decolonial histories of communities in the non-West, and to tell histories of science, collecting, and knowledge production that do not center Europe or the United States. More specifically, my work develops the method of “decolonial materialism” which engages with and decolonizes new materialism to utilize its ontological possibilities to tell the stories of humans that have never been seen as “human enough.”

‘The Librarian’ by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1560s. Credit Skoklosters slott via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

And to wrap up this week’s presentations, let’s turn to Anna Svensson. Can you please tell us about yourself and your participation in the Collection Ecologies collective?

I am a historian of botany particularly interested in the ways collections have shaped this science over the longue durée, with a perennial curiosity about universal order and other utopian ideas. Collections provide a common thread to my motley background in English Literature, Museum Studies and finally History of Science, Technology and Environment (PhD 2017 from KTH, Stockholm). Much of my research to date has gravitated towards the UK, particularly the early years of the Oxford University Botanic Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but I am currently exploring more Swedish material. I will be based in Uppsala for the next three years working on ‘Botanical Marginalia’, focusing on pressed plants in books that are not collections in the formal sense, but part of a wider collecting culture. I am always on the lookout for uncatalogued examples!

This research in many ways exemplifies what attracts me to the Collection Ecologies research collective. The scattered nature of pressed plants means using them as a source material is necessarily a collaborative undertaking made possible only through the input and generosity of colleagues, librarians, archivists, and others. More widely, I have already learned so much from exchanges with other collection-oriented researchers working on the world beyond plants: firstly, there are shared challenges and rewards with collection-based research, not least at the level of theory and method; secondly, the comparison has given me a better understanding of how the specificities of plants as organisms – within different ecologies – has shaped how and why they have been collected, ordered, and valued. Collections are best explored collectively.

Many thanks to this week’s Collection Ecologists who introduced themselves. More soon, with more historians, artists and museum specialists sharing their work and interest in exploring the ‘ecology’  of natural history collections!


Introducing the members of The Collection Ecologies Research Collective – Part 2

Our collective stemmed from conversations about the connections between environmental history/humanities and collections and how much those connections are unexplored. The first steps of the collective history were exposed in the previous post which you can read here.

This week, we wish to further introduce our collective and we have asked three additional members, Apurba Chatterjee, Patrick Anthony and Anita Guerrini to briefly introduce themselves and present their interest in the collective’s project.

Detail from Two mineral specimens found in the Fossa Grande on Mount Vesuvius. Coloured etching by Pietro Fabris, 1776.
Credit: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

Hello there Apurba, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your interest in the collective?

I am a historian of the British Empire, with a particular focus on its cultural representations. I completed my PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2020, working on visual imagery and political legitimacy in British Indian Empire between the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thereafter, I was an international research fellow at Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum, where I worked on the relationship between colonialism and maritime painting. I will be beginning a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship later this year. I am enthusiastic about the decolonisation of historical curricula, and turn to evidence other than textual as an endeavour towards this goal. My recent publication has addressed the artworks of British landscape artists, Thomas and William Daniell in India.

As a collection ecologist, I am interested in how indigenous knowledge, especially visual knowledge, has informed European natural history and science, and political meanings of such exchanges. On a wider level, I am interested in how imperialism has defined our understanding of distinctions between the ‘scientific’ and the ‘unscientific’.

Thank you very much Apurba!

An iron mine and miners working. Detail
An iron mine and miners working. Etching by J. Heath, 1813, after C.M. Metz. Credit: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

Now your turn Patrick: who are you? Why have joined this group?

I am a historian of science and the environment interested in the relationship between working and knowing in mines and mountains. I hold a PhD from Vanderbilt University. In 2021-23 I will be a postdoctoral researcher at the LMU Munich and Cambridge University, supported by the DAAD PRIME program. In recent publications I have studied the formation of natural knowledge within the administrative, visual, and vernacular cultures of central European mining. My first book project reimagines “Humboldtian science” from below, as a collective enterprise whose system of inquiry in mines and atop mountains was sustained by miners, technicians, surveyors, and many more.

