Seminar Series 2021/22

Seminars are held monthly at 7pm UK Time.

Please sign up using the links below. Joining information will be sent shortly before the event.

Term One

13th October 2021

Remember Bolivar: Life and Death of an American Elephant
Bonnie Griffin, Natural historian, curator and visual storyteller.

Bolivar the Elephant (~1861-1908) is an almost forgotten celebrity from America’s Gilded Age. Taken from Sri Lanka as a baby, he was made famous as ‘the largest living land animal in the world’ while on tour with Forepaugh’s Circus 1881-1888. Bolivar was used as a walking billboard during the circus parades, wearing hand-painted banners that advertised the show. He was a physical spectacle, but with no voice of his own, his personality, both wild and tame, was manipulated by his owners to mirror the zeitgeist of the time. Bolivar was used to explore ideas of exceptionalism, commercialism, assimilation, morality, folk-law and heroism throughout the 1800s. In this way Bolivar is both a real and imagined animal; a chimera used as a lens for focussing the foundational principles of ‘Americaness’ after the Civil War. Tracking Bolivar’s life, mirrored my own understanding of America in the build up to today’s cultural reckoning.

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10th November 2021

Films as Archives of Working Animals. Documentation and Visibility of Working Animals in the European Rural Film Production
Peter Moser with Andreas Wigger, Archives of Rural History, Bern.

Working animals (horses, oxen, dogs, cows, breeding bulls, donkeys, mules etc.) played a crucial, but seldom broached role in the process of urbanisation and the modernisation of agriculture in the 19/20th century. For a long time both, the urban transport systems as well as the mechanisation of agriculture, were based on animal power. Therefore, working animals are not, as often perceived, a phenomenon of pre-industrial times, but agents of modernisation.

One of the reasons why the relevance of working animals so far has attracted little attention by historians can be found in the official statistics which almost completely ignore them. Since working animals were, as all animals, multifunctional creatures, they were not classified and counted as working beings by the authorities. The (numerical) relevance of working animals has, therefore, to be reconstructed by looking more closely at other sources. A promising supplier of information in this respect are agricultural films which were produced in large numbers since the end of the 19th century – a time when the number of working animals probably was at its highest. Thanks to the activities of the European Rural History Film Association ( an increasing number of these films is now accessible via the Online-Portal of the ERHFA.

By looking at this emerging “archives of working animals”, the proposed presentation intents to illustrate the relevance and the variety of working animals as well as specific human-animal interactions which occurred when men and animals were working together.

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8th December 2021

The Elephant in the Archive: Reconstructing the life and afterlife of Percy Powell-Cotton’s ‘record elephant’
Rachel Jennings, Powell-Cotton Museum

Much has been written about the lives of ‘celebrity’ elephants who lived in zoos or performed in circuses. These animals were usually given names and their fame often followed them beyond death. Several ended up in museum collections, where they became mascots.

The Powell-Cotton Museum’s bull African Savannah Elephant (Loxodonta africana) was not a celebrity in his lifetime. He was an anonymous free-living animal until Percy Powell-Cotton set his rifle sights on him in 1905, in northern Uganda. In death, the taxidermied elephant became the star of the Museum, and helped boost Powell-Cotton’s own claims to fame as a hunter. The elephant has been a favourite with visitors for over a century. However, his individual history – as both a living animal and a specimen – has never been investigated.

This paper will explore what can be recovered of the animal’s life, death, and afterlife from the Powell-Cotton Museum’s archives. I will examine how the elephant has been represented, and whether he really was – as claimed – “The Tallest Elephant yet brought out of Africa”.

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Term Two

19th January 2022

ECR/PhD Showcase
The animal archive of W.C. Osman and Yvonne Hill: collecting the living and the dead in the 20th century
Carina Phillips, The Royal College of Surgeons of England

William Charles Osman Hill (1901-1975) is considered a founder of comparative primatology.  An anatomist, primatologist and former Prosector at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Hill published on the anatomy, taxonomy, behaviour and care of a wide selection of mammals over his lifetime.  This included an eight-volume monograph on the anatomy and taxonomy of primates.  His wife Yvonne, although not referenced in the authorship of this seminal work, played a significant part in its creation, including the production of anatomical illustrations for the series.

A prolific collector of both live and dead animals, Hill created his own menagerie while living in Sri Lanka, and throughout his life amassed a collection of zoological specimens, preserving them in fluid, or as embalmed or dried tissue. Some 1500 of these specimens survive today in the collections at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the Natural History Museum, London.  Drawing on information from the specimens and archives this paper presents preliminary research on some of the primates Hill collected, including “Nidget” a collared lemur, and “Irish”, reported to have been the longest living capuchin in captivity.  It considers the life histories of these animals and their place within both Osman and Yvonne’s lives, both as pets and as scientific specimens of study.

