A new exhibition at the Grant Museum takes a look at how the attitudes of the British Empire affected the collections of natural wildlife that were brought back to the UK.

Collecting natural specimens reached its height at the time of the Empire, with a mix of scientific curiosity blending with Imperial prejudices about what was collected.

Sometimes less a clinical collection than seeking out animals and plants that would feed the vision of a British overlord bringing strange samples of a backward world to the Imperial Capital to be gawped at.

At it’s heart, the exhibition is based around one simple question: “How did all these things come to be here in the first place?”

Being the Grant, it’s based around taking examples of animals already in their collection, and adding thought provoking questions about how that particular animal ended up here in London.

A few loans, such as the snakeskin handbags seized recently by UK Customs a reminder of the illegal smuggling operations that still persist.

Another of an elephant’s tusk with a bullet hole in it from 1900 a reminder of how many of the animals in museums started their journey to the UK.

A lot of animals ended up in UK collections thanks to the habit of colonialists taking their existing traditions and adapting them to their host countries. Australian animals are unusually well represented in UK collections, thanks to hunting with dogs being a favoured pastime.

Hunting that drove some animals to extinction – such as South Africa’s Quagga, an animal that finally got legal protect in 1886 – three years after the last one had been killed.

It’s not just Victorian’s who attributed their values onto animals, it’s a general human failing. We love cuddly pandas, but rather few of us have the same opinion about spiders. Famously, an elephant was brought to the Tower of London as far back as 1255, and as everyone thought it a noble beast, fed it regal food. It died after just a couple of years, as it much preferred the peasants vegetables to the lordly meats.

Even the smallest were enrolled in Imperial ambitions — the museum’s famous Micrarium of microscopic bugs is based in part on a former curator’s opinion that their study would “have an enormous influence on the history of the work, and of mankind, because they are going to make the Tropics habitable by white men.”

It’s not just the animals, but the institutions themselves that benefited from Empire, and it was recently found that some of the founders of UCL, of which the Grant is part, were slave owners, and funded the early collections at the Grant Museum. One glass case has been left empty as a reminder that there is always a hidden history behind how an object ends up in a museum, and that story is often overlooked.

It’s a display that makes you rather melancholic at how our ancestors behaved, but also oddly uplifting in that while a long way from ideal in how we deal with the environment, we at least recognise how bloody stupid we once were in some respects.

The exhibition, Displays of Power: A Natural History of Empire is at the Grant Museum until 7th March 2020. The museum is open 1pm-5pm Mon-Sat and entry is free.


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