Black Lives Matter in our Collections

Published on 11th June 2020

Detail of the map of St Vincent Botanical Garden, showing the huts of enslaved people, c. 1800
Detail of the map of St Vincent Botanical Garden, showing the huts of enslaved people, c. 1800

The current events in the US, UK and elsewhere, demanding the uprooting of systemic racism, have provoked a lot of thinking and soul-searching regarding the ways in which we curate, catalogue and promote our collections at the Linnean Society.

This thinking started before the current events, prompted by discussions with our former Events and Communications Manager, Dr Leanne Melbourne, and by reading such eye-opening articles as Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das’s ‘Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections’.[1] The event organised by Leanne on ‘Diversity in Natural History’ in March 2019 enabled Collections staff to display some of the artworks in our collections, drawn and painted by mostly unknown local and indigenous artists. It also encouraged me to present a paper on these same artists at the International Congress on the Enlightenment at the University of Edinburgh in July 2019, where the theme was 'Enlightenment Identities'. The paper was well received, yet I couldn’t help but remark to myself that I, a white person, was presenting a paper on indigenous and ethnic minority artists, to a mostly-white audience. My aim in presenting this paper was to attract academic researchers to our archives and library, but the communities whose pasts are being studied are rarely involved in that research. It highlights the inherent lack of diversity in history of science and academia as a whole.

So how do we go about changing this? How do we decolonise the Society’s collections and make them more accessible to black, Asian, and other ethnic communities, so that these collections—mostly made up of papers and books written by white male scholars (women were not admitted to the Society until 1905) in a discipline that is white-dominated—are collections that belong to all, can speak to all, and should be accessed by all?

It is not an easy matter, especially for a small learned society like ours. Bigger organisations in London, like the Natural History Museum or the Grant Museum, have seen the implementation of black history trails, popular tours that highlight objects on display in the museum that tell the little-known stories of enslaved people and their contributions, within the bigger context of empire and colonialism. Our collections are smaller, and we are not a museum with hundreds of objects on display.

Painting by John Tyley

John Tyley's illustration of Possira simplex (Above), with his signature below.

What we can and should endeavour to do, however, is highlight how the Society’s collections do contain information about those unseen lives, and how they can reflect the part that black people, enslaved people, Native Americans, First Nations, or Asian people played in the transmission of natural historical knowledge throughout the centuries of colonialism and empire. Individuals within local and indigenous communities acted as 'go-betweens',[2] as sources of information on new plants and animals, and as artists. Amongst the latter in our collections, many are still unknown and might never be uncovered. But some artists have been identified and studied in the last few years and can be celebrated, amongst them the Antiguan John Tyley and the Bengali Haludar, whose works feature in our Francis Buchanan-Hamilton collections.

It takes time to unearth these hidden narratives from papers and manuscripts in the archives, and this is something that will be explored in a series of blogs for Black History Month in October. I will be investigating the papers of traders and naturalists in our collections, in order to draw out information on slavery, and the invaluable participation of local populations in the colonial enterprise and exploration of new lands and their environment. Readers can already search through our catalogue to find this information. An example is the newly-catalogued manuscript of Peter Collinson, whose commonplace books contain invaluable information on Native Americans in the colony of Carolina.

As archivists, librarians and curators, we have a duty to bring these hidden lives back to light, as a testament to their forgotten but crucial roles in the history of the last 300 years. We need to lodge inequality and injustice at the forefront of our thinking whenever we catalogue a new manuscript, curate a new exhibition, promote a collection, or organise a new event. In so doing, we will enrich the lives of our members and Fellows, and those of society at large. More importantly, we will be able to make a greater contribution to sustaining our connection with the natural world, for all people, and for generations to come.

Isabelle Charmantier,

Head of Collections

[1] Das S., Lowe M., ‘Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections’, Journal of Natural Science Collections, 2018, Vol. 6, pp. 4–14.

[2] individuals who could bridge indigenous and European cultures, see for example Metcalf S.C., Go-Betweens and the Colonization of Brazil 1500-1600, Austin, 2005.