Thinking with Birds

My first journal article has just been published and allows interested readers to learn more about Mary Elizabeth Barber, the first woman ornithologist in South Africa and her contributions to ornithology. At the same time, I argue, she supported sexual selection as she saw it as a liberating theory for her sex. At the same time, she developed a feminist ornithology and through descriptions and depictions of birds advocated for gender equality.

Thinking with Birds: Mary Elizabeth Barber’s Advocacy for Gender Equality in Ornithology, Kronos: Southern African Histories 41:1 (2015), 85-111.

The Politics of Nature and Science in Southern Africa

I have co-organised an international workshop on ‘The Politics of Nature and Science in African History’ in 2014 (see conference report). My colleague and two senior experts have been editing a forthcoming collected volume that shall most likely be published in June.

Book summary: This book brings together recent and ongoing empirical studies to examine two relational kinds of politics, namely, the politics of nature, i.e. how nature conservation projects are sites on which power relations play out, and the politics of the scientific study of nature. These are discussed in their historical and present contexts, and at specific sites on which particular human-environment relations are forged or contested. This spatio-temporal juxtaposition is lacking in current research on political ecology while the politics of science appears marginal to critical scholarship on social nature. Specifically, the book examines power relations in nature-related activities, demonstrates conditions under which nature and science are politicised, and also accounts for political interests and struggles over nature in its various forms.

The ecological, socio-political and economic dimensions of nature cannot be ignored when dealing with present-day environmental issues. Nature conservation regulations are concerned with the management of flora and fauna as much as with humans. Various chapters in the book pay attention to the ways in which nature, science and politics are interrelated and also co-constitutive of each other. They highlight that power relations are naturalised through science and science-related institutions and projects such as museums, botanical gardens, wetlands, parks and nature reserves.cover

Editors: Maano Ramutsindela, Professor of Environmental & Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Giorgio Miescher, Carl Schlettwein Research Chair of Namibian and Southern African Studies at the Centre for African Studies, University of Basel, Switzerland.

Melanie Boehi, history PhD student at the Basel Graduate School of History and Centre for African Studies Basel, University of Basel, Switzerland.

My chapter is entitled: “Racial Difference in Mary Elizabeth Barber’s Knowledge on Insects”. I will post a summary here once the book is out.

You can pre-oder the book. 

Rereading Patrick Harries

Announcement of a new publication I contributed to:  Cover_Reading_Patrick_Harries_small_afa2ac0bcd

“This collection of essays documents the growth of African history as a discipline at the University of Basel since 2001. It thus pays tribute to fourteen years of research and teaching by Patrick Harries at the Department of History and the Centre for African Studies Basel. The Festschrift covers a broad range of topics from mine labour to missionary endeavour and the production of knowledge, reflecting some of his core research interests. The contributions engage with Patrick Harries’ oeuvre with reference to the authors’ own scholarship or vice-versa. Some directly address his publications while others take his teaching, correspondence, remarks or intellectual life more broadly as a point of reference. They all pay tribute to a brilliant and inspiring scholar, a great teacher and a kind person.” (Back of the cover)

There will be a book launch in Paris on 8 July 2015.

  • Paperback: 98 pages
  • Publisher: Basler Afrika Bibliographien (12 Jun. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 3905758628
  • ISBN-13: 978-3905758627
  • Product Dimensions: 17 x 0.5 x 24.4 cm

Including Female Botanists

From the early 1840s Barber corresponded with Irish botanist William Henry Harvey (1811-1866), whose Genera of South African Plants (1838) had attracted her attention. He said he had written the book for his “lady-friends” whom he hoped he would encourage to indiscriminately collect “every plant of every neighbourhood” (Harvey 1868: 9, 11). Barber did not want to be seen as a female amateur collector and made sure he’d take her seriously and did correspond with him for a year not revealing that she was a woman. Harvey addressed her as M. Bowker Esq. (Cohen 2000: 189) and Barber made sure he had to rely on her even after knowing she was a woman. Over the years she sent him more than 1,000 specimens.

Her material was transformed by Harvey, his employees and volunteers (see e.g. Fischer 1869:215) to herbarium sheets. Harvey cut passages from her letters out and glued them on the herbarium sheets. What seems a privilege can also have been discrimination due to her sex, as he most likely stored his male correspondents’ letters that were later lost.