As a collection ecologist, I am researching the socio-environmental conditions of possibility for artisans, shepherds, and other members of highland communities to play a vital, though often unacknowledged, role in natural history collecting. This is the focus of my second book project, which reconstructs the lifeworld of highland families—many of them blacksmiths, cobblers, and wainwrights by trade—who established dynastic mountain-guiding and naturalia-collecting enterprises from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Inspired by my fellow “collecologists,” I am currently working to trace modern museum objects back to their original “cabinets” in the homes of these upland artisans.

That’s fantastic, and we hope to be reading your book very soon!

Plate from Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du cabinet du roi, by Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon.
Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

And to close this week’s presentations, let’s turn to Anita. Can you please tell us about yourself and your participation to Collection Ecologies ?

I am a historian of science, medicine, and the environment. My primary research focus is at the intersections of early modern human and animal anatomy and natural history, and I have also worked on the history of animal and human experimentation, on the role of history in ecological restoration, and on the history of food. My most recent book, The Courtiers’ Anatomists: Animals and Humans in Louis XIV’s Paris (2015) looks at the animal projects of the early Paris Academy of Sciences. Currently I am working on the interpretation of fossil bones in early modern Europe, which encompasses anatomy, geology, collecting, and history-writing. These bones were often interpreted as belonging to ancestral humans, and as such they played important roles in establishing narratives of national identity. I have another related project on the history of the early modern human skeleton. I am based at Oregon State University with an additional appointment at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I am happy to be included in the Collection Ecologies group. My current research is very much collection-based, and I am looking at both past and current natural history collections with attention to provenance and interpretation as well as to the physical bones themselves. The environmental contexts of discovery, collection and display therefore are central to my work, and I am particularly glad to be able to tie together what have often been disconnected interests within the circle of Collection Ecologies. I have already learned much from my fellow collecologists.

And we have also learned a lot from you, Anita, and we are looking forward to continue our conversation on collections.

This is it for this week’s blog from the Collection Ecologists. More soon, with more historians, but also more artists and museum specialists !

Introducing the members of The Collection Ecologies Research Collective – Part 1

Lutz Hengst and I, Dominik Hünniger, came up with the idea for the Collection Ecologies Collective after we became colleagues in the DFG-Centre for Advanced Studies “Imaginaria of Force” in 2019 and discovered a common interest in environmental history/humanities and collections. We both felt their connections are very underexplored but have great potential especially for multidisciplinary and multi-professional collaboration. After initially establishing a little group in Hamburg, including Martha Fleming who was a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures it became clear that this needs to be an international project. A cfp by the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) for their annual meeting prompted the “collection” of further collecologists and the collective grew from there.  

In the upcoming four weeks we will introduce the collective and its 17 members asking them two questions: 

1) Tell us about yourself and your work! 

2) How does this connect to the Collective? What draws you to Collection Ecologies? 

I’ll start: I’m a research associate at the DFG-Centre for Advanced Studies “Imaginaria of Force” at the University of Hamburg and affiliate researcher at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow. I am interested in the entangled histories of environments, medicine and knowledge. My first book and PhD  is a cultural and environmental history of cattle plagues in 18th century Scandinavia and Germany. After helping to build up and run the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Goettingen for 10 years, which included supporting the University’s Centre for Collection Development, I took up my current post at the University of Hamburg in 2019. Here I am collaborating with the Center of Natural History and finalizing the manuscript for my second book which is a material history of knowledge making about insects and other invertebrates from the 17th to the 19th century. 

Natural history collections are at the heart of my current research project. As I was doing my PhD in the “Interdisciplinary Environmental History” program at the University of Göttingen, looking at collections from environmental history perspectives was almost a matter of course. Combining these two interests, I explore how historical ecology can be connected to collections and collecting both in their entangled histories as well as for future research: On the one hand, I am interested to find out more about the environments where collecting took place and how early naturalists understood environments through collections and collecting. On the other hand, I explore the potential of collections for multi-disciplinary research on biodiversity change in collaboration with today’s curators of (historic) natural history collections.  

