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The political platypus & colonial koala:

The Political Platypus And The Colonial Koala – How To Decolonise The Way We Talk About Australian Animals, Natural Sciences Collections Association, June 2021

Presented by Jack Ashby, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.


Decolonisation is about breaking down systemic hierarchies, where European narratives have been considered superior to any others. In this talk, I will be asking whether this can be applied to the way we talk about Australian mammals.

My argument is that the ways in which museums and other sources represent Australian animals today are often fundamentally pejorative, and reflect an ongoing subconscious colonial bias. This attitude begins with the colonists and explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries, but remains detectable in the ways that Australian wildlife is interpreted today, in museums, TV programmes and in the popular zeitgeist. This may sound extreme, but I will be asking whether the zoological and socio-historical stories of marsupials, platypuses and echidnas may intertwine to have severe impact on global politics.

I will explore some common tropes for how Australia’s wildlife appears in our museums, and propose language and narratives to avoid perpetuating colonial narratives in museum interpretation.

About the author

Jack Ashby is the Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. He is author of the book Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects, which explores what we can learn about the incredible mechanisms behind life on earth from specimens in museums; as well as discussing how natural museums present a potentially unnatural view of nature. A key area of interest is the biases that are detected in how animals are popularly represented, particularly in museums. He regularly undertakes fieldwork on the ecology of Australian mammals. Jack sits on the Committee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association and the Council of the Society for the History of Natural History and is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London. [email protected] / @JackDAshby

Presented in the second session of the ‘Decolonising Natural Science Collections’ NatSCA online conference19 November 2020.