Call for Abstracts/Papers, special issue 'The Coloniality of Natural History Collections'

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Call for Papers
May 30, 2021
Subject Fields: 
Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies, Cultural History / Studies, Humanities, Law and Legal History, World History / Studies

The scholarly e-journal Locus-Tijdschrift voor Cultuurwetenschappen, published by the Open University of the Netherlands seeks papers around the issue of ‘The Coloniality of Natural History Collections’.

For some time now, there has been a lively public debate about the presentation and possession of objects from the former colonies in Dutch and Flemish museum collections. The call for the decolonization of museums is understood in different ways. For some, it is about challenging and altering how these objects are presented and approached, as they would still testify to a colonial outlook. Others interpret decolonization as calling for the repatriation of these items, for example, urgently questioning who the actual, rightful owner of these objects is. In the Netherlands, the Advisory Committee on the National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections advised the Dutch government in October last year to express a ‘readiness to return unconditionally’ cultural heritage objects that have (most likely) been looted (cf. Colonial Collection and a Recognition of Injustice).  

So far, the presentation of animals and botanical collections, in gardens and natural history museums located in former colonies and in Europe, has received less attention in public debates. In response to the above-mentioned advisory report, Naturalis Biodiversity Center (Leiden) issued a statement that the situation would be different for natural history collections compared to cultural-historical ones, because the owned plants and animals were allegedly neither ‘stolen nor alienated, but collected in nature’. However, among ethnobotanists and scientific historians, curators, museum directors and scientists, there is a lot of discussion about whether botanical and natural history collections require similar critical attention from a postcolonial perspective. For instance, Tinde van Andel, senior researcher at Naturalis, accepted her position as Professor by special appointment of the History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University with an inaugural lecture (Open the treasure room and decolonize the museum) in which she calls for the decolonization of natural history heritage.

Alexandre Antonelli, Scientific Director of the English Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Gardens (London), recently announced a review of its exhibition practices and policies. Also, an international conference on Botany, Trade and Empire will be held there shortly, while the Natural History Museum in London regularly organizes (digital) exhibitions on postcolonial themes.

Following up on the successful OU webinar Who Owns the Botanical Gardens? (in Dutch) which took place in October 2020, the Locus editorial team intends to publish a special issue on these debates in Autumn 2021. In this issue, we will examine the answers to questions such as how do organic material, land, scientific and informal knowledge, colonial and postcolonial power relations converge in botanical gardens and natural history collections in the former colonies and in Europe? To what extent are natural history collections, museums and botanical gardens still marked by colonial and Eurocentric discourses? What could it mean to decolonize them and what is required to accomplish this?

We welcome contributions from various disciplines in the humanities and are interested in, among other things:

  • Historical accounts of the acquisition of natural history objects or the building up of collections or gardens that offer insight into the coloniality of such practices;
  • Philosophical, historical and epistemological questions about the coloniality of botanical knowledge claims, and of botany as a scientific discipline; or the relationship between the acquisition of knowledge of ‘life’ and land on the one hand and the acquisition of power over life and land on the other (‘biopower’) etc.;
  • Legal perspectives on historical injustice and restitution;
  • Normative reflections on the call for decolonization of natural history collections;
  • (Reflections on) examples of decolonization in natural history museums (e.g. artistic interventions).

About Locus-Tijdschrift voor Cultuurwetenschappen: Locus publishes general articles on the humanities, as well as special issues on current debates. The previous special issue was on the topic of ‘Performativity’.  

Send your abstract (max. 200 words) to by May 30, 2021.


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