Collection Ecologies

Collection Ecologies intersects history and philosophy of science with the history of natural historical and medical collections, and environmental history. The concept of ecology offers new pathways into the history of collections, both to understand how collections can serve as archives and knowledge repositories in the history of the environment, but also by developing a reflection on collections as ecologies themselves. Reflecting on collections as ecologies in themselves enables the group to open up disciplinary boundaries in order to reassess the value, stabilization, transfer, loss, and transformational potential of bio-cultural collections to create new transdisciplinary methodologies. The sessions will consider the following questions as a starting point  - but not limited to this list-such as: how are museums, collections and affiliated infrastructures reimaging and configuring environments – virtually, digitally, and physically? What tensions arise from collecting, displaying, and reconstructing natural things that have shaped and continued to shape environments? Reversely, how have conceptions of the environment shaped the reconstruction of the natural things ex-situ, in museums? How can we think together about how materiality and practices intertwine and impact knowledge in times of environmental change?

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Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • June 13, 2024

    Katherine Arnold, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, LMU München 

    Title: The Will of Welwitsch: Collections as the Object of a Transnational Legal Battle
    Along the Atlantic coast of Namibia and Angola lies the Namib desert. Reported to mean ‘vast place’ and ‘an area where there is nothing’ in Khoekhoegowab, it contains some of the world’s driest regions and has been considered the oldest desert in the world. Amongst the Namib’s characteristic sand dunes, Austrian collector Friedrich Welwitsch became the first European to formally describe what would become one of the most famous plants ‘discovered’ in the nineteenth century - the Welwitschia mirabilis (Tumboa, n’tumbo [Angolan]). Welwitsch was so overwhelmed at first sight of the plant that he ‘could do nothing but kneel down […] and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination’.[1] The ‘discovery’ of Welwitschia made Welwitsch an overnight celebrity; European and colonial gardens vied for information and specimens from his unique Angolan collections. When he died in 1872, his will – written only two days before his death – threw European botany into chaos.
    This paper will discuss the legal battle which ensued as a result of Welwitsch’s will, demonstrating how far European botanists would go to safeguard their power over the production of knowledge about plants and colonial environments. Though the will stated that a full set of his collections be left to the British Museum (Natural History), the expedition had been formally sponsored by the Portuguese government to investigate their colony of Angola. The King of Portugal (upon realizing their scientific value) brought a lawsuit against the British Museum in the English High Court. This became tangled by further extraneous animosities between the British Museum and Kew Gardens, as Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker eventually represented the Portuguese government’s side of the battle against the British Museum. This raises questions about what it meant to ‘own’ a collection, contributing to present debates about ownership in museums. This paper thus offers fascinating insights into what it meant to ‘control’ knowledge and the different actors and institutions who had a stake in that power in the nineteenth century.

  • May 9, 2024

    Archiving Mollusks, Articulating Difference: Mollusks as Scientific Objects in Studies of Human Difference

    Brooke Penaloza-Patzak, Marie Jahoda Fellow, Inst. for Economic & Social History, University of Vienna
    Tamara Fernando, Assistant Professor, Stony Brook University

    Abstract : Mollusks and their traces—fossil, food, refuse, commodity or bijouterie—are found from the heights of Prebético to the depths of the Gulf of Mannar, from the rivers of Unalaska to Hispaniola’s Bloodwood branches and nearly everywhere in between. The history of mollusk-based research intertwines environmental spaces, geologic eras, forms of knowledge, and ways of knowing. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this strand of research also became deeply imbricated in studies of human development. This paper looks at how William Healey Dall (1845-1927) and James Hornell (1865-1949), naturalists from two consecutive generations working for unrelated extractive colonial ventures in dramatically different environs, brought natural history practices and frameworks used to study mollusk anatomy, distribution, classification, and development to bear on questions of human origin and cultural development. In both cases, colonial projects awakened by commercial and political interest in specific environs produced opportune circumstances for scientists enlisted to survey and monitor natural resources to turn their attention to human culture and development. Interweaving methods and considerations from the history of science, environmental studies, and museum anthropology, we take Dall’s Strait-based research and Hornell’s undertaken in the Gulf of Mannar as points of entry to discuss how and why specimen-based research facilitated the transfer of theories and practices between what we now consider the natural and human sciences, ethnology in particular, and how these and others projects like them endeavored to legitimize “expert” as opposed to indigenous knowledge about indigenous life and the material matter of the sea.


  • April 11, 2024

    Please note the time change for this session!
    Reevaluating Insects as Archives – Collection Ecologies as Multidisciplinary and Multipractice Conversation
    Dominik Huenniger, German Port Museum, Hamburg
    Karina Lucas Silva-Brandão, Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change
    Christian Reiß, Regensburg University
    Xiaoya Zhan, Nanyang Technological University

    Historically marginalized beings gain significance when networks of relations are redrawn through ecological sciences. These sciences are typically seen as working in or on “the field,” but natural history collections are used increasingly by scholars to readdress ecological questions. Natural history collections, understood as environments themselves, foreground both the materiality of specimens and the knowledges extracted from them in an ongoing discourse about the norms of scientific practices. Insects reevaluated as archives foreground possible sites of multidisciplinary research, with multifaceted potential for the history of science. With different disciplinary approaches to the study of small animals and the production of collections, history of science, archaeology, environmental history, and natural history are brought into conversation a forum on “Collection Ecologies” published in a Focus Section of Isis -  A Journal of the History of Science Society in March 2024. The participants of this exchange about collections as a web of relationships entailing regimes of value, epistemes of logistics, and bureaucratic and scientific practices explore how multidisciplinary knowledge of “natural” bodies can be formed around insect collections.  For the Collecion Ecologies CHSTM Working Group meeting they share their experience in collaborating on this forum.

