Thursday, January 13, 2022

Botany Bay: Manchester Museum visits Schools

 Guest blog by Marine Begault

Back in December, two schools in Manchester received their first visitors as part of the Botany Bay project: the Manchester Museum. 

As the Manchester Museum is currently closed for refurbishment the Learning team, as well as their newly appointed Curator of Indigenous Perspectives (Alexandra P. Alberda),
visited the schools in person. 

Marine Begault is the Project Manager on Botany Bay.  Here she reflects on some of the themes and questions addressed through this first interaction with the museum and the schools.

Pupils explore the different varieties of maize

Alexandra Alberda and the team developed a session especially for this project. The learning team were extremely excited to be part of the session and learn from Alex, as this is an important part of the Museum’s journey towards decolonising their collections and practice. 

Alexandra introduced herself in her native tongue and as Blue Corn, which immediately set the tone to the session. 

The museum brought some pieces from their Botany and Entomology collections. Most children knew what Botany meant (‘investigating plants’ as one child put it) but Entomology was a new word for most.

The children were given a few minutes to circulate around each of the objects brought by the museum. In small groups they were asked to discuss whether they recognised them, if they had seen them before and where, and whether they had any stories or feelings associated with them.

The Butterfly Station (a glass case of 10 different butterflies) led to some interesting conversations around why we don’t see that many butterflies (some saw them on holiday or in some cases in their garden), which led to an understanding that we live in cities and that butterflies need flowers. I was really interested in hearing some conversations around ‘are they real?’ or ‘are they dead?’, which made me think about the ways younger children might struggle with the idea of something being dead and real at the same time. Being dead but visible and conserved. Dead but existing in the world. There were also some conversations around the ethics of killing the butterflies (it turns out they were trapped in a jar and put to sleep with a gas in Victorian times as a way to study them).

The Blue corn and dried chilli station was interesting in that most children thought that the blue corn was rotten ‘normal corn’ and few recognised the chillies, or again thought they were rotten or old.  

The plant station included dried Yaupon leaves and an Echinacea plant in a class case as well as botanical drawings of medicinal plants. Again a conversation around the plants being ‘real’ or not came about, but also the children enjoyed trying to read the labels of these items: ‘black tea’ being used to describe the Yaupon. A conversation around drinking tea, when they drink tea, what tea they are allowed to drink etc. ensued. When I asked one student the type of tea he normally drinks he answered ‘normal English tea.’ When I asked him about what he meant by that, he wasn’t really sure what I was asking. Unpicking responses like these is exactly why I find this project so fascinating.

The children were brought back into a circle, and Alex told everyone about the significance of the circle in her culture. She began the story by introducing her relative, corn, who like herself is the eldest sister. She told story of the Three Sisters, and how they revealed themselves to the villagers to thank them for their kindness and generosity on a cold winter evening. The children really responded to this story. Some asked if it was real, if Alex was real, if she was magical. It brought about a certain level of mysticism. I think there is something really interesting in bringing this magic, this mysticism into the classroom (and valuing it) as a different way of knowing. I am interested to explore its role in how we learn, particularly in the context of this project and the intention to create a space where children can connect with ‘the more than human’ and build a relationship that is based on reciprocity. 

The session concluded with a game, which explored relationship and kinship as well as some of the harmful effects of colonialism. The group were separated into humans, butterflies and medicinal plants. Alex explained that as plants and animals came long before humans, Indigenous people had learned to survive by listening and observing. Rather than forage for hours on end for medicinal plants hidden in the shrub, they followed butterflies in the meadows to the correct plant. 

The humans were told that a fever has broken out in their village and that they needed to find a particular flower to help them heal their families. They came to the butterflies for help. Human’s one gift, Alex reminded them, is gratitude; and in order for this relationship to be reciprocal the human had to say please and thank you to the butterfly.      

Each layer of the game brought another disease, which the butterflies needed to help the humans with, and each layer brought further obstacles. For example, farmland got rid of a number of wild flower meadows and therefore butterflies, while private property made it impossible for the villagers to follow their butterflies to pick the plants. Each obstacle broke down the relationships further. 

I really enjoyed hearing about the different properties of these plants. A lot of children did not know that medicine is in fact (mostly) plant based. I definitely found that hearing about all of their properties and the ways in which they help us made me admire, respect and love them more. The feeling of being in awe of nature and all its gifts might be a good starting point for shifting this relationship of domination and destruction.