Duck-billed platypus appear "weird" to the western world because our museums represent Australian animals with an "ongoing subconscious colonial bias", a museum chief has said.

Kangaroos, koalas, and Tasmanian devils are also “regularly denigrated through hierarchical language”, according to Jack Ashby, the assistant director of the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology.

In an online article, he says: "This attitude begins with the colonists and explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries, but remains detectable in the ways that Australian wildlife is interpreted today, in museums, TV programmes and in the popular zeitgeist."

He argues museums are “complicit” in people labeling these animals "weird”, “bizarre”, or “primitive”.

Museums should “decolonise the way we talk about Australian animals”, Mr Ashby, an academic and fellow at UCL argues, as describing creatures as "weird" is “just another way of othering these animals”.

“This has been done since the very first written descriptions of Australian animals by Europeans”, Mr Ashby said in a talk for the Natural Sciences Collections Association.

“European colonial narratives are also present in how we typically talk about some animals today. This language … is essentially an element of the colonial framework.

“Western animals have acted as the zoological standard, and Australian creatures, in not being perceived as confirming to that standard, have been implied as inferior to it.”

It has been claimed that the problem pervades written accounts, museum displays, and even the promotion of Sir David Attenborough’s natural history TV programmes.

No other continent faces the same disparaging attitude toward its wildlife, Mr Ashby said, even as people may be fond of Australasian animals.

He has taken issue with the description of unique Australian fauna as “cat-like” or “dog-like”, as such descriptions treat them as taxonomic “cover versions” of Western animals which frames them as “secondary” and denies them “an identity in their own right”.

Australian animals, like striped possums or Tasmanian devils, are dismissed as lower in a zoological hierarchy compared to evolutionarily similar creatures from elsewhere in the world, he says.

Egg-laying mammals like echidnas and platypus, it has been claimed, are also badly represented by faulty taxidermy in British museums, giving a false impression to visitors of what these animals actually look like.

The duck-billed platypus must have appeared outlandish when first discovered by Western explorers

Credit:
Science Photo Library RF

The dismissal of the landmass’ fauna as “primitive” supported the colonial notion that Australia as a whole was “uncivilized” and its “invasion” by Europeans was justified, Mr Ashby has argued.

 "My argument is that the ways in which museums and other sources represent Australian animals today are often fundamentally pejorative, and reflect an ongoing subconscious colonial bias," he writes online.

As well as this ideology having a terrible long-term impact on the local human population, he said, it has continued to have a negative impact on the animals themselves.

He said of the linguistic treatment of Australian animals: “This must inevitably impact their extinction and conservation. Australia is the worst place on Earth to be a mammal. It has the worst extinction threat in the world.

"More mammals have gone extinct in Australia than anywhere else. This is an inevitable conquest of the way we think about them.

“If we describe them or encourage people to think of them as weird little oddities, little evolutionary curiosities, it’s going to be very hard to argue for their conversion.

“They’re just seen as not very important, or worse, their extinction is seen as inevitable because of their inferiority.”

Weird to the West: Australian animals

The theory was put forward as part of a conference for the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NSCA) which took place in 2020, with tips on decolonising natural science displays shared between experts.

The work of the NSCA was cited in a review of the Natural History Museum’s collection in the wake of Black Lives Matter protest, as Charles Darwin’s voyage aboard The Beagle was deemed to be a colonial expedition.