WP5. Collecting, Curating and Returning Etosha-Kunene Natures

WP5 builds on WP4 by focusing specifically on how the natures of Etosha-Kunene have been imagined and fashioned through colonial natural history collections and the curation and display of the specimen-artefacts that thereby arose.      

            Many of the travellers-hunters-traders analysed in WP4 were notable for the time, energy and resources they devoted to tracking down, killing and preparing natural history specimens for collections later housed in museums elsewhere, often in their home countries. Charles John Andersson’s first collections, for example, included ‘about 500 bird-skins and 1000 insects’, taken to England by Galton in 1852; more insects were donated to the South African Museum in 1860, and the rest of his collections are in Swedish museums and the Nottingham Museum in the UK (Rudner & Rudner 1974: 188-189). Axel Eriksson created a large collection of bird specimens from former South West Africa, mostly donated to the municipal museum in his home town of Vänersborg which as a result hosts the world’s largest exhibition of Namibian birds. A large collection of insect specimens was also donated by Eriksson to the South African Museum in Cape Town, and a large number of bird skins collected by him are currently housed in Uppsala’s Evolutionsmuseet. Additional collections might be located, for example, through the museum records section of Namibia’s Bird Information System which lists around 500 museum records for the country collected prior to 1900.

            Procured as an objective (and objectifying) catalogue of encounter with exotic colonial natures, such collections and associated displays acted in the past as ‘imperialistic propaganda’, leaving us today with ‘a passive witness’ of past relationships with plants and animals that communicates something of how nature in the colonial encounter was dealt with (Lemaitre 2016: 15, 73; also Kranz 2016). At the same time, such collections can reveal information about the places and landscapes from where they were sourced, as well as providing historical information for present-day species locations.

            In WP5, then, we will research and document a selection of specimen-artefacts in these collections, paying attention to the labelling and metadata associated with specimens, technologies of collection and ordering, and modes of display as hybrids of nature and human art (Lemaitre 2016; Delbourgo 2017). Where possible, the recorded provenance of collected specimens in Etosha-Kunene will be collated to enable comparison with present-day distributions, as listed in the various citizen science atlases and in particular the bird information system contributing present-day biodiversity monitoring in Namibia (see http://www.the-eis.com/atlas/).

 

Proposed milestones, specific outputs and personnel:

This WP will be carried out by Sian Sullivan drawing technically on experiences of natural history collection in Namibia: for example, in the 1990s she collected several hundred plant voucher specimens now housed in the National Herbarium of Namibia, as well as using material from the entomology collection in the National Museum of Namibia in the course of ethnoentomology research with ≠Nūkhoen interlocutors in west Namibia. Sian will make a series of research visits to identified collections to document and photograph specimen-artefacts held and displayed, paying particular attention to their provenance in Etosha-Kunene and the texts and aesthetics of their archiving and display. Two envisaged outputs are:

 

  1. compilation of an annotated and illustrated ‘catalogue’ of selected specimen-artefacts and the circumstances of their collection, with mapping of their provenance in Etosha-Kunene;
     

  2. contributed material for the project’s mobile exhibition in year 3, juxtaposing the content and geographies of the collections, the historical circumstances of their collection, and the places and landscapes from where specimens were sourced (see WP6).
     

References

Delbourgo, J. 2017 Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. London: Penguin.

Kranz, G. 2016 Hamburg’s Botanical Museum and German colonialism: nature in the hands of science, commerce and political power, pp. pp. 59-86 in Ramutsindela, M., Miescher, G. and Boehi, M. (eds.) The Politics of Nature and Science in Southern Africa. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien.

Lemaitre, J. 2016 Wonders are Collectible. Taxidermy: Tranquil Beauty. Lannoo Publishers: Tielt, Belgium.

Rudner, I. & Rudner, J. 1974(1899) Journey in Africa Through Angola, Ovampoland and Damaraland 1895-1896 by P. Möller. C. Struik: Cape Town.

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