Herbarium sheet of Brachystelma filiformis with Barber’s letter passage & Harvey’s lithograph (photographed by T.H., March 2013)

The material that remained in Dublin formed one per cent of the at least 100,000 specimens that Harvey added from 1844 to 1866 to Thomas Coulter’s collection that initiated the herbarium in 1840. Considering the Cape specimens, Barber and Bowker specimens make up approximately forty per cent. This shows how important Barber’s work was for Harvey’s career.

TCD contributed to the African Plant Initiative and scanned Barber’s type specimens as did several other institutions, too. If these specimens were open access, we could not only learn about South African plants, but also about Barber – and female botanists in general – who in the course of the privatisation of knowledge through JSTOR is hardly more visible than before.

At a time when women are absent in history of science and natural history museums and society pictures a man when hearing or reading the word scientist, it is important to see that there have always been female scientists, such as Barber. Nobel laureate Tim Hunt who at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul on 9 June 2015 advocated for sex-segregated labs as “the trouble with girls” is “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you citizen them, they cry!” and to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme said: “It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them. If they break into tears they you hold back form getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing except getting at the truth. And anything (that) gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”On the one hand, this shows how far away science is from gender equality and on the other, how scientists and a large majority of society still believe science is objective devoid of emotion and separate from culture. Female scientists such as Barber require much more visibility in public. JSTOR Global Plants misses a very good opportunity to make female botanists more visible to every person with internet access.


A. Cohen, Mary Elizabeth Barber: South Africa’s first lady natural historian, Archives of Natural History 27:2 (2000):187–208.

L. Fischer (ed.), Memoir of W. H. Harvey, Late Professor of Botany, Trinity College, With Selections from His Journal and Correspondence . Dublin/London 1869.

W. H. Harvey, The Genera of South African Plants According to the Natural System , 2nd edition by J. D. HOOKER (ed.), Cape Town 1868.

Decolonisation of Botany

Fragments allow for insights into a hierarchical “culture of collaboration” (Jacobs 2006: 569). Barber depended on African and Dutch expertise in her local knowledge network. While boundaries were strictly controlled, this did not prevent an interchange of information. Everyday practices testify that colonial botany was “the grounds for intimate as well as instrumentalist politics” (ibid: 599). The collected information from her local knowledge networks of Afrikaners, amaXhosa and KhoiSan was adapted to Western conventions and circulated in a cosmopolitan knowledge network. She ignored the cultural significance of plants and the circulation of informal plant knowledge in songs, poems, rituals and other forms. Her approach to nature was utilitarian and she formalized information to that would help her building a reputation as a naturalist. The information she forwarded in her cosmopolitan knowledge network was further negotiated, as the next blog post shows.

Barber’s type specimens at various institutions have been digitised as part of The African Plant Initiative that was initiated at the Association for the Taxonomic Study of the Flora of Tropical Africa meeting in Addis Ababa in September 2003 and funded by the American Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Herbaria worldwide were requested to scan their type specimens of African plants and to make them accessible for the interested public on the digital library ALUKA. This name derived from the Zulu word meaning ‘to weave’, which was chosen to reflect the “commitment to connect resources [in and about Africa] and scholars from around the world.” The open access platform consisted of three sections (African Plants, Cultural Heritage and Struggles for Freedom) and made visuals and textual sources in English, French and Portuguese available. African Plants consisted of “high resolution images of type specimens, photographs, drawings, handwritten field notes by Europeans and explorers such as David Livingstone, botanical art, and taxonomic and reference data” (Masinde and Rajan 2010: 88). The digitalization of letters started with the Directors’ Correspondence at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew London, thus reproducing the ‘colonial archive’, before making other historical sources from different parts of the world accessible.(1) In addition, its accompanying JSTOR Plants Blog focused on how Africans used plants for musical instruments and other cultural purposes while Western naturalists described them ‘scientifically’, thus strengthening the dichotomy between informal and formalized knowledge. (2)

In February 2007, ALUKA released its digital library in conjunction with the XVIII Congress of the Association for the Taxonomic Study of the Flora of Tropical Africa held in Youndé, Cameroon. In 2008, ALUKA became part of JSTOR, another project funded by the Mellon Foundation. The data available under African Plants on ALUKA – among them Barber’s and her relatives’ type specimens – became part of JSTOR Plant Science in 2008 and could be accessed by people at institutions with a JSTOR licence. Herbaria that had scanned their specimens were granted free access. In May 2013, JSTOR Plant Science was renamed JSTOR Global Plants. In the process, the African specimens that were first available to people interested in Africa, then to plant scientists, eventually became “global” and available to everyone interested in plants.  It is a prime example  for how interdisciplinary collaboration is required, as this project is a missed chance to create an archive that was also relevant for historians of botany not just botanists.

