Species of Accumulation and the Necromass of Natural History

Thesis abstract (submitted in September 2023)


My practice-led Ph.D., Species of Accumulation and the Necromass of Natural History, at the Centre for Research Architecture of Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures Department, is an in-depth theoretical analysis of my work as Principal Co-Investigator and Co-Curator of the international exhibition-led research initiative Reassembling the Natural (2013–23, henceforth RN). With major exhibitions, publications, and public event programmes, RN was an international and transdisciplinary collaboration dedicated to reassembling and critically repurposing the so-called “necromass” of natural history specimen collections with the aim of denaturalising the legacy of extractivist and ecocidal practices and transforming the inheritance of these collections.


The thesis is organised in five chapters that explore the intertwined legacies of colonial natural history and geopolitical exploitation by approaching natural history collections through their relationship to the biodiversity/climate/pollution crises. Departing from a critical discussion around ethnographic collections and the genocidal gaze, the dissertation develops the ecocidal gaze, the nature of investment, and species of accumulation as concepts to discuss the construction of the colonial image of nature in the museum in its under-reflected relation to capitalist economies of extraction, commodification, and extinction. Arguing that centuries-old botanical and zoological collections in museum and university repositories constitute a body of evidence of social and ecological injustice, the thesis reconnects the realm of natural history with the frameworks of coloniality, monoculture, and domination, which still shape many socioecological conditions and assumptions today.


The theoretical dissertation is divided in two conceptual halves—in Part 1, Chapters 1 and 2 deal with tropical botanical and zoological specimens collected in the nineteenth century; in Part 2, Chapters 3 and 4 return to the original scenes of collection in the twenty-first century to consider the material and conceptual legacies on the ground and in the archive. While Chapters 1 and 3 focus on flora and related botanical practices (especially oil palm), Chapters 2 and 4 attend to fauna and their necroaesthetic presentation (especially birds of paradise). This structure is the result of my in-depth conceptual dialogue with the writing of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), co-discoverer of the theory of evolution and naturalist-collector in the tropics, especially present-day Indonesia, in whose footsteps RN’s projects have travelled to investigate numerous collections around the world. As a tentative conclusion, Chapter 5 offers an alternative scientific view on natural selection by examining the legacy of microbiologist Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) and her theories of symbiogenesis. This discussion is underpinned by reflections on RN’s final exhibition project, ponds among ponds, and concludes by proposing to repurpose the natural history museum as a habitat interface—that is, as an amendatory site for the sensitive re-assembly of natural futures based on transformation, kinship, reciprocity and repair.


The dissertation is informed by my curatorial and editorial practice and mobilises decolonial, postcolonial, and ecofeminist theory, as well as extinction and museum studies, visual culture, history of science and political economy. The arc of the thesis demonstrates that interdisciplinary partnerships and heterogeneous alliances are necessary to transform the inherited, colonial necromass of natural history into an operational, radical and transformational habitat interface adequate to the planetary crises currently imperilling all life on Earth.

[Photo by Alessandra Renzi]