Hidden Hands in Colonial Natural Histories

Historians of science have been increasingly interested in unacknowledged contributions tonatural history, as well as other forms of scientific enquiry. These trends have included a focus on women’s work and the work of assistants and on “go-betweens” or cultural brokers, including in colonial settings. There has also been a wave of interest among scholars in using natural historical sources like pressed plants in herbaria to reconstruct past environments. At the same time, institutions holding natural history collections made during the colonial period have begun to explore new approaches to their collections. These include repatriation and digitization, renaming images and artefacts after their creators rather than their collectors, incorporating Indigenous or local names in catalogs, inviting communities from the origin places of collections to visit and add their insights to collections and displays and collaborating with contemporary artists and scholars to respond to their collections. This working group promotes the sharing and dissemination of research projects or initiatives undertaken within universities, museums
or libraries, to other institutions that hold natural history collections and with the wider scholarly and community. The focus is on the period 1750-1850, an age in which revolution, industrialization and global empires brought radical changes in human interaction with the natural world. The working group will discuss how to share ideas with other institutions interested in reconceptualizing their collections and scholars working with these collections. It grows out of a SSHRC-funded project based at McGill University entitled “Hidden hands in Colonial Natural Histories” (2022-2025) and aims to expand this project to include scholars around the world working on similar topics. The group includes scholars at a range of career stages and from different disciplinary backgrounds.

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Upcoming Meetings

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Group Conveners

  • Victoria Dickenson

    Victoria Dickenson PhD FCMA FLS is Professor of Practice, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill Library. She has a PhD in the history of science (Carleton 1995) and has published extensively in the history of natural history. A former museum curator and director, she also writes in the areas of museum studies and material culture. Since 2017, Dickenson has been Principal Investigator on three research projects funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and based on materials held at the Blacker Wood Natural History Collection, founded by Casey Wood.


  • Ranee Om Prakash


  • Anna Winterbottom

    Anna Winterbottom works on the history of medicine, science, and environment with a focus on the early modern Indian Ocean region and the European colonial presence there. She is the author of Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World (2016) and co-editor of Histories of Medicine in the Indian Ocean World (2015), The East India Company and the Natural World (2014), and Women, Environment and Networks of Empire (2023). Anna is a Research Associate at McGill University, where she is currently working on the collaborative project "Hidden hands in colonial natural histories."


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