This post was written by Collection Ecologies. It is part of a series of posts on the theme of Environmental History for History Day 2021.
Both environmental history, as well as the history of natural history collections and collecting, have gained much momentum and public attention in recent years. However, the productive potential of exploring both in conjunction has not yet been fully realized, especially in relation to how collections developed and still function as sites of entanglement across continents, species, societies, and bodies. A wide variety of people and infrastructures were necessary to identify, locate, and acquire objects and make them usable for a multitude of interests and interested parties, which has important ramifications for rethinking provenance research ecologically.
The Collection Ecologies collective are a group of scholars from multiple regions and disciplines who want to re-assess the value of scientific collections for multidisciplinary research in light of environmental issues and the need for sustainable action both in museums and at universities. As an international group of scholars and artists interested in collections, covering a wide array of specialties and professions, we can collaborate in this kind of research, uncovering connections and continuities across space and time. We are interested in exploring how historical ecology approaches can be used to analyse the past of collections and how (historical) collections may provide important answers for current ecological issues now and in the future.
From an environmental history and humanities perspective, informed by a decolonial approach, we are interested in exploring the circumstances and environments in which organisms and objects were found and created for collections. We research the environments in which collecting took place but also highlight ecological knowledge created by collecting as well as the opportunities for collecting created by environmental crises. Marginalised human actors and groups as well as non-human organisms and formations take centre stage.
Likewise, the environments of archives, libraries, and collections are interesting for us, and we want to highlight the ways in which collections can and have been understood as environments, or even ecosystems themselves, with their own ecologies and multispecies encounters. Collections are ideal places to reflect on the (historical) instability and potential of scientific disciplines, including ecology and environmental history, as well as on the diversity of actors in the processes of knowledge production.
Die Kennzeichen der Insekten. Zürich : bei Heidegger und Comp., 1761. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Rar 5779, https://doi.org/10.3931/e-rara-38350 / Public Domain Mark
Some of the recent work posted in our blog highlights the themes that we aim to tackle as a collective. For example, Patrick Anthony, a postdoctoral researcher at the LMU Munich and Cambridge University (supported by the DAAD PRIME programme), recently wrote on skulls of the extinct ‘cave bear’ (Ursus spelaeus). The prized commodity of the small mountain village of Muggendorf in late eighteenth- and early nineteeth-century Germany, it served as evidence for competing theories of earth history. Today, these fossils might tell another story. The stuff of geo-historical imagination helps to reconstruct an historical ecology of collections, a history alive to the ways in which local environmental and economic forces shaped the conditions of possibility for geo-theory. And it gives equal footing to those who excavated fossils and those who named them. This example from Patrick’s work encapsulates how our group conceptualizes the use of objects and collections to flesh out complex historical moments and trends.
Ursus spelaeus in Johann Christian Rosenmüller, Abbildungen und Beschreibungen der Fossilen Knochen des Höhlenbären (Weimar: Landes-Industrie-Comptoir, 1804).
We also offer for discussion a variety of perspectives for a future environmental history of collections. In case studies from art history, the history of science, material culture and museum studies, as well as historical ecology, we reflect on how collections and museums have been used to display and construct historical environments. This includes how human subjects and remains became part of natural history collections and an analysis of the infrastructures that enable(d) collections and the material of artefacts. This reconstructive work is important to consider in any multidisciplinary research on the relations of collections to historic environments and attempts to model historic environments through collections. This allows us to track biodiversity change in collaboration with today’s curators of (historical) natural history collections.
Twelve different species of bees swarming a flowery meadow. Coloured etching by J. Bishop, 1855, after J. Stewart.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)