With the name change to JSTOR Global Plants the interface became less user-friendly and the access policy changed. JSTOR-clients could now only access miniatures of the high-resolution photographs. In October 2013, the 308 partner institutions in 75 countries that had scanned their specimens since 2003 received an email (as several botanists have told me). They were informed that the American Literary Association’s Choice magazine had named JSTOR Global Plants one of the Top 10 Resources in 2013. At the same time the email announced that their licence would expire within eighty days and that they had to pay a new annual licence fee. This fee goes up to $3,800.

JSTOR Global Plants allows researchers to locate information and offers enormous possibilities for botanists and historians of botany, but it restricts access to a limited amount of sources. It misses the chance to historicize the botanical knowledge production; it ‘re-colonizes’ botanical information and ‘re-silences’ historical actors in the former colonies. As such it strengthens the Great Divide between ‘the West and the Rest’. The decolonization of science takes time and this topic requires our attention.


(1) In general, botany seems to experience an Americanization, as the Index Herbariorum is based at the New York Botanical Garden, the Biodiversity Heritage Library that – similar to San Francisco based – allows open access to important botanical works in the history of natural history is based at the Smithsonian Institute Washington and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

(2) URL (accessed 7 November 2013): (no longer available).


N. Jacobs, The Intimate Politics of Ornithology in Colonial Africa, Comparative Studies in Society and History 48: 3 (2006): 564–603.

S. Masinde, R. S. Rajan, Aluka : Developing Digital Scholarly Collections From and About Africa, Africa Media Review 18 :1&2 (2010): 85–93.

Einen ähnlichen deutschen Blog-Eintrag habe ich am 24. November 2013 unter “Intransparent Privatisierung des Wissens” auf Zeitnah geschrieben.

Production of History in two Science/Natural History Museums

My archival research cannot be pursued on a Sunday, so I used this chance to see the Museum of the History of Science and the Natural History Museum in Oxford.

A striking feature in both museums is the absence of women. While there are 19 statues of “great men of science” such as Linneaus and Darwin in the hall of the Natural History Museum, there is only one bust of a female scientist, Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 and carried out her crystallographic research in the museum for more than two decades (A Wonderland of Natural History: A Souvenir Guide (2011), p. 13).


A boy sees that science is a “male sphere”

In the Museum of the History of Science, ‘the oldest surviving purpose-built museum building (completed in 1683)’ (Museum Guide & Plan), there is a collection of instruments. At times, it rather seems an exhibition of technology than science. Apart from the special exhibition Dear Harry… Henry Moseley – A Scientist Lost to War (14 May – 18 October) where his mother Amabel Moseley is mentioned several times, women are not an essential part of the exhibition either. I see that their exhibitions remain in a historic condition largely of the 19th century where objects were exhibited in glass cases, but the exhibition could remain in this fashion if only the problematic would be discussed. At a time when Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt’s sexist comments about women in the lab are widely discussed, we see that we are a long way from equality in science and these museums are striking examples.

The Museum of the History of Science is a cabinet of curiosities. It does not address the agency of the objects on display, nor their inventors’ biographies, let alone the politics of their making. The audioguide is currently under revision. In the meantime, visitors are provided with sheets of information, a transcript of the old audio guide. Science is presented as objective and unemotional, which is not the case as historians of science have been showing for decades. Let me provide one example:

John Russel’s Moon:


The audio guide transcript says: “This ‘portrait’ of the moon is the outcome of some ten years of careful observation and measurement, but as the work of an artist it has an emotional impact that would not be found in a merely technical survey.” (Number 12)

Oxford University Museum of Natural History has certain displays that have not been written from a postcolonial perspective. The formerly colonised are presented as the destroyers of species and habitat, while the British scientists are said to have produced knowledge on species and protected them. This is one example:


There are several glass cases with unnamed animals that show the museum’s abundance of specimens, but produces little other information for the visitors.

