Histories of Natural History Collections & Collecting, Albany, WA.

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by Tiffany Shellam

In Albany on the 25th and 26th October, on the beautiful and biodiverse country of Menang Noongar, Collecting the West hosted a two day symposium on the 'Histories of Natural History collections and collecting'. This symposium brought together an eclectic group of researchers, curators, Indigenous knowledge holders and scientists  - From London, Oxford, Melbourne, Perth and Albany - to discuss ideas and tensions relating to the history, and futures, of such collections. Professor Stephen Hopper, a conservation biologist and Lynette Knapp Menang Traditional Owner, began with a conversation about sharing stories on-country, revealing Lynette's deep family-based knowledge of plants, animals and ways of caring for country. Their inspiring collaboration of two-way learning revealed the tensions in abstract natural history collections, and the challenges in a traditional temporal approach in current practice.


Other speakers, such as Andrea Witcomb (Deakin University) and Pina Milne (Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne) Serena Marner (Oxford University Herbarium) and Tui Raven (State Library of Western Australia) reminded us that the names of collections - such as the "Matthew McGiver Smyth", or "Ferdinand Von Mueller" collection can be misleading, hiding the labour of others, the agency of Indigenous traders, or the extensive networks that produced or amassed a variety of collections.

Corioli Souter (WA Museum) and Shino Konishi (UWA) illuminated the materiality of collections and the emotions tied to 'collecting the sea'. The passion for 19th century shell collecting by the French, could be read, Konishi argued, as an obsession, and revealing that some naturalist-explorers would collect 'at all costs'.

JD Hill (British Museum) raised the challenge of how we understand what 'collecting place' might mean for making sense of past, present and future collecting practices in and from Western Australia. This made me reflect on the scientific abstraction of collections from their environmental and cultural contexts. Significant knowledge and local reference - about a shell,  for example - can get lost or hidden in the decontextualisation from beach to museum cabinet. Research on the Robert Neill fish collection by  Lester Coyne (Menang Noongar Elder) and myself, which includes fish specimens in Edinburgh  and sketches and manuscript notes in London, we hope to re-contextualise these with Menang knowledge holders. 


Symposium delegates at the UWA Albany Centre.

Symposium delegates at the UWA Albany Centre.

This tension of knowledge abstraction in many of the collections was brought into sharp focus during our two walks on Menang Country: Menang Elder Harley Coyne took the group to the Fish Traps in Oyster Harbour, telling us many significant stories about knowledge and specimens in country. Stephen Hopper guided a walk at Teaching Rock (Babinger Boy), near Quaranup where we learned about karda mia (lizard traps) and gnamma construction. 


Some presenters discussed the background to local, formative collections, such as early geological collections by explorers, government agents and settlers, some of which in turn became the foundational collections of the Swan River Mechanics Institute, the Perth Museum and later WA Museum.  Some of these early rock collections have been forgotten in overseas institutions. Tui Raven from the State Library of Western Australia revealed one interesting and innovative project which is using  natural history collections from an early colonial expedition - John Forrest's 1874 expedition from Geraldton to Adelaide, in a unique way. This project is engaging with Aboriginal peoples in the Yamaji region, Western Desert and Ngaanyatajarra Lands to share traditional ecological knowledge of the country through which the explorers travelled. 


Curators from interstate and international collecting institutions discussed the mobility of collections in the colonial era and today. Dermot A. Henry (Museums Victoria) described the fashion in which collectors from the east headed to the goldfields in the west, bringing many geological specimens back to Victoria as a result. Mark Nesbitt (Economic Botany, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK) revealed the movement of specimens, raw plant materials and objects in and out of the Museum of Economic Botany in the period 1847-1987. His project is mapping the circulation of specimens across international networks of exchange in the 19th and 20th centuries.


Rich discussions and new connections were forged during the symposium and the Collecting the West team are pleased to initiate these new conversations.

Tiffany Shellam & Lester Coyne, who co-presented the paper ‘Assembling a fish archive: Robert Neill and Menang Nyungar knowledge’ at the symposium.

Tiffany Shellam & Lester Coyne, who co-presented the paper ‘Assembling a fish archive: Robert Neill and Menang Nyungar knowledge’ at the symposium.