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.

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 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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