Much of this work has been developed in conversations with Martha Fleming, so Martha, tell us about yourself and your interest in Collection Ecologies! 

I have held research, management, teaching and creative/curatorial roles in a wide range of museums and universities in the UK and the EU: Deputy Director, V&A Research Institute (2016-2018); Inaugural Programme Director, Centre for Collections Based Research, University of Reading (2013-2016); Kingston University Vice Chancellor’s Investment Fund Secondment, Centre for Art and Humanities Research, Natural History Museum London (2009-2011); Visiting Associate Professor and Creative Director, Medicinsk Museion, University of Copenhagen (2006-2009); Senior Research Associate and Project Manager, Reconstructing Sloane, British Museum (2011-2019). 

Collections as epistemic assemblages are a key area of inquiry: they have played a hugely significant and underestimated role (for better or worse) in the development of scientific method and the emergence of differentiated disciplines.  Museum and collection practices are research methods in all but name, and have historically been much more deeply imbricated into the disciplinary methodologies alongside which they have been co-produced.  The long and complex ‘chaîne opératoire’ through which collections of all kinds have been amassed over the past 500 years is fundamentally underpinned by colonial and extractive processes that have concurrently also produced the climate emergency and profound inequality — including interspecies inequalities.  Working through and with the expanded field of collections, particularly of natural history, holds the potential to yield answers and remedies to these existential issues and problems.  

Thank you, Martha. Lutz, would you like to introduce yourself please? 

I studied art history, cultural anthropology and historical geography/environmental history at the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. I wrote my doctoral thesis on “Kunst der Spurensicherung” (the securing of traces in art), a branch of conceptual art which emerged in the 1970ies. From 2010 to 2019, I taught art and cultural history, first at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal and then at the University of Arts, Berlin. Since 2019, I am working as a PostDoctoral Research Associate in the CAS ”Imaginaria of Force/Imaginarien der Kraft on a project concerned with landscapes and ‘landscapeism’ in the age of floating images and energy transition. 

How does this connect to the Collective? What draws you to Collection Ecologies? 

Properties of art works that are less relevant to actual conservation are rarely investigated in traditional European museum collections. My project (inspired by the activist artistic practice of “tracing back”) will address such questions in order to establish a research program in historical collection ecology, which considers i.e. trade routes and other (socio-material) infrastructures, but also the wider questions of the historically and ecologically hidden in museums and display. 

Thank you, Lutz. The two other members of the Collection Ecologies Collective who have been there from the start are Déborah Dubald and Catarina Madruga. Deborah, why don’t you start and tell us about yourself and your work? 

I am a historian of science and I study the history of the practices and cultures of natural history in the nineteenth century, with a focus on museums and collections of natural history; scientific practices; the production of scientific space – especially in urban environments; material culture of nature. I am generally interested in the history of the relation between nature and the human societies. My current research interest is about the use of scientific and natural history collections in environmental history. I hold a PhD in History and Civilisation from the European University Institute, Florence (2019) with my thesis Capital Nature: a History of French Municipal Museums of Natural History, 1795-1870,  I am currently working on my first book which will be drawn from my thesis. Since 2018, I have held teaching and research fellowships in France: first at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Lille; then (from September 2020) at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Strasbourg where I teach the history of science. I am also responsible for the organisation and valorisation of my department’s historical medical collections and instruments. 

My interest for Collection Ecologies lies in how I would like to engage more directly with current issues regarding the environment. As a historian, I am convinced with the public utility of distantiating ourselves from common categories. History provides powerful instruments such as contextualisation to gain perspective and complexify our understanding of how humans interact with nature. Natural history collections are particularly interesting in that regard, that is, how they convey a history of both proximity, eagerness to find out about nature altogether with a form of separation between humans and the rest of the natural world. Collections mirror, but also contain this history as much as they even participated in the human/nature history. I tend to consider this material, natural heritage as an interface which needs our attention to think about environmental issues today. Not because it will show us the right way, but to document the history of natural knowledge, to historicise the very term of “nature”, especially in the way collections point to the making of artefacts that encapsulated species, resources, natural environments and localities. The encompassing reading of the Collection Ecologies collective is I believe a good step towards a more complex reading of nature, one that de-essentialises and remains critical. 

