Collecting and studying the natural world and ethnography simultaneously has occurred in a ‘museum’ setting since the time of John Tradescant the elder in the early seventeenth century. This relationship between nature and culture continued well into the twentieth century, for both private collectors and publicly accessible museums. The Powell-Cotton Museum is perhaps one of the most overt expressions of this dual passion, bringing into the twenty-first century a Victorian vision of the world that is at once both historic, and incredibly contemporary, due to its approach in forming relationships between objects from the natural world and our world, today.
Unlike many museums, the Powell-Cotton has retained the juxtaposition of nature and culture and has in fact cemented it further. Through the recent refurbishment of one of our permanent galleries, visitors can engage with and learn from both disciplines simultaneously, to create new ways of seeing all ‘things’ in the world around them. This has not come without challenges and has thrown up many questions. How do we create balanced relationships between nature and culture? Is it possible to present material culture and the natural world ‘naturally’, or is the museum space just contrived presentation of our own visions and agendas as twenty-first century museum curators and educators?
Speakers included amongst others representatives from the Horniman Museum, Sydney University Museums, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. A variety of diverse papers, ranging from animal representations in museums to the way in which we think about 'nature' as a cultural object were presented to conference delegates.