The Story of Jack: Life and Legacy of the First Elephant of Natura Artis Magistra
Wessel Broekhuis, ARTIS Zoo, Amsterdam

The lectures given by colleagues in this series of seminars have already proven how elephants have always been creatures that evoked wonder among humans. It was no different when in 1839 the fledgling Amsterdam Zoological Society Natura Artis Magistra acquired her first elephant. The bull Jack was originally brought to Europe from Ceylon and ended up in Amsterdam as part of the travelling animal collection of Cornelis van Aken. Once bought by the Society, the elephant became one of its main showpieces. From 1847 onwards, however, Jack proved to be increasingly unmanageable, leading to his untimely and violent end in 1849. 

With this paper an attempt was made to uncover and describe as much of Jack’s life as possible, by examining municipal archives, the archives of Artis, the inventory of van Aken’s travelling menagerie, nineteenth-century newspaper articles, as well as old photographs and artworks.  Writing a biography about a non-human being works well within the contemporary tendency of the Humanities to take an interest in the natural world. This episode in the history of Artis appeals to the imagination and can tell us a great deal about the spirit of the times with regard to the relationships between man and nature, the West and the colonies and the development and shifting role of zoological parks since their inception up to this present day.

A paradox bird: the history of Mansfield Parkyns’ shoebill
Matthew Carter, University of Nottingham

The mounted specimen of a shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), one of a pair collected by the Nottinghamshire-born explorer and amateur naturalist, Mansfield Parkyns (1823-1894), during his travels in Abyssinia and Sudan, has been a staple feature of Wollaton Hall’s natural history collection of taxidermy birds since 1927, when it was given to the museum by Parkyns’ descendants. By tracing the history of this neotype specimen, sister specimen to the lost, original type specimen, named and described in 1851 by the ornithologist, John Gould, much was revealed regarding its reception within British ornithological circles and its construction as a ‘paradox bird’ within the British popular imagination.

Drawing on records from the Wollaton Hall Museum Archives, archives at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology and nineteenth-century zoological literature, this paper will reveal how the unique history of Parkyns’ shoebill helped to shape British conceptions of this striking and peculiar species. It will further highlight how the re-examination of a scientifically-significant specimen through an historical lens can provide useful insights into historical understandings of a species and shifting conceptions of the natural world.  

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16th February 2022

Animal City: The Domestication of America
Andrew Robichaud, Boston University

Nineteenth-Century American cities were full of non-human animal life: cows grazing open lots, pigs foraging gutters, horses by the thousands, cattle driven through busy streets, and stockyards intermixed with residential neighborhoods, to name only a few. In a matter of decades, the animal populations of American cities changed drastically. In this talk, Andrew Robichaud will discuss his book, Animal City: The Domestication of America, which explores these changing urban environments of animal life and death. Using a variety of sources and digital methods, Robichaud argues that changes in animal life and death are key to understanding nineteenth-century governance and the formation of modern American cities—and also a key moment in thinking about certain longer histories of human-animal relationships.

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16th March 2022

Market metropolis: cattle and the making of Dublin city
Juliana Adelman, Dublin City University

This talk will examine the role of cattle and associated trades in the development of Dublin during the nineteenth century. The great swing to livestock grazing after the Great Famine has been well-studied and continues to shape Irish agriculture today. However, little consideration is often given to the impact of this trade and, of cattle as animals, on the capital city. The paper will look at the decision to retain the live cattle market within the city in the 1860s and the impacts of this on socio-economic geography, environment and culture. Thousands of cattle passed through the city each week and the need to accommodate this flow of animals changed Dublin in specific ways. The ‘second city’ of the British Empire became the largest market of the United Kingdom, funnelling animals to the fields and tables of its nearest neighbour and transforming lives and livelihoods.

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13th April 2022

The Role of Eels in medieval English cultural identity
John Wyatt Greenlee, Medieval Historian

The medieval English ate an enormous quantity of eels; millions of the fish passed through the land’s trade routes each year, and for much of the Middle Ages landlords in the country collected hundreds of thousands more eels per year as a form of in-kind rent. Eels were a food that cut across lines of class, wealth, and station, with everyone from kings to peasants eating and enjoying them on a regular basis. For much of the medieval and early modern periods, the fish served as a touchstone of English identity. The common insular taste for eels predated shared religion or language, and their prominence is one of the first items mentioned in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. More than any other European culture, the English were an eel people. This presentation will examine the connections between eels and medieval Englishness, looking at sources such as Wulfstan’s eleventh-century Life of St. Æthelwold, the Bayeux tapestry, and Thomas Bradwardine’s fourteenth-century De Memoria Artificiali, as well as looking at familial associations and heraldry, and ties between eel and spatial identity. Taken together, these points will argue for eels as an under-considered component of the medieval English sense of personal and corporate self.

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11th May 2022

Animal History Quiz Night!
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