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Now academic says natural history museums are ‘sexist’

Museum collections (stock image of the Natural History Museum) are dominated by male animals with their flashy antlers and feathers

They may seem like a harmless place to take the children at the weekend to learn about whales and dinosaurs.

But natural history museums are sexist and colonialist, according to an academic at University College London.

Museum collections are dominated by male animals with their flashy antlers and feathers, leaving females, often described as’ mothers’, in the minority.

Meanwhile, according to Jack Ashby at UCL, the displays are dominated by animals from countries formerly part of the British Empire, such as India and Australia.

The manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL believes there are human ‘biases’ in the way nature is represented.

He said: ‘Historically, in many cases, particularly where males and females were different, and males had big horns, antlers, tusks or particularly showy plumage like a peacock, this created a bias in what was collected.’

Australian species dwarf those from China in British museums, he said, adding: ‘Collecting is part of the act of colonialism.’

The museum manager spoke out following a University of Manchester study which found one museum’s mammal collection was 71 per cent male and 29 per cent female. Two-thirds of birds in the same institution were male.

But his comments have been challenged by Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham, who said: ‘Sexism and colonialism are in the eye of the beholder. It has become too fashionable to search these out wherever there might be some hint of a difference.

‘I suspect males are over-represented because they are less intelligent and more likely to get caught. When it comes to colonialism, these were the countries most often explored. Why attempt to create a problem where there is none?’

Mr Ashby said he is not critical of museums, while noting that the large blue whale skeleton newly installed in London’s Natural History Museum is female (SUBS – PLS KEEP). He said: ‘There are 1.5 million species described in the natural world and you can’t have one of everything on display. I just want to describe that museums are a product of their own history.’

An academic at University College London (pictured) said natural history museums are sexist and colonialist

An academic at University College London (pictured) said natural history museums are sexist and colonialist

But the bias in how we talk about animals is a subject in his book Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects.

Writing on the website The Conversation, he references the Manchester University study showing that female animals are usually described as ‘mothers’, while the males are discussed as hunters or in a role separate to parenthood.

His article states: ‘We have to wonder what messages this might give museum visitors about the role of the female.’

Museums have lots more big animals and creatures with backbones than nature does, Mr Ashby notes, while people do not like ‘gross’ specimens such as the Grant Museum’s bisected cat.

He discusses ‘political motivation’ to increase knowledge of animals from particular countries.

The academic concludes: ‘Museums are rightly celebrated as places of wonder and curiosity, and also science and learning. But if we look closely we can see that there are human biases in the way nature is represented. The vast majority of these are harmless foibles, but not all.’