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Fossils: Global Histories of Natural Heritage, Science and Empire

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM31121
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Fossil plants and animals have long been objects of fascination and curiosity. A common sight in natural history museums, they have only occasionally entered debates about the recontextualization and repatriation of museum collections, unlike cultural artefacts. But how and why did museums collect fossils in the first place? How did the study of fossils shape ideas about evolution and national identity? What was the connection between fossils, imperialism and the exploitation of natural resources? Why do we know so much about T. rex and so little about the dinosaurs that roamed the Indian subcontinent? How did palaeontology shape ideas about climate change and what lessons does the past offer in these times of ecological precarity?

Using historical archives, fossils and other natural history specimens, this unit explores, critically and creatively, the global histories of natural heritage, science and empire. It encourages students to think about cultural and natural heritage (understood broadly as fauna, flora, ecosystems and geological features) as inextricably connected. Students will also familiarize themselves with the material history of science and enhance their interdisciplinary thinking skills through a visit to the Manchester Museum, the incorporation of natural history specimens into cross-curricular learning and interactions with scientists.


This unit seeks to equip students with the necessary theoretical, analytical and methodological tools to understand how nature became an object of heritage and how that process was entangled with histories of science and imperialism. Upon completion of the module, students will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the history of Earth and environmental sciences as global history. 
  • Interrogate the relationship between imperialism, science and natural heritage. 
  • Describe how debates about the conservation of natural and cultural heritage have intersected or diverged.  
  • Analyse current debates about the decolonisation of science and museums through the prism of natural history collections.
  • Conceptualise a public engagement project related to the history of science.

Learning outcomes

On completion of this unit, students will have acquired a knowledge of the connections between histories of natural heritage, science and empire; experience in linking this topic to wider, global contexts; digital research skills including identifying and working with varied sources of evidence; critical abilities in analysing arguments; experience of debating, presenting, and defending oral arguments in group discussions; and confidence in speaking, researching and writing on the global history of science.


Content may vary from year to year in response to contemporary events and student interest, but will typically address the following broad topics:

  • Thinking Globally about Natural Heritage, Science and Empire
  • Nature Surveyed: Wonder, Exploration and Imperial Visions
  • Excavating Fossils: Race, Gender and Labour in Field Sciences
  • Fossils in the Museum
  • Visit to Manchester Museum
  • Decolonising Natural History Collections
  • Natural Heritage in the University
  • Visual Cultures of Palaeontology
  • Fossil Fuels and Imperial Legacies
  • Imagined Histories: Nations and Natural Heritage
  • Dealing with Loss, Creating Hope? Extinction and Conservation

Teaching and learning methods

Sessions for this unit combine lectures with seminar discussions. The lecture segment introduces students to the main theoretical and methodological debates which have informed research on the week’s topic, illustrating them with examples drawn from global contexts. Seminars provide an opportunity to deepen that knowledge by thinking through the assigned course material for each week. This will take the form of scholarly literature, archival records, media articles, podcasts and short films which the students are required to read, watch or listen to carefully and critically in advance. Seminars will also be used to support students with the preparation of their assignments, for example by offering guidance on the writing of academic essays and discussing sample public engagement proposals around museums and natural heritage, blog posts and media pieces. They also provide opportunities for self-reflection: students are encouraged to reflect and communicate their goals for the class, the set of skills they wish to acquire, the challenges they encounter and how this learning benefits their personal and professional development.

There is a strong emphasis on material history, which means that we will also work with natural history collections available on site, at the Manchester Museum, and digitally. Students will have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the Earth Sciences collection at the Manchester Museum through a mid-term visit, in anticipation of their first assignment, a proposal for a public engagement project that seeks to promote a better understanding of natural heritage and its histories. All course materials will be made available online. Students are also encouraged to contact/meet the instructor to talk about their assignments or other aspects of their work that require attention.

Knowledge and understanding

Students should be able to:

  • Understanding the history of Earth and environmental sciences as global history
  • Understanding the relationship between imperialism, science and nature conservation
  • Knowledge of trans-disciplinary approaches to the study of natural history heritage 
  • Knowledge of decolonisation debates in relation to the history of science and museums

Intellectual skills

Students should be able to:

  • Critical and creative thinking, e.g. by engaging with the material archives of science
  • Problem posing and solving, e.g. by using historical knowledge to understand contemporary concerns about the climate crisis, environmental conservation and the decolonisation of science and museums
  • Synthesis and analysis of evidence and scholarly discourse
  • Planning a public engagement project
  • Writing a blog post or media piece

Practical skills

Students should be able to:

  • Using library, electronic and online resources
  • Working with archives of natural history specimens 
  • Working independently and as part of a team
  • Writing for different audiences

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Students should be able to:

  • Essay writing and project conceptualisation
  • Critical and lateral thinking, e.g., developed through the analysis of evidence and scholarly discourse 
  • Creative thinking and problem solving, e.g., developed through the conceptualisation of a public engagement project and the writing of a blog post or media piece

Employability skills

Student skills should include critical and transdisciplinary thinking, problem solving, communication and teamwork.

Assessment methods

Proposal for a public engagement project: 25%
Blog post or media piece: 25%
Academic essay: 50%

Feedback methods

Students will receive verbal feedback on contributions to seminar discussion in class. Summative feedback will be given on coursework assignments via the VLE. Teaching staff will be available to give additional feedback on class participation or coursework via email and during office hours (contact details and schedules will be posted in the course handbook and on the VLE). Students will be encouraged to meet with teaching staff to discuss coursework or other aspects of their studies that require attention.


Students will have the opportunity to give iterative feedback on the unit via informal surveys and use of anonymous feedback tools at key points in the course. Students will be asked to fill in a formal unit evaluation survey on completion of the course.

Recommended reading

  • Chakrabarti, Pratik. 2020. Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Fleetwood, Lachlan. 2022. Science on the Roof of the World: Empire and the Remaking of the Himalaya. Cambridge University Press.
  • Kirchberger, U., and B. M. Bennett, eds. 2020. Environments of Empire: Networks and Agents of Ecological Change. University of North Carolina Press. 
  • Manias, Chris. 2023. The Age of Mammals: International Paleontology in the Long Nineteenth Century. University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • O’Connor, Ralph. 2013.The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802–1856. University of Chicago Press.
  • Nair, Savithri Preetha. 2005. ‘“Eyes and No Eyes”: Siwalik Fossil Collecting and the Crafting of Indian Palaeontology (1830-1847).’ Science in Context, 18 (3): 359-92.
  • Schmalzer, Sigrid. 2009. The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China. University of Chicago Press.
  • Sera-Shriar, Efram, ed. 2018. Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences. University of Pittsburgh Press. 
  • Shen, Grace Yen. 2014. Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China. University of Chicago Press.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Fieldwork 1
Lectures 10
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 178

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Amelia Bonea Unit coordinator

Additional notes

HSTM units are designed to be accessible to all undergraduate students from all disciplines. They assume no prior experience.  

The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) offers a range of ‘free choice’ units (see Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Undergraduate Teaching for further information. Led by experienced researchers, our teaching explores science as a part of human culture, demonstrating that history is a valuable tool for understanding the present state and possible future of science, technology and medicine. 

If you are unsure whether you are able to enrol on HSTM units you should contact your School Curriculum & Programmes Team. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a HSTM unit. 

You can also contact the Academic Lead for Undergraduate Teaching at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. 

This unit is offered in both 10-credit and 20-credit versions to meet the requirements of different programme structures across the University. Students will be able choose the version appropriate to their programme. 

10 Credit – HSTM31111 
20 Credit – HSTM31121