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'Environment and Empire... in the museum': Cambridge and the platypus

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Olin Moctezuma.

This talk comes in two parts, first an introduction to a new network that explore the legacies of empire and enslavement in natural history museums, and the ways those legacies are still influencing environmental science today. This will be followed by an example of the research in this area.

The Environment and Empire project was designed to address a particular challenge that natural history museums face. Unlike many other types of museums, natural history collections are curated and cared for by people who have typically been trained as scientists, rather than historians. While many natural history museum staff are interested in the histories and legacies of their collections, they do not necessarily have the time or skills to interrogate them alongside their day-to-day work. This project sought to bring together museum professionals working with natural history collections and interested historians to discuss some of the colonial legacies embodied in those collections, and the ways they continue to affect natural science today.

Across former European empires, collecting became part of the act of colonisation, with implications for how, why, where and by whom science was done. Jack Ashby will explore this theme by focussing on Australian mammal collections in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. Cracking the question of how platypuses and echidnas reproduce became a decades-long mystery for nineteenth century naturalists, even though Indigenous experts told Europeans that they lay eggs soon after the British invaded. The matter was settled to the satisfaction of the European scientific establishment only when a Cambridge academic saw the evidence for his own eyes, and that would not have been possible without the efforts of over 150 Aboriginal collectors.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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