M4C Logo AHRC Logo

Matthew Carter

History, University of Nottingham

Thesis title:

Animals and empire: popular natural history and national identity in Britain, 1780-1860

My PhD research examines representations of animals in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century British popular natural history, focussing on how the expressions of national identity and imaginings of space, frequently articulated within them, helped to configure the imperial nation by reinforcing hierarchies of civilisation, informed by stadial models of human development. 

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Britain saw a proliferation of popular natural history and animal knowledge was increasingly communicated, propagated and consumed through text, images and exhibitions of live or preserved animals in menageries, museums and zoological gardens. Popular zoological literature was primarily encyclopaedic in structure, with individual entries for specific or collections of species. This format also extended to contemporary guidebooks, published to accompany exhibitions of live or preserved animals at attractions and institutions. Works of popular natural history were produced by specialists and non-specialists and images and information were readily transferred from one publication to another. In this way, a memetic discourse emerged, that solidified particular understandings of individual species within the popular imagination. Furthermore, animal knowledge was frequently collated from a range of sources, including works by eminent naturalists, animal encounters in travel literature and personal observations of live and preserved animals, with each contribution to the discussion retaining the concerns and preoccupations indicative of the genre from which it was extracted. 

Although the popular zoological discourse encompassed a wide array of animals, large, impressive mammal species received the greater attention and were more frequently depicted and discussed. Indeed, it was the repeated locating of these species within specific geographical and temporal spaces and the repeated highlighting of associated human-animal relationships, that helped to reinforce hierarchies of human civilisations both within and beyond the borders of Britain. Through these processes, works of popular natural history promoted an affluent, urban, middling strata of British society, their core readership, as representative of the national character, which aided in configuring the imperial nation by promoting conceptions of British identity linked to notions of modernity, industriousness, commercial success and moral superiority.

Research Area

  • History


Presentations Given:

Time for A Placement?, 1st July 2020, UoN History PhD Work in Progress Seminars.

Exploring Animals in History, 6th November 2019, UoN History PhD Work in Progress Seminars. 

Conferences Attended:

The M4C Digital Research Festival 2020 (13/07/2020-14/07/2020)

The Animal History Group's Animal History Online 2020 Summer Conference (19/06/2020)

The British Animal Studies Network's 'Movements' 2019 Autumn Conference (22/11/2019-23/11/2019)

The M4C Research Festival 2019 (23/05/2019)

Other Research Interests

  • Animal History
  • Environmental History
  • Imperial History
  • Anthrozoology  


Member of the Society for the History of Natural History (SHNH).

Placement with the Nottingham Museums and Galleries Service

During my second year of PhD study, I completed a six-month, part-time, M4C-funded research placement with the Nottingham Museums and Galleries Service alongside my PhD thesis research. This placement aimed to examine the taxidermy collection at the Wollaton Hall Natural History Museum, Nottingham, through a historical lens and focussed primarily on the taxidermy specimens and ethnographic items collected by the locally-born, Nottinghamshire explorer, Mansfield Parkyns, during his travels in Abyssinia and Sudan in the 1840s. This study paid particular attention to the composition of the taxidermy mounts, the elements of the animals selected for preservation and the environments in which they were presented in order to better understand the historical context in which these specimens were obtained and presented and the ways in which these elements helped to construct understandings of individual species. In order to compile a research report on the Mansfield Parkyns Collection, my research also drew on entries in the museum's databases, letters in the Brewhouse Yard archives and Mansfield Parkyns' 1853 travel narrative, Life in Abyssinia.

As Parkyns' shoebill specimen (Balaeniceps rex), currently displayed at Wollaton Hall, is the oldest surviving specimen of this species in Britain, a second, more specifically focused report was produced on imaginings of the shoebill in Britain. Following a request by a member of staff researching into the Campion family, a short report was also completed on the identification of taxidermy specimens purchased by Wollaton Hall from a local bicycle merchant, George Campion, in 1929/30. As I was half-way through my placement when covid19 measures were introduced, I was able to continue working on this research from home, accessing information remotely and keeping in touch with staff via e-mail. In the future, I hope to share my research findings with the wider public through a series of blog articles on the Wollaton Hall website.


University of Nottingham Department of History Training to Teach programme (February to March 2019)

Small Group Teaching (University of Nottingham PGR training course, February 2019) 

Lecturing for Learning (University of Nottingham PGR training course, May 2019)  

Foundations for Teaching in Higher Education (University of Nottingham PGR training course, June 2019) 

Presentation Skills (University of Nottingham PGR training course, June 2019)

Marking and Giving Feedback (University of Nottingham PGR training course, December 2019)

Awards and Grants

A three-month extension to my M4C funding due to my placement with the Nottingham Museums and Galleries Service 

University of Nottingham Tramfield Scholarship (2016-2017)


'The Pheasant of the Future': A Species History of Reeves' Pheasant in Britain. MA Dissertation, University