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.

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