Martha Ann Fleming

Martha Ann Fleming

Associate Professor

Martha Fleming is the Principal Investigator of 'Field/Work in the Archive: Herbaria as Sites of Cultural Exchange', funded by the Augustinus Fonden.  The project investigates the global histories and cultural meanings of some of the oldest botanical collections of the Natural History Museum of Denmark.   The project was developed during her tenure as a Visiting Scholar, jointly appointment  between the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the Department of Science Education and supported by the Science Faculty of the University of Copenhagen.

Fleming is a museologist, an historian of collections, and an historian of science with a particular focus on natural historical and correlative scientific collections and archives.  She has extensive experience in the creation, management and practice of interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research projects between museums and the academy: she has held research, teaching and leadership roles in both collecting institutions and university contexts in the UK, Germany and Denmark.  

Her current research investigates the creation and management of natural history collections as significant forms of knowledge producing practices embedded in globalised colonial contexts.  This work repositions natural history specimens as epistemic objects in asymmetrical knowledge regimes, investigating the colonial origins of the Anthropocene, and the constructed rationalities underlying paradigmatic practices in life sciences and earth sciences.  

Fleming was instrumental in the creation of the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at London’s Natural History Museum (2009-2011), a research centre that has since been held up as a model internationally for the productive integration of the methods and rigour of humanities and social science disciplines into life science research contexts.  While in post, she designed the Centre’s research programme and concluded:

“The unique qualities of natural history specimens and the geospatial and temporal data which accompanies them means that they function as information-rich pivots for historical investigation. Who collected these specimens – from indigenous groups to Presidents of the Royal Society – and how and why they were collected – from instrumentation and instruction to economic botany – is in essence a history of the world since 1500. The circulation of specimens, ideas and goods is concomitant, and an examination of this nexus over time is a key epistemological endeavour in which the Museum can play a central role.”
Martha Fleming: Strategic Research Clusters Programme: A Development Strategy for the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum. London, 2011.

Fleming has also held the post of Deputy Director of the V&A Research Institute (2016-2017), an initiative funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.  As Inaugural Programme Director of the Centre for Collections-Based Research at the University of Reading (2013-2016), she led the co-design and delivery of a groundbreaking training programme for humanities researchers working in collection contexts. At the University of Copenhagen, she was Visiting Associate Professor and Creative Director at the Medical Museion (2006-2009), where her work with four postdocs in medical humanities garnered the international Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits (Split + Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine).

Selected Lectures, Conferences and Programmes Organised

  • ‘Semantics and Beyond: Modeling and enriching longue-durée biocultural data for answering interdisciplinary and epistemic research questions‘  Round table discussion convenor:  Collect & Connect: Archives and Collections in a Digital Age, online conference organised by Making Sense of Illustrated Handwritten Archives, Naturalis Biodiversity Center and University of Twente. November 2020.

  • Logistical Natures. trade, traffics, and transformations in natural history collecting, participant, closed workshop organised by the joint research project “Animals as Objects. Zoological Gardens and Natural History Museum in Berlin, 1810−2020” Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. 13-14 February 2020.

  • 'Reconfiguring Collections in Coloniality’s Extractive Anthropocene', invited lecture for Politics of collecting and knowledge production conference, Projekt Sammeln erforschen, Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (HTW), Gestaltung und Kultur| Museologie, Museumsmanagement und -kommunikation,  Berlin, 21-22 November 2019.

  • Theme-setting round table with Ken Arnold, George Loudon and Martha Fleming. Collections, Knowledge and Time Workshop, Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen, 8-9 November 2019.

  • ‘What goes around, comes around: mobility’s modernity’  Conference closing address: Collections in Circulation: Mobile Museum Project Conference, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 9-10 May 2019.<

  • ‘Collections-Based Research: Tracing Exhibition Histories.’  Lecture and Seminar for Methodenwoche: Wissen | Austellen, the VW-Forschungskolleg of the Chair in the Materiality of Knowledge, Department of Art History, University of Göttingen, April 2019.

  • Early Modern Collection Catalogues: Open Questions, Digital Approaches, Future Directions (15-16 February 2018) British Museum, co-convenor.

  • VARI International Action Summit on Collecting Institutions as Centres of Knowledge Production and Research (13 September 2017, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), 30-delegate workshop.

  • People, Places and Things: New Models for Collections Based Research (22 March 2017, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), Inaugural Annual Public Symposium of the V&A Research Institute (VARI).

  • Object Lessons and Nature Tables: Research Collaborations between Historians of Science and University Museums (23 September 2016, University of Reading), co-convened with Dr Rohan Deb Roy, jointly with UK University Museums Group Annual Conference; funded by British Society for the History of Science.

  • Science Voices: Oral History of British Science (May 12 + 13 2011, Royal Society, London), jointly with Kingston University Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Natural History Museum, The Royal Society. Co-convenor.  Part-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


Current research

Fleming’s research has involved close study of the collections and catalogues created by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), which are the foundation collections of the British Museum, the British Library and London’s Natural History Museum. She has been Senior Research Associate and Project Manager of Reconstructing Sloane (2010-2019), and the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘Enlightenment Architectures’ (2017-2019).  As a Visiting Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Berlin (2012) she focused on deep epistemologies of the cataloguing practices that emerged in the early modern period in relation to present-day large-scale data regimes in natural history and biodiversity, particularly in the practices of BOLD - Barcode of Life Systems – practices now known as ‘museomics’.

Fleming further developed these findings as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Göttingen’s Lichtenberg Kolleg as a guest of the University’s Forum Wissen and Chair in the Materiality of Knowledge (2018).  Analysing what constitutes information of value in early modern collecting – particularly in what would come to be known as ‘economic botany’ –  Fleming looked at the impact of these value-choices on the shaping of present-day international policy on asset and benefit sharing.  Findings were presented at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin ‘Politics of Natural History’ conference (2018, jointly with Dr Dominik Hünniger) as ‘Putting Metadata to Work: Modelling Information on Historical Collections of Natural History in Social Justice Contexts’.

In 2019-2020 Fleming was a Visiting Research Fellow on the University of Hamburg’s Excellence Cluster project ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’, working closely with the Hamburg Centrum für Naturkunde on manuscript indexicalities of labels and lists in the practices of the short-lived but far-reaching Museum Godeffroy of Hamburg (1861-1884).

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