Grant Museum of Zoology - Museums Association

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Grant Museum of Zoology

Displays of Power

The Displays of Power exhibition explores the zoology collections of the Grant Museum, motivated by the conviction that, “there are stories of Empire in any natural history collection – if you know how to look”. It looks at where all these animals came from, and why and what this colonial legacy means for natural science museums and our visitors today.

The work was inspired by a paper co-authored by Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe which argues that natural history museums perpetuate racism and alienate visitors by ignoring colonial histories. The exhibition aims to change this by exploring the role of empire in the formation of the Grant Museum, using this as the springboard for a wider discussion of natural sciences and empire.

The curatorial team researched the collection and archives, illuminating the previously unexplored colonial contexts of the collections. They found that empire played a key role in the development of the Grant Museum from 1827 onwards, seeing the map of the British Empire reflected in where the specimens were collected. From live animals to ivory, empire helped to turn animals into objects for worldwide trade.

They found teaching specimens used to justify racism and colonialism. Natural history specimens such as the quagga and thylacine, hunted to extinction by colonists, evidenced how empire affected the natural world and local people. Trophies and other remains demonstrated imperial attitudes towards animals that still survive today.

The museum ran training sessions to equip its front of house staff to confidently converse about difficult subjects like empire and slavery, leading to wonderfully insightful conversations.

Engagement activities created even more conversations and included a self-guided family trail and weekend art and handling activities, artist collaborations, a games night, a comedy night and schools and community takeover events. Feedback on the exhibition comment cards highlights the personal impact of the exhibition:

As someone of East African descent, it’s rare to see an exhibition that makes an effort to draw attention to the fact that the pieces being showcased are here because of something as dark as colonialism

In response to this feedback, the museum plans to keep some elements of Displays of Power in its permanent displays.