This is the second year that I am teaching my module on the history of animals in colonial Asia. For this year’s class, I thought that it would be fun to see what local resources there might be in Leeds on the topic, and so my students and I took a trip to the Leeds Discovery Centre. The Discovery Centre is the Leeds Museum and Galleries’ storage facility. It has a wealth of materials. Rebecca Machin, curator for the natural sciences collections, showed us around.
There were lots of taxidermy models and skeletal remains for us to see and Rebecca was able to show us a variety of species indigenous to Asia that were held in the collections. Charismatic creatures such as Asian elephants, tigers, sun bears and primates were all included. Most were acquired during the nineteenth century. These preserved animal remains provide mute testament to the entanglement of the study of natural history, the establishment of museum collections and the expansion of British imperialism. The class readings before our visit had been about the history of orangutan. The Museum’s taxidermy models of these critically endangered mammals were a poignant material survival from those histories of exploration, science and hunting that we had read.
The class was in the middle of reading Alfred Russell Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, in which the celebrated Victorian naturalist wrote in detail about his interactions with these great apes. For the most part, he recalls shooting them and measuring them. But he also writes of his nursing of a baby orangutan (that he had orphaned), describing his growing paternal affection for his inter-species adoptee and his sadness at the creature’s premature death. Despite his description of orangutan as barely ever touching the ground—instead preferring to reside in the trees swinging from branch to branch, in part to avoid these dangerous human interlopers—Wallace provided a drawing of a female orangutan in a seated pose, not unlike that of the model in the Discovery Centre.
The similarity made me wonder whether there was any significance to this posing. Taxidermy often attempted to animate the creature and provide a sense of what an animals’ lived movements may have been like. Tigers are often posed, mouths open, in the hunt, to display their ferocity. These orangutans, sat seemingly peacefully, looking out gently at the human viewer, perhaps served to emphasize their human-like qualities.
The orangutans were not the only creatures to recall Wallace’s work. The Discovery Centre also holds many butterfly collections, including the Rajah Brooke Birdwing butterfly. Wallace named the species for the so-called “White Rajah” of Sarawak, a kingdom situated on the island of Borneo. He had been able to conduct many of his studies through Brooke’s hospitality, as well as his autocratic rule. These butterflies were a reminder that the killing and collection of exotic creatures are not practices that have been consigned to the past. Through an agreement with the Home Office, the Discovery Centre provides storage for illegally smuggled animal artifacts that have been seized through Customs. Among them there is a preponderance of these stunning butterflies.
We packed a lot into our brief visit. As well as the skeletons, taxidermy and butterflies, Rebecca gave us a glimpse of the collection’s dazzling array of iridescent molluscs, bird-skins and beetles. We learned about the difficulties facing curators dealing with collections organised according to aesthetic preferences rather than scientific principles. And we discussed current scientific research using animal remains, such as how chickens can be used as historical markers of the Anthropocene (defined by some scientists and historians as the current epoch in which human activity has become the determining factor for the whole planet’s ecological, geological and chemical systems). Perhaps, more than anything else, getting to see the collections provided the students with a sense of scale. It brought home the geographical reach of British institutions in the age of empire and its legacies today in museum collections up and down the country. Extrapolating from the collections that we were able to view, it provided them with an insight into numbers of creatures killed and collected in the intertwined imperial pursuits of science and sport.
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