Curating Black Place and Space in Natural History Museums


My name is Adania Flemming, M.Sc. I founded BlackInNHMs because I was disenfranchised by the endless supportive statements followed by a lack of action from Natural history museums in response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement. I was also tired of hearing “Black people were not interested in Natural History”. BlackInNHMs, will launch its first initiative as a social media platform on Oct 17-23rd. Currently we have a dynamic and diverse organizational team planning this event. During the event, we hope to grow our network of Black professionals working in NHMs. We have an interim board and will establish an elected Board of Directors following the completion of this first event. BlackInNHMs currently consists of 40+ members who occupy varying roles within museums – everyone from scientists and students to security guards and exhibit designers.


I was tired of hearing “Black people were not interested in Natural History”.

Black in Natural History Museums is about building our own space so that we can thrive and not just survive. We’re trying to create a community and find ways we can work together and engage people interested in NHMs. The space will be used to inspire many Black professionals to reimagine their relationship with the biodiversity of our planet, while highlighting career opportunities in museums and related fields. We will support and share our science and stories, continue to build community, promote mentorship and professional growth for Black folx in NHMs.

I am a PhD student in the University of Florida’s department of biology and an iDigBio research assistant,

working within the Florida Museum of Natural History. I am also a wife, a mother, a daughter and a sister. I love to move and dance to music, especially soca from my home country. I also enjoy teaching cardio classes to others with music from across the globe. I will use the rest of this blog to give some perspective of my journey in science. My hope is that some aspects will resonate with folks and encourage you to be true to yourselves and your interests.

I was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago. My family, though not destitute, was fortunate to be able to afford all the basic necessities of life. We always had food on our table even if it was cornflakes-sans-milk and juice for breakfast. We did not have a family vehicle until my 2nd year of college. Growing up we just crammed into Aunty Susan’s vehicle for our daily school-commute. She was the lady people paid to take the kids to school. I was always excited to go to school. Learning allowed me to escape reality and dream a different future for myself. I was fond of science as a tool to understand the world around me and the biological processes occurring within me. Even at an early age I hungered for knowledge. I hazily recall my 8th birthday gift request being a book. Unfortunately, my parents could not afford the book as the money we had was used to buy a gas tank so we could cook. Those early experiences molded me and flamed my determination to achieve my dreams. It was quite serendipitous being selected to attend JEDI (I was selected to represent my high school at an environmental camp, Junior Environmentalist and Sustainable Development Initiative- JEDI). Becoming a JEDI shaped my path in a multitude of ways. It introduced me to the natural world through experiential learning via exploration of the flora and fauna of my home island. It also got me interested and excited about pursuing a career outside of the biomedical sciences, a family expectation given my academic success. The camp essentially changed my life’s direction and purpose.


Before I could run off to college to quench my hunger for knowledge and change the world, I had to spend countless hours proposing my educational plans to a plethora of government officials in order to secure funding. Thankfully, my previous academic success and future academic plan translated into some financial support. A staff member from the International Department at the University of Tampa (UT) picked me up from the airport and informed me of my housing assignment—a temporary triple because I couldn’t afford standard occupancy accommodations. Downtown Tampa was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen and yet all I could think about was the tuition balance still due after my home country funding and UT’s International Student Grant. I remember thinking, “well, I made it to college; too bad I might just have to go back home before attending class”


The next morning my job search began in earnest. As international students were allowed to arrive early I was able to secure a non-work study position before domestic and late international students flooded in. Those meager wages were just enough to help pay the balance of my school fees with a revised payment plan. By my sophomore year I held 3 jobs each semester. As time progressed I found employment experiences my peers were obtaining at their internship(s) and travel abroad trip(s). If I was not in class, I was studying, working, or trying to catch some sleep. Three jobs in particular were my favorites. Being an RA, Lab Mentor and Gateways Mentor allowed me to mentor others and earn a paycheck at the same time.


Occasionally, I was fortunate enough to be able to join my academic advisor on trips to Tampa Bay for a population study of Syngnathids (sea horses, pipefishes and seadragons). Those half day Saturdays were like a vacation from the grind of work and academia. We would mark (with fluorescent dye) or recapture marked specimens to see if man made perturbations (building on the coast) affected population distribution. The summer of my junior year I was finally able to allocate time for an internship but only because my on campus positions allowed me to work shifts around my internship. Additionally, I had earned, via academic success, increases in the educational grant from Trinidad and Tobago and my father was promoted at work. UT’s Bursar Office was someplace I had to visit way too often. Every interaction was finance driven, stressful, and intimidating. The dollar and cents trauma I received at UT would have satisfied anyone’s checklist of painful events. Unfortunately, there was something else I was not expecting, culture shock. I had always identified as a Trinidadian however, in the U.S. I was either referred to as an alien, Black or African American and subjected to all the cultural stigmas those identities face.


After matriculating from UT, I worked at the Florida Aquarium for another year. At the Aquarium I was the only Black female not on the custodial staff. I have spent nine years at the Florida Museum of Natural History. I have immersed myself in the collections, working in the lab, volunteering for outreach assignments, held leadership positions with student organizations and earned an advanced degree. Up until last year I was one of three “Black” females within the research collections apart from the custodial staff. I have also been the only Black person in my master’s thesis lab. I have yet to meet a Black female Ichthyologist, and vividly recall being able to count the number of Black individuals at my first annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH) in 2016 using one hand. I often wonder how this reality impacts the interactions I have with my peers and colleagues.


Up until last year I was one of three “Black” females within the research collections apart from the custodial staff. I have also been the only Black person in my master’s thesis lab. I have yet to meet a Black female Ichthyologist, and vividly recall being able to count the number of Black individuals at my first annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH) in 2016 using one hand.

