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Research & Collections Programme

Growing research through the convening power of Cambridge’s collections

'Legacies of Empire and Enslavement in University Natural History Museums and Collections' was a seed-fund partnership project, funded through the NERC/AHRC Hidden Histories of Environmental Science programme.

Project team:

University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) & Environment Research Growth Network leads: 

  • Prof. Rebecca Kilner, Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Director, University Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge
  • Charlotte Connelly, Museum Curator of the Polar Museum, and Chair UCM Steering Group

Manchester Museum, University of Manchester 

  • Dr Alexandra Alberda, Curator of Indigenous Perspectives
  • Dr David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections

British Society for the History of Science (BSHS)

  • Professor Charlotte Sleigh, President

Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) 

  • Jack Ashby, Trustee, and Deputy Director, University Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge

This project will build a network of researchers, bringing together natural scientists working with natural history specimens, whether as museum curators or based elsewhere, and historians researching global histories of environmental science.

The UCM will host the partnership with the support of Manchester Museum, building on relationships forming between curators, natural scientists and historians in the context of the UCM's cross-disciplinary museum consortium and Manchester Museum's international collection of natural and human history, and expanding these early conversations out to welcome scholars and curators from across Britain and the World. The BSHS and NatSCA will provide access to existing networks of national and international researchers and curators. They will also support sector-wide sharing of the partnership's activity via their platforms, including conferences, publications and social media. The partnership will particularly focus on forging and developing links with scholars from postcolonial countries, initially by cultivating and supporting relationships that at present are typically held between individuals or small research groups and welcoming them into a wider network. Longer-term the partnership will connect with UCM and Manchester Museum’s diverse audiences, developing routes for equitable and research-led engagement including co-curation.

The project objectives are to: (1) develop a community of national and international researchers from across disciplines with an interest in the legacies of empire and enslavement in natural history collections, and the ongoing effects of those legacies and attitudes in the environmental sciences; (2) identify common concerns and useful approaches across disciplinary boundaries, developing a robust and sustainable network of researchers; (3) refine research questions relating to legacies of empire and enslavement in natural history collections and the influence of those biases in museum collections on the environmental sciences. These will inform a proposal to the Main Call with the aim of interrogating the past and future of the environmental science infrastructure embodied in Britain's university teaching and research collections. Research themes are likely to include: types of labour involved in collecting and curating specimens, and the people who carried out that work; marginalisation of indigenous peoples and their research; biases in collections and data due to the geographical locations of colonial activities; and the awareness that this is a Britain-centred project and that other imperial projects have had also impacted on the environmental sciences.

There will be three areas of activity: (1) a series of weekly presentations and discussions, convened by the UCM, each bringing together a natural scientist, a historian of science and a university natural history collection. Covering a range of natural science disciplines, these will enable ideas and approaches to be tested as well as being a practical step towards building a network; (2) an online networking event will follow the final weekly presentation, enabling informal discussions across disciplinary divides and working from prompts and themes developed during the presentation series. The museum partners bring facilitation expertise to this project element; (3) a half-day workshop will bring together participants to refine and focus a research framework and questions, based on ideas that emerge throughout the project, with the goal of developing an application to the Main Call and informing public programming in museums.