  • March 14, 2024

    "Captivity's Collections: Science, Natural History, and the British Transatlantic Slave Trade." 
    Kathleen S. Murphy, Professor of History and Associate Dean for Student Success, California Polytechnic State University.
    Cashews from Africa's Gold Coast, butterflies from Sierra Leone, jalap root from Veracruz, shells from Jamaica—in the eighteenth century, these specimens from faraway corners of the Atlantic were tucked away onboard inhumane British slaving vessels. Kathleen S. Murphy argues that the era's explosion of new natural knowledge was deeply connected to the circulation of individuals, objects, and ideas through the networks of the British transatlantic slave trade. Plants, seeds, preserved animals and insects, and other specimens were gathered by British slave ship surgeons, mariners, and traders at slaving factories in West Africa, in ports where captive Africans disembarked, and near the British South Sea Company's trading factories in Spanish America. The specimens were displayed in British museums and herbaria, depicted in published natural histories, and discussed in the halls of scientific societies. Grounded in extensive archival research on both sides of the Atlantic, Captivity's Collections mines scientific treatises, slaving companies' records, naturalists' correspondence, and museum catalogs to recover in rich detail the scope of the slave trade's collecting operations. The book reveals the scientific and natural historical profit derived from these activities and the crucial role of specimens gathered along the routes of the slave trade on emerging ideas in natural history.

  • February 8, 2024

    Building an Inclusive Botany: The “Radicle” Dream
    Makenzie E. Mabry, Nuala Caomhanach,  R. Shawn Abrahams, Michelle L. Gaynor, Kasey Khanh Pham, Tanisha M. Williams, Kathleen S. Murphy, Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, Douglas E. Soltis, and Pamela S. Soltis
    During the session the authors of the paper will discuss how this collaboration emerged, the goals for the paper, and share their experiences working across disciplinary fields as botanists and historians of botany. 
    It is important to recognize how our current understanding of plants has been shaped by diverse cultural contexts, as this underscores the importance of valuing and incorporating contributions from all knowledge systems in scientific pursuits. This approach emphasizes the ongoing bias, including within scientific practices, and the necessity of discussing problematic histories within spaces of learning. It is crucial to acknowledge and address biases, even within scientific endeavors. Doing so fosters a more inclusive and equitable scientific community. This article, while not comprehensive, serves as a starting point for conversation and an introduction to current work on these topics. In response to a global dialog about systemic racism, ongoing inequalities, appeals to decolonize science, and the many recent calls for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, we draw on the narratives of plants to revisit the history of botany. Our goal is to uncover how exclusionary practices have functioned in the past and persist today. We also explore the numerous opportunities and challenges that arise in the era of information as we strive to establish a more inclusive field of botany. This approach recognizes and honors the contributions of historically marginalized groups, such as Black and Indigenous communities. We hope that this article can serve as a catalyst for raising awareness, fostering contemplation, and driving action toward a more equitable and just scientific community.

  • December 14, 2023

    "Cameroon in Berlin. A collaborative assessment of collections and archives from the mammal collections in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin"
    with Paul Taku Bisong, MSc in Evolution, Ecology and Systematics from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany, with a dissertation entitled "The Batanga Expedition in German 'Kamerun' (1887): The Role of the first 'Kolonialzoologe' Bernhard Weissenborn." He is the author of an assessment on the type material from "Kamerun" in the mammal collection of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
    and Catarina Madruga, postdoc researcher working on provenance research methods specific to colonial natural history collections; the connections between epistemologies of nature and the history of environment, empire, and zoological collections; and the political meanings of scientific localities in zoological catalogues and online repositories. 
    Cameroon in Berlin is a case study for the development of decolonial methods to assess information on natural history collections, their associated collection management systems, archival materials and library resources. Instead of looking at a particular animal genus or species, or of taking a biographical approach, we used the colonial political unit of German “Kamerun” as the entry point to assess the collections in the mammal department, I - Collections, and the historical archive, II - Archives, of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (MfN).
    Cameroon in Berlin I. Collections is the report by Paul Taku Bisong detailing the work of the assessment of the specimens in the mammal collections of the MfN that were tagged in the digital databank as both with having information under the category “type status” and with reference of geographical collecting location as “Kamerun.” The available databank information was checked and enhanced with use of the manuscript accession catalogue, remaining inscriptions and labels, and other available publications and historical documentation. The result is a list of 91 specimens, with enhanced metadata, of different 31 described mammal species.
    The 12 valid and available type-specimens were published in open access, with a discussion of the relevance of this work:
    Cameroon in Berlin II. Archives, lists the thus-far identified archival materials relating to the historical collections of the Zoological Museum of Berlin, with reference to manuscript catalogues and inventories, of type-localities and of suppliers involved in the shipment of specimens from the territories of German "Kamerun." To complement this, we added a list of identified suppliers and of the localities of shipments that were identified as including type-specimens. In order to be able to discuss real “access” to these documents, we describe and de-codify as much as possible of the underlying contexts of extraction, display, and management of zoological collections. We hope other researchers will find this provisional assessment of the materials useful, especially those interested in the dislocation of people and nature from the geographical collecting to this particular configuration of Cameroon in Berlin.