IMG_1952 copy

In addition, the museum focuses on nature, and uses the staircase to tell the visitors – who largely ignore the display while walking – to inform the visitors on the museum’s origin.

DSC_0069 DSC_0072

The politics of the collecting, the knowledge production are not addressed and the nature-culture divide retained. The collection is not historicised. Often we do not know who collected the species, when, where, why or how.

This visit raised my awareness for how important critical natural history studies and work in the field of (micro-)politics of science and nature is.


Am Montag war ich in einem Aussendepot des Britischen Museums, wo ich mir die archäologische Sammlung von Barbers Brüdern James Henry und Thomas Holden Bowker angesehen habe. Das war eine interessante Erfahrung. Das Aussendepot ist schwierig zu finden. Man kriegt kurz vor dem Termin Anweisungen. Es ist ein altes, verlassenes Fabrikgebäude im östlichen London. Die Strasse ist heruntergekommen und man hat stets das Gefühl sich verlaufen zu haben. Doch dann steht man vor der Backsteinfassade. Es begrüssten mich Eingänge mit Schildern, die sagten, dass dies nicht der Haupteingang sei. Als ich den endlich gefunden und mich registriert hatte, kam mich eine Praktikantin abholen, die den Weg durch das Labyrinth verschiedener Häuser selbst kaum fand. Ihr halbes Jahr Praktikum sei bald um, meinte die Archäologin, aber sie hätte kaum was gelernt, ausser der Weg von der Porte zum Study Room zu finden. Das bestätigte sich dann auch bei jeder Frage, die ich stellte. Die Sammlung, so meinte sie, sei wohl nie ausgestellt worden und würde wohl nie ausgestellt. Sie befindet sich in einem Dornröschenschlaf. Warum wird diese nicht einer südafrikanischen Institution gegeben, fragte ich mich, doch viele Museen in Südafrika, wie das Iziko South African Museum in Kapstadt haben selber tausende Boxen von archäologischen Fundstücken in ihren Depots. Wer entscheidet was im Depot bleibt und was ausgestellt wird auf welcher Grundlage? Öffentlich zugängliche Depots scheinen eine Möglichkeit solche Sammlungen nicht in Vergessenheit geraten zu lassen. Vergraben könnte man die Artefakte auch, aber das sind sie ja bereits in der musenlogischen Unterwelt.

Private Archives

I’m currently in a village close to Oxford for a week. One of Barber’s great-great-granddaughter has secured those documents that might be of interest to me from her the widow of her father’s cousin’s son who has inherited the Barberton’s family archives. I have also had the chance to meet Alan Cohen whose fascinating articles and unpublished biography on Barber have been very helpful for my work. Working in these private homes with private archives has been a new and very interesting experience. I have not only found essential sources for my work, I have also established relationships with these families – unlike with professional archivists – and have met future readers whom I will bear in mind while writing. They have become a crucial part of my work and part of my life. This has been a thought-provoking and emotional process. Little have I read about historians’ reflections on how their experiences with private archives differed from public ones and how that influenced their work.

I will keep revising this post while reflecting more on this experience and am grateful for references on historians’ reflections on similar experiences.


One of the very fascinating sources I came across when doing archival research at the History Museum of the Albany Museum Complex in Grahamstown was Barber’s notebook.DSCN0493

SM 856 (photograph T.H. September 2011)

There are many of Barber’s poems that her son published for private circulation in The Erythrina Tree and Other Verses (London: Rowland Warden, 1898). Barber’s botanical observations, descriptions and depictions of sea life and passages she copied from geological sources. On the very last page I found a recipe for her son that the doctor prescribed. I thought this was curious, but have not paid much attention to it until I came across it again the other day and decided to bake the biscuits.

The recipe: 5 pounds flour, 3 pounds sugar, 2 ounces ginger, 1 1/2 pound butter, soda, thick milk to mix


This would be 2267,962 g flour, 1360,777g sugar, 56,699 g ginger and 680,3885 butter.

I made a smaller portion of 350g flour, 225g brown sugar, 10g ginger, 115g cane sugar, a bit of yogurt and baking soda.


They are delicious! And I find it very interesting, as mundane things are relatively rare in this female naturalist’s legacy.