Vice-Chancellor’s Investment Fund Secondment, Centre for Arts and Humanities Research, Natural History Museum (London):  Kingston University  (2009 to 2011)

 

This key two-year post was central to a small dynamic team developing an arts and humanities research hub inside this national museum with international reach, where 300 scientists are at work studying plant and animal genetics, geology and mineralogy, the structure of the universe, biodiversity, climate change and more.

Having worked at the Science Museum (London) and the Medical Museion (Copenhagen), as well as a number of fine art museums, I was excited to see the advertisement for this post — which was headlined: “Would you like to work in a creative, fulfilling and exciting environment, where you will have the opportunity to explore the world class Natural History Museum collections?”

I felt I could answer that question clearly and succinctly in the affirmative.

The ad continued: this is “an innovative new project, which aims to explore the potential of the Museum collections as a resource for arts and humanities research. With a relevant postgraduate degree and a successful record of applying for and obtaining external research income, you will have the ability to build effective networks within the field of humanities and work in productive partnership with academic colleagues.”  Just as interesting to me as the collections was this opportunity to help operationalise the highly interdisciplinary practice that would be the outcome of a successful integration of arts and humanities researchers into this scientific research institute.

I already had experience of aligning methodologies across arts and science through individual projects, and had been consulted for strategic development advice by institutions such as the Royal Society and the Science Museum vis à vis resourcing the research potential of their collections. This project would be a chance to be directly effective at an institutional scale in implementing change.

The NHM is essentially UK science infrastructure for systematics, taxonomics and biodiversity: the excitement for me was in the potential for enabling productive links between the vast range of biological research methods at the NHM and those of arts and humanities researchers that CAHR, as it came to be known, would bring in.

My work with organic collections and with contemporary molecular and microbiological practices at the Medical Museion was a very good grounding for moving into natural history fields like zoology and entomology. I was at home in both the collections environment and the lab areas: it is an amazing institution and every day of the week there was something astounding to see and understand.

A crucial linchpin of information management about specimens from across the Museum — in Zoology, Entomology, Botany, Mineralogy and Palaeontology — is the incredibly rich NHM Library and Archives. For the 350 pre-digital years of the Museum’s specimen collecting practice, any relevant observations including locations and dates were kept in notebooks and manuscripts, and the trade in specimens involved of necessity various forms of scientific visualisation. Thus 500,000 images of nature from the world over are also part of the collection.

 

 

Taken as a whole, these rich and diverse collections trace a wide spectrum from the history of science to the history of empire, from epistemologies of observational practice to ontologies of data-mining. With associated field notes, films, photographs, diaries, drawings, ship’s logs, correspondence and both GIS and DNA data, the Natural History Museum specimen collections are a rich resource for investigation. Fields as varied as history, philosophy, museology, anthropology, literary studies, film and photo studies, animal studies, cultural theory and area studies relating to South Asia, Africa, China and elsewhere find firm purchase and important primary materials in the NHM collections.

My post involved me in gaining a detailed understanding of the historical and scientific basis of the NHM collections, their management and use. With the generous support of NHM staff, I effected more than 25 specimen collection and laboratory research visits, and produced a 35 page strategy document outlining an appropriate and fundable research programme divided into several interlocking sections:

  • Natural History, Global History
  • Visual Cultures Of Natural History
  • Literatures And Texts Of Natural History
  • Museum As Laboratory: ‘Improving Natural Knowledge’
  • Facilitating Interdisciplinarity
  • Sharing Knowledge

 

Under ‘Natural History, Global History’ I wrote:

The co-production of understandings of the natural world with the development of empires – both financial and geo-political – is the subject of this Research Cluster. The recent ‘material turn’ in historical research is beginning to extend beyond the holdings of cultural museums to address collections whose primary purpose has been scientific investigation, with its attendant specific histories and economies.

The unique qualities of natural history specimens and the geospatial and temporal data which accompanies them means that they function as information-rich pivots for historical investigation. Who collected these specimens – from indigenous groups to Presidents of the Royal Society – and how and why they were collected – from instrumentation and instruction to economic botany – is in essence a history of the world since 1500. The circulation of specimens, ideas and goods is concomitant, and an examination of this nexus over time is a key epistemological endeavour in which the Museum can play a central role.

Humanities researchers are best placed to analyse the often widely divergent and physically disparate sets of written records which can join up dots to plot the movement of ideas and objects through time and space. This would be a contribution not only to history and epistemology, but also to current science, by enabling the reintegration of point reference data with earlier collections.

 

I identified and developed contacts with researchers internationally who have the skills to effect this work, including drawing up a longlist for the Centre Advisory Board, and assisting with its formation. With other members of the team (Julie Harvey, Centre Manager; Dr Charlie Jarvis, Scientific Advisor; Nadja Noel, Project Coordinator) I organised and hosted both pro-active and responsive meetings and collection visits with potential partners, individual and institutional. A considerable part of the post involved enabling and promoting partnerships for CAHR with universities, research councils, foundations, libraries and other major museums.

Zoology, taxonomy and systematics are structurally very interesting activities, with complex institutional and linguistic regimes and instrument practices, and I also developed two research project proposals rooted in these fields. One of them related taxonomic nomenclature to philosophy of language, and another outlined a methodologies-exchange between zoological scientists and animal studies researchers. One outcome of the latter was the lecture programme Unruly Creatures, convened by Kingston Professor John Mullarkey. I also represented CAHR at a range of external conferences, from Scientific Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation to In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science and Museums and Restitution.

The Centre ran a number of larger projects during the period of my tenure, some of which I was also directly involved in. I co-organised the conference Science Voices (at the Royal Society) which examined oral history of science as part of Museum Lives — a Kingston University AHRC-funded Knowledge Transfer project to interview 50 NHM members of staff. I also became closely involved in the project initiation phase of ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ — a cross-institutional project between the NHM, the British Library and the British Museum, which intends to reunite, analyse and make accessible the original foundation collections of all three institutions as constituted by Sir Hans Sloane in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project initiation document is now the backbone of the project, supporting the Consortium’s unfolding work on Sloane.

Institutional business planning, communication strategy creation and implementation, participation in policy and procedure development advocating for the humanities researcher, lecture series curation and management, mentoring, fundraising and more were also part of my work for the Centre. Working across both the Museum and Kingston University, I helped Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences researchers formulate projects through the Museum, and collaborated with KU’s Museum and Gallery Studies director Dr Duncan Grewcock and NHM Public Engagement Staff to design and deliver postgraduate teaching and learning.

Since the end of my tenure, Kingston University has instated five research Fellowships at the NHM Centre under the rubrics I identified in my CAHR strategy document: I look forward to the outcomes.

 

 

You can hear a podcast of my lecture Natural History, Global History, presented at the launch of the Centre for the Historical Record conference ‘Providing Public History: Challenges and Opportunities‘ (10/06/2011) Kingston University.

Further Links:  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum; Unruly Creatures 1; Unruly Creatures 2; London Graduate School, Kingston University; Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation; In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science; Museums and Restitution; Museum and Gallery Studies, Kingston University; Centre for the Historical Record; Reconstructing Sloane’

[Image References: Lepidoptera Collections, Natural History Museum; Earth Sciences Librarian Hellen (Pethers) Sharman displaying William Smith’s Geological Map of English (1815) for geological historians; the Central Hall of the NHM]