Published on November 16th, 2020 | by Elsa Panciroli


Episode 117: Decolonising Palaeontology

Lack of diversity is one of the major issues in the sciences in recent times. We’ve discussed diversity in palaeontology in previous podcasts, but in this episode Elsa Panciroli takes a look at the legacy of racism and colonialism in palaeontology and museum collections, and what efforts are being made to address these issues.

Colonial attitudes towards people of non-European descent have meant that their natural heritage was often plundered and sent back to Europe and the United States to fill museum shelves. Researchers continue to benefit from these resources. How should we change our scientific practice to recognise this legacy and avoid making the same mistakes now and in the future?

In the first part of the episode, Elsa speaks to Christa Kuljian, a historian of science and author of Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins, based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She’ll examine the legacy of racism in science, focusing on palaeoanthropology in South Africa, including figures like Robert Broom and Raymond Dart. We’ll hear how attitudes toward the concept of race shaped the research and conclusions of past generations of scientists.

In the second part, Rob Theodore, Exhibitions and Displays Coordinator at the Sedgewick Museum in England, talks about the legacy of colonialism in museum collections. We’ll find out about the ways in which specimens were collected in the past, and how this was related to contemporary events and attitudes. We’ll also find out what moves being taken to decolonise museums and refocus public outreach to recognise the past and move positively into the future.

Christa Kuljian is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa and a Research Associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the author of two books, Sanctuary (Jacana Media 2013) and Darwin’s Hunch (Jacana Media 2016). Christa is also a Fellow with the Consortium on the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) in Philadelphia, USA working on a new book about a network of women scientists in the Boston area in the 1970s and 80s.
It was Christa’s studies with palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould for her BA in the History of Science at Harvard (1984) that provided inspiration for Darwin’s Hunch. There is broad agreement in the scientific world today that all humans share common origins in Africa, but when Charles Darwin first suggested it in 1871, few European scientists took his theory seriously.  The book explores how scientists are often shaped by their social and political context, and tells the stories of scientists who were influenced greatly by colonial thinking in the search for human origins.  The book reviews the history of palaeoanthropology and genetics over the past century including recent genetic research confirming that all living humans have common origins in Africa.
Rob TheodoreRob Theodore is the Exhibitions and Displays Coodinator at the Sedgewick Museum, Cambridge, UK.
The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge. Opened in 1904, it includes specimens collected by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the 1800s. It is used for research and teaching as well as being open to the public.
Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) was the first person to begin serious acquisition of new specimens for the museum.
Among the collections are objects collected from former British colonies, particularly geological specimens.
Duria Antiquior by Henry de la Beche
Duria Antiquior, a more ancient Dorset, was painted by English geologist Henry de la Beche (1796-1855) to raise funds for Mary Anning (1799-1847), and is now part of the collection at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. De la Beche was also a slave-owner in Jamaica – it is connections like this between museum objects and the history of slavery and colonialism that are explored during the process of decolonisation of museum collections.

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