Nicholas Thomas & Philipp Schorch

Museum futures

Material cultures of ethnography and natural history as archives of environmental knowledge

Museum collections are inherently cross-disciplinary: it is commonly recognized that distinctions between anthropological and archaeological “artefacts” and “works of art” are mutable. All collections are also historical, and the acquisition of items through colonial-era scientific travel is increasingly a focus of provenance studies and debate. But crossovers between scientific specimens and artefacts are only beginning to receive attention: “natural” specimens are almost invariably “pre­parations”, often elaborately-contrived and sometimes visually spectacular artefacts. Starting from this hybridity, this project goes beyond the identities of the objects that constitute collections to bring natural history, history, ethnography and art together in an unprecedented, future-oriented research practice, reconstituting collections in collaborative research with Indigenous and “source” communities, in relation to the climate crisis, and more broadly to the environmental humanities and social sciences.

This LMU Cambridge Strategic Partnership project addresses material cultures of natural history and ethnography, focussed on collections in Germany and the UK, and considers the co-constitution of natural and anthro­pological collections. Such collections were typically divided between natural history and ethnography museums, or moved between such institutions as museology and science evolved over the 19th and 20th centuries; they can now be re-assembled and re-articulated. Most critically, both “natural” and “cultural” holdings constitute environ­mental archives and archives of environ­mental knowledge, offering distinct repositories that are mostly neglected in the environ­mental humanities and social sciences. Moreover, they offer resources for contemporary cultural practices and sources for inspiration for narratives about sustainability and future change.

Article Image: Unwrapping barkcloth from Tonga, gifted by Joseph Banks. Stockholm Ethnographic Museum, 16 October 2017. Photo by Mark Adams, from the Pacific Presences research project (2013–2018), MAA, Cambridge. Unwrapping barkcloth from Tonga, gifted by Joseph Banks. Stockholm Ethnographic Museum, 16 October 2017. Photo by Mark Adams, from the Pacific Presences research project (2013–2018), MAA, Cambridge.
Article Image: Julie Adams and Francois Wadra, Bevan workroom, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, 25 October 2013. Photo by Mark Adams, from the Pacific Presences research project (2013–2018), MAA, Cambridge. Julie Adams and Francois Wadra, Bevan workroom, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, 25 October 2013. Photo by Mark Adams, from the Pacific Presences research project (2013–2018), MAA, Cambridge.