The politics of conservation: outline

How do natural history museums contribute to biodiversity and species conservation outside the museum?

The conservation of species and more broadly, the protection of biodiversity, are core objectives for natural history museums, governments, NGOs and local initiatives. Although these actors agree that the catastrophic loss of biodiversity requires interventions, their approaches and politics radically diverge. Some focus on the legal recognition and political strengthening of (trans)local communities in order to, among other things, fight polluters and enforce (or, where necessary, challenge) the rule of law. More powerful institutions and organisations, however, concentrate on the creation, support and management of protected areas, pursuing a model that critics have termed “fortress conservation”. The approaches and their respective stakeholders then not only differ but come into conflict as evidenced by the recent state-led violence against Maasai people living on lands earmarked for the development of a national park in Northern Tanzania.[1]
The apparent virtue of the project to save nature through protected areas can foreclose a critical examination of not only the means by which nature conservation is pursued but also the object of ‘nature conservation’ itself. The catastrophic destruction of environments and forms of life certainly require urgent and drastic responses. Yet at the same time, these responses have to encompass critical questions about what modes of destruction continue or indeed emerge in current conservation efforts.

In natural history museums “conservation” forms a political, epistemic and practical field of action: Most natural history museums would regard nature conservation as part of their overall mission. Their holdings are both instrument for and product of biodiversity sciences, a range of disciplines dedicated to whole-organism biology and the management and conservation of the world’s species. And nowhere else is “conservation” such a professionalized and scientific practice than in museum collections where curators, technicians and conservators grapple with decay and damage on a daily basis. Thus, natural history collections represent a productive site for enquiring into the politics of conservation: many of their specimens and objects were appropriated in colonial contexts, while the very idea of protected areas historically emerged in conjunction with (and to serve) the hunting and “collecting” activities of colonial officers and naturalists. Also, natural history museums are, through their public exhibitions, powerful advocates of an image of nature devoid of people and human-environment interactions – an image that pitches people against nature, normalizing the removal of people as a necessary step to conserving nature. And lastly, research museums, which engage in biodiversity research, build scientific infrastructures and partake in biodiversity policy development, form part of a global institutionalized conservation landscape “in which science and governance operate to control a relation with a nature that is defined by its capital value.” (Green 2014)



Green, Lesley. 2014. ‘Ecology, Race, and the Making of Environmental Publics: A Dialogue with Silent Spring in South Africa’. Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 1 (2).

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