I have married and received residency in the U.S. during my time here. However, as I continue to learn about the African and Black diaspora, I have learnt that the history of Black people in the U.S. is a contributing factor to the lack of Black females in STEM and Ichthyology. Given my experiences in the U.S., STEM, and Ichthyology, I have made a conscious effort to engage people of color. It is my hope to serve as a role model and create opportunities, like JEDI, to inspire others to take a road less traveled. Since 2012, I have worked at Powell Hall teaching summer camps. I was able to create my own camp, Backyard Biodiversity in 2019. The campers, through a bioblitz, were introduced and worked alongside a demographically diverse (race, sex, area of study) panel of scientists who study the biodiversity of our planet.



I am currently interested in understanding how experiential learning opportunities during undergraduate studies prepare students for science careers beyond their typical content classes. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant for Introductory Biology labs I realized many students were going through the motions of being a science undergrad, soaking up the knowledge and spitting it back out, without much thought about their long-term goals. Students of color in particular, lacking mentorship and opportunities outside of volunteer work (which often conflict with their required jobs) often hit a roadblock in science and turned to other careers. As such, I created an Introduction to Natural History (INH) course for undergrads. During the class, students noted they were not aware they could have experiences afforded to them through the class by volunteering, while others noted they could not afford to volunteer time outside of their academic requirements, despite wanting the experience. The class, therefore, met the needs of these students. It created an opportunity similar to some of the jobs I held in undergrad, except that I was unable to volunteer or take unpaid internships, due to financial constraints, which required that I work.


Based on my experiences as a master’s student working in the natural history museum, I believe museum based INH courses can provide experiential opportunities to enrich the academic experience of undergraduates, producing informed students, prepared for diverse careers including those in museums. These INH courses are designed to engage students from science and non-science backgrounds in inquiry-based museum projects which help them understand how scientific knowledge is generated. These experiences have the power to transform students’ perceptions of how the world works and how we are inextricably linked to the natural world, while accentuating the important role that museums play in our understanding of the world around us. Through these interactions’ students take knowledge with them that will forever enrich their lives, and in turn, influence their everyday and once-in-a-lifetime decisions and for many their science identities. I have had students from 15 different majors across 5 different colleges take my class thus far and have gotten positive feedback in terms of their perceived impact of taking the class. Therefore, an aspect of my research focuses on understanding these impacts, with the goal of improving or increasing opportunities for undergraduates, particularly those most marginalized in science, to obtain necessary experiential learning in college.


I would like to continue introducing students, specifically Black and other marginalized students, to career opportunities in Ichthyology and other associated sciences through authentic experiences. Role models are an important aspect in realizing or finding one’s career path. I understand the cultural and geographical divides experienced in the natural sciences, based on my experiences and conversations that dissuade many women, Black and other people of color from considering careers in science. Thus, I hope that my presence as an instructor, and guidance as a mentor to students of color will help them to see themselves in science. My research interests are driven by my desire to contribute, as a role model and scientist, for inclusive empowerment efforts promoting diversity in STEM. I am attracted by the prospect of being able to; shape the world around me, to meet the demands of, and inspire future scientists, and, maybe, make a positive impact on the world.


Role models are an important aspect in realizing or finding one’s career path. I understand the cultural and geographical divides experienced in the natural sciences, based on my experiences and conversations that dissuade many women, Black and other people of color from considering careers in science. Thus, I hope that my presence as an instructor, and guidance as a mentor to students of color will help them to see themselves in science.

I have always struggled to find my place in science, especially as I delved into the biological education aspect, looking at NHMs as a resource to broaden diversity in science. It’s been a challenge navigating this without seeing others that look like me in my spaces, or in positions I wish to move into. I am often in between worlds, a student and faculty member, a scientist and an educator, someone researching in freshwater interested in marine systems. Therefore in December 2020, when I was called out by a white presenting female during the BlackInMarineScience week on twitter for identifying as a marine scientist for a brief moment I wanted to crawl into a shell and disappear. However, the immediate response from BlackandSTEM and the support from the community I had become a part of, BWEEMS helped me to hold my own. Thus, BlackInNHMs grew out of the responses or lack thereof to the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement in Natural history museums inspired by the “Black in X” social media campaigns that began in the summer of 2020 in response to the racist confrontation that Christian Cooper, experienced while birding in New York.


I share these parts of my journey in science because these are aspects rarely discussed, but they have so much power in validating the experiences of Black folx who are isolated in academic and NHM spaces. I recall wanting to quit science on many occasions since working in NHMs, wanting to walk away from it all at times even though I could smile and fit into many spaces as a Black woman from the Caribbean with a nice accent and not too dark skin. The support of my husband and family coupled with the need to not disappoint them kept me going. If I am honest, it wasn’t until Academics for Black Survival and Wellness a personal and professional development initiative for Non-Black academics to honor the toll of racial trauma on Black people, resist anti-Blackness and white supremacy, and facilitate accountability and collective action, and a space for healing and wellness for Black people, that I was able to find words to describe some of my experiences. That I was able to better articulate why conversations with my white peers bothered me even though they were perfectly fine for them, why I never quite fit into some white spaces.


Similar to the community and family I have been able to find through BWEEMS, I envision a future where Black people’s voices, opinions and stories are heard, reflected and respected in Natural history museums. Where every Black individual is aware of opportunities within museums and does not feel like an imposter applying for a position. One of my personal life missions is to create more spaces for Black people in NHMs, spaces for them to be able to be their full selves. Despite the history of NHMs I want Black people to feel empowered to share their stories and those of their ancestors who have had much input in NHMs, though often untold. To ask questions using specimens, objects and artifacts that assist their communities. To be part of the NHM community so people like me do not have to look elsewhere for role models… So, we can thrive!