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

Sign up information for seminars in Term 2 will be made available later in the year.

19th January 2022

ECR/PhD Showcase

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The animal archive of W.C. Osman and Yvonne Hill: collecting the living and the dead.
Carina Phillips, The Royal College of Surgeons of England

Abstract TBC

Feeding captive animals in a crisis – From patriotic diets and substitution feed to the risk of anhedonia.
Oli Moore, University of Exeter

The modern zoo era is one that has seen significant national and global crisis events, from wars to pandemics. The cause of these events has forced zoos to change their food systems and overcome government restrictions on access by the public. Previous research has shown how zoos have managed their collections during times of war. For example, some American zoos encouraged animals to eat ‘patriotic diets.’ In the UK, the effects of war had an immediacy that interrupted zoos operations. Yet, despite having to destroy animals and substitute food we can also see that zoos benefited from such events financially through appeals and fundraising drives.

In more recent times, outbreaks of disease in the early 2000s and the current COVID pandemic has forced zoos to close to the public through legal orders. How does a zoo survive with its major income stream massively effected by closure? How have zoos adapted their food systems through either loss of income or loss of access to their usual food?

This paper will look to open a discussion on what the archives can tell us about the nature of human-animal relationships when humans willingly support animals at times of personal deprivation be it through rationing or loss of income? What impact to feeding habits can be seen through destruction of enclosures due to war or the loss of human interaction through closures? What questions do we, as historians need to be asking to understand the impetuous to support animals during times of human difficulty?

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

Abstract TBC.

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.  

16th February 2022

Andrew Robichaud, Boston University

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16th March 2022

Juliana Adelman, Dublin City University

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13th April 2022

John Wyatt Greenlee, Medieval Historian

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11th May 2022


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