Thanks, Deborah. What about you Catarina? 

I am a “museum person” and a historian of science with a focus on the history of zoological collections and their entanglement with imperial narratives of possession. In my PhD “Taxonomy & Empire” I studied the historical archive of the nineteenth-century zoological museum of Lisbon and the growth of the zoological collections shipped from colonised African territories. I am interested in topics such as imperial representation through scientific collections; networks and correspondence; nomenclatural debates; field collecting practices; biographies of scientists; and provenance studies. I have training in Design and Museum Studies and work experience in exhibition design, curation of historical collections, and museum education. I am a Guest Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam since 2020. 

In a way, my current research as PostDoc of the project “Colonial Provenances of Nature. The expansion of the mammal collection at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, around 1900” also deals with the interface between Collection < > Ecologies, in that I am writing about the history of a scientific collection that helped shape knowledge about particular ecologies. However, what draws me to this interface is the world of possibilities it opens up. On the one end we get to look at the materiality of natural history collections, in my case, mammal skins, skeletons, skulls and antlers, as points of entry to a dynamic history of ecological thought and practice. On the other hand, I want to use these collections to also tell the story of game hunting and field collecting in a specific colonial space, in a period of change of perception, when hunting reserves became conservation parks. 

Thanks everyone for introducing yourself and your work. We are looking forward to introduce the  other Collecologists in the upcoming weeks. 

We are live! Meet Collection Ecologies

Twelve different species of bees swarming a flowery meadow. Coloured etching by J. Bishop, 1855, after J. Stewart.

Twelve different species of bees swarming a flowery meadow. Coloured etching by J. Bishop, 1855, after J. Stewart.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

What we do

Both environmental history as well as the history of natural history collections and collecting have gained much momentum and public attention in recent years. However, the productive potential of exploring both in conjunction has not yet been fully realized, especially in relation to how collections developed and still function as sites of entanglement across continents, species, societies, and bodies. We are a group of scholars from multiple regions and disciplines who want to re-assess the value of scientific collections for multidisciplinary research in light of environmental issues and the need for sustainable action both in museums and at universities. We want to explore how historical ecology approaches can be used to analyse the past of collections and how (historical) collections may provide important answers for current ecological issues now and in the future. From an environmental history perspective, informed by a decolonial approach, we would like to explore the circumstances and environments in which organisms and objects were found and created for collections. A wide variety of people and infrastructures were necessary to identify, locate and acquire objects and make them usable for a multitude of interests and interested parties. This has important ramifications for rethinking provenance research ecologically.

We research the environments in which collecting took place but also highlight ecological knowledge created by collecting as well as the opportunities for collecting created by environmental crises. Marginalised human actors and groups as well as non-human organisms and formations take central stage.

The environments of archives, libraries and collections are interesting for us too and we want to highlight the ways in which collections can and have been understood as environments, or even ecosystems themselves with their own ecologies and multispecies encounters. Collections are ideal places to reflect on the (historical) instability and potential of scientific disciplines, including ecology and environmental history, as well as on the diversity of actors in the processes of knowledge production.

We will also offer for discussion a variety of perspectives for a future environmental history of collections. In case studies from art history, the history of science, material culture and museum studies as well as historical ecology, we will discuss how collections and museums have been used to display and construct historical environments. This includes also how human subjects and remains became a part of natural history collections and an analysis of the infrastructures that enable(d) collections and the material of artefacts. This reconstructive work is important to consider in any multidisciplinary research on the relations of collections to historic environments and attempts to model historic environments through collections.

Who we are

These are the people in the collective:

Stay tuned for upcoming posts presenting all members!

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