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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