Colonialism today? What does that have to do with me?

Post-colonial approaches to knowledge transfer in a natural history museum

In this project, 7th grade students of a Viennese secondary school analyse the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHM Vienna)’s collection and exhibitions, and their connections with colonialism. Although the Austro-Hungarian Empire never attained the status of a colonial power, the acquisition of natural history exhibits on display in Austria today took place in times of colonialism, and in colonized territories. In recent years, scientists at the NHM Vienna have increasingly researched the question of the colonial origin of their own collection. The aim of this Sparkling Science project is to investigate - together with pupils – the links between colonial contexts and current issues, for example biodiversity or global inequality, and how they are communicated at the NHM Vienna. As an example of investigation, the students reflect on the current Brazil exhibition of the NHM Vienna. In this first part of the project, they investigate Brazil's colonial past, its effects on Brazilian society today and visit the Brazil exhibition repeatedly to collect and analyse their impressions together with the project scientists.

Building on these reflections, the second part of the project is dedicated to the interactive possibilities to convey colonial contexts of a natural history exhibition in the museum. In this context, the students are asked to develop their own educational possibilities for the Brazil exhibition at Deck 50 - the open innovation and experimentation space of the NHM Vienna. The key question for the students and the scientific project team is, what are the colonial contexts of a museum’s collection, and how can they be communicated critically and in an interactive manner in a natural science museum? For this purpose, a variety of research and survey steps will be undertaken together with the students. Afterwards, the results will be presented in the form of an exhibition format.

In this way, the project contributes to the further development of exhibition practice and to the development of formats of knowledge transfer in the NHM Vienna in connection with coloniality. Through the sociological research attributes of the project, the project researchers also hope to gain new insights into citizen science processes and cultural participation.

(Photocredit © Christina Rittmannsperger)