  • November 9, 2023

    “Field/Work in the Archive: Herbaria as Sites of Cultural Exchange”
    with Martha Fleming
    Museologist, historian of science and of collections, Associate Professor, Natural History Museum of Denmark
    Abstract: Martha Fleming will discuss the aims, research methods, and preliminary findings of the project of the same title for which she is the Principal Investigator.  Field/Work investigates the global cultural historical value of elements of the dried plant collection of 'Herbarium C' -- the Danish national herbarium held at the Natural History Museum of Denmark.  Significant elements of the collection are colonial in nature, and the project thus aims to conjoin history of science, history of collections, collections-based research, and global and colonial histories.
    Bio: Martha Fleming is a museologist, an historian of collections, and an historian of science with a particular focus on natural historical and correlative scientific collections and archives. Her current research investigates the creation and management of natural history collections as significant forms of knowledge producing practices embedded in globalised colonial contexts.  Fleming was instrumental in the creation of the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at London’s Natural History Museum (2009-2011), a research centre that has since been held up as a model internationally for the productive integration of the methods and rigour of humanities and social science disciplines into life science research contexts.

  • October 12, 2023

    Conveners’ introduction : “Introducing the Collection Ecologies Working Group”
    with Catarina Madruga
    Historian of zoological collections Centre for Humanities of Nature, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin
    Nuala  P. Caomhanach
    Historian of  science, evolutionary biologist and doctoral candidate, New York University & American Museum of Natural History
    Déborah Dubald
    Historian of science and health, lecturer at the University of Strasbourg
    Dominik Hünniger
    Historian of museums, natural history and the environment, curator for innovation research, German Port Museum Hamburg

    Abstract: This session will introduce the aims and methods of the Collection Ecologies collective so far. Following a brief presentation by Dominik Hünniger, founder of the collective, any member of the working group will be invited to present an image, an object or a collection and how it resonates with the “Collection Ecologies”.
    Note : please bring an object, image or a collection for a 2 minute presentation!

Group Conveners

  • ncaomhanach's picture

    Nuala Caomhanach

    Nuala Caomhánach is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of History at New York University and the Invertebrate Zoology Department at the American Museum of Natural History. Her dissertation examines the relationship between scientific knowledge, climate change, and conservation law in Madagascar. She illuminates how changes in the botanical sciences of ecology and phylogenetics have affected conservation ideology, policy, and practice. She is a contributing editor at the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog both inviting and editing article submissions, and writing blog posts. She contributes to the Journal of the History of Ideas's Broadly Speaking Series. She co-produces the Not That Kind of Doctor podcast with Dr. Grace East. The podcast invites PhD students and early career scholars to discuss their research in an informal manner.


  • ddubald's picture

    Deborah Dubald

    Déborah Dubald is a Lecturer in the History of science and health at the University of Strasbourg, with a specialty in the history of material cultures of nature, science and health.
    She holds a PhD in History from the European University Institute in Florence (2019), entitled “Capital Nature: a History of French Municipal Museums of Natural History, 1795-1870”, ( for which she won the James Kaye Memorial Prize in 2020.
    She is a member of the CollectionEcologies collective, with whom she examines relations between history of collections, material cultures of nature and science, and environmental history.
    She recently co-edited with Catarina Madruga (Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin) a special issue for the Journal of History of Knowledge It was published at the end of 2022 and is entitled “Situated Nature: Field collecting and local knowledge in the nineteenth century” (
    Her current research is split between the writing of her first book on the French natural history museums in 19th century France, and a new project on the uses of medical collections, especially human remains but not exclusively, in academic (research and teaching) practices from 19th to 21st century.


  • CatMadruga's picture

    Catarina Madruga

    Postdoc researcher on the project "Colonial Provenances of Nature. The expansion of the mammal collection at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin,  around 1900" funded by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation), and hosted at the Humanities for Nature Department at the Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung, Berlin.

    Historian of Science and Empire & self-proclaimed Museum-Person, 
    Catarina Madruga defended her PhD in the University of Lisbon titled "Taxonomy & Empire. Zoogeographical knowledge on Portuguese Africa, 1862-1881" in 2020.
    Her research for the last decade focused on the zoological collections shipped from African territories and studied in the Lisbon Zoological Museum of the Escola Politécnica de Lisboa, under the direction of José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage (1823-1907), and on the study of Bocage's correspondence and scientific networks. She has previous training in Museum Studies and experience in Exhibition Design and Museum Education.  


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