Museum workers are no strangers to the colonial legacies of their collections. This issue comes up most frequently regarding anthropological artifacts, but it is relevant to natural history specimens as well. During the 1800s, when colonialism was at its height and western Europe controlled 85% of the world, colonial domination was achieved not only with military power, but through academia. When colonial powers took over another nation, they brought their naturalists, archaeologists and social scientists along to take control of the world’s understanding of that place, its people and its environment. Museums were used as repositories for the man-made and natural relics of conquered lands (which were rarely acquired ethically), and were used to communicate the westerners’ interpretation of those exotic foreign places (or even defend the colonial agenda). In the case of natural history specimens, dioramas incorporating taxidermy mounts portrayed the countries where the skins were obtained as idealized edens unspoiled by human activity.
By the 1960s, however, the backlash against colonially-associated museum collections was in full force. Anthropologists in particular largely disassociated themselves from ethnographic collections, moving their field deep into the theoretical realm. Legislation like NAGPRA codified the idea that western academics do not have sole ownership over the description or interpretation of world cultures. But while NAGPRA and similar legislation renegotiate the ownership of artifacts that are universally agreed to be valuable, colonial-era biological specimens have often been destroyed outright. For instance, in 1960 the Saffron Walden Museum in Essex burned over 200 taxidermy pieces that were considered not in keeping with the museum’s revised mission.
Still, there is one part of museum collections that seems to have slipped past the postcolonial watchdogs unnoticed. I have never seen any consideration of the colonial legacy of fossil collections, and I’m not sure why that should be. Many of our most celebrated paleontological specimens were uncovered during the colonial era, or under other unfortunate historical circumstances (Marsh dinosaurs, disputed American Indian territory, and western expansion…perhaps I will try to cover this in depth later).
One obvious example to pick on is the Giraffatitan (Brachiosaurus brancai for purists) on display at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde. The skeleton was assembled from the fossils of at least three Giraffatitan individuals uncovered by a team led by German paleontologist Werner Janensch between 1909 and 1912 in the Tendaguru formation of German East Africa. German East Africa was, of course, a German colony between 1885 and 1919, when it was broken up among Britain and Belgium under the Treaty of Versailles. The bulk of the former German colony became mainland Tanzania in 1961, although it also included parts of modern Burundi and Rwanda. In short, the Giraffatitan was acquired during the German occupation of Tanzania and, following the logic applied to other colonial period artifacts, the museum’s retention of the fossils makes it complacent with the colonial agenda.
The question then becomes, why should a German museum have the right to hold and display these fossils? The Giraffatitan skeleton is part of the natural history of Tanzania, so shouldn’t the Tanzanian people be able to enjoy and learn from their natural heritage without traveling to another continent? If the Museum fur Naturkunde no longer approves of Germany’s past imperial occupation of east Africa (and it assuredly does not), then why should it retain specimens collected in Tanzania without local consent or fair exchange (this is an assumption on my part, anyone who knows better please let me know)?
A counterpoint might be that the German museum is better equipped to preserve and maintain these one-of-a-kind fossils than any comparative facility in Tanzania. Having visited most of the major museums in Tanzania, I can say this is probably true. Vertebrate fossils are, after all, extremely rare and priceless specimens that we only get one chance at preserving. It is sensible to want them to get the very best treatment possible (even if limited resources in sub-Saharan Africa can also be attributed to colonial history). Additionally, the Giraffatitan fossils differ from anthropological artifacts in that they are 150 million years old and have no local cultural significance that I am aware of. I hate to bring it up because I am truly sick of the endless debate over the Elgin Marbles, but this is essentially the same situation: local right to one’s own heritage versus the best possible safekeeping.
Should fossils be considered a part of local heritage? Based on the effectively universal support from paleontologists for the Mongolian government when an poached Tarbosaurus skeleton turned up for auction earlier this year, I would assume that relevant experts would think so, and do their part to ensure that nations worldwide have ownership over their fossil treasures. However, a claim can also be made that fossils are far too old to be linked to any particular culture, and instead belong to the world equally. And the best way to share them with the world? Put the fossils where the researchers are, so that knowledge about them can be shared.
Personally, I don’t have a well-formed opinion on what to do with fossils with colonial legacies. What is more interesting to me is why fossil collections have been largely immune to the infighting and legislation that has plagued other collections with problematic histories. Are they less clearly associated with particular nations or cultures than human artifacts or even modern animals? Are there too few vertebrate fossil specimens to matter? Do too few people care about paleontology?
Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Dias, N. 2001. “Does Anthropology Need Museums? Teaching Ethnographic Museology in Portugal Thirty Years Later.” In Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.
Poliquin, R. 2008. “The Matter and Meaning of Museum Taxidermy.” Museum and Society 6(2) 123-134.