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Uncovering the Hidden Stories of Natural History Collections

20 January 2023

Taxidermy at the Great North Museum: Hancock

In July 2022, recent Archaeology graduate Anna Robson undertook a summer internship with the Great North Museum: Hancock to uncover some of the hidden histories of the taxidermy on display in the museum's Living Planet Gallery.

Little is known about how many of the stuffed animals on display came into the museum’s collections. The internship aimed to contribute towards efforts to uncover the museum’s taxidermy and wider natural history collections’ connections to colonialism, hunting, and the early origins of conservation. With extensive research into the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s archives and correspondence with the present-day Australia Museum in New South Wales, Anna compiled detailed object biographies of three specimens in the collection: the Red-Necked Wallaby, Crested Porcupine, and Aardvark.

Contextualising Natural History Collections

 Dr David Hope, Lecturer in Eighteenth Century British History, said: “Anna’s research has provided a fascinating insight into the varied journeys that these once living animals took before arriving in the museum’s collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from travelling menageries and imperial hunting expeditions to donations of specimens from colonial institutions. I am excited to share her findings with the students studying our undergraduate module on global environmental history to encourage deeper reflection on the environmental impacts of European colonialism and the troubling histories behind the creation of natural history collections.”

Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology at the GNM: Hancock, said “Anna’s work has broadened our understanding of history and context of our Natural History collections, and her research has opened up a number of interesting new lines of enquiry which I’m excited to explore further. It’s a really helpful contribution towards our goal of decolonising the museum and its collections.”

Anna’s research has provided a fascinating insight into the varied journeys that these once living animals took before arriving in the museum’s collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Dr David Hope

Doing a Research Internship

Reflecting on the summer internship, Anna said: “This internship was such an amazing experience that I was very fortunate to be awarded after graduating from my BA in Archaeology. It involved archive visits, museum store detective work, independent research, communication with museums around the world, and allowed me to develop my ability to design and create outreach sources which will help me in my future career in Museum Outreach. I was even invited to present my findings to the Society of the Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. Since finishing the internship, I have been asked to assist in the Decolonisation and History and Science Outreach work at the GNM on a long-term volunteering basis in which they will be using some of the resources I created to develop a new educational plan. I would like to thank all the staff at the GNM who helped me in my research and Dr David Hope for his help and guidance throughout.”

It is hoped that future student internships and research projects will continue to uncover the hidden lives of the museum’s taxidermy collections and contribute to Newcastle University’s aspirational values of historical and environmental justice.

You can read more about Anna's findings on Tyne & Wear Archives & Museum's public blog in her post on ‘Change and Exchange in Newcastle: Uncovering Hidden Truths in the Natural History Collection’.


Anna's internship was funded by Newcastle University's JobsOC scheme and the School of History, Classics & Archaeology. The internship was supervised by Dr David Hope, Dan Gordon, and the GNM's Learning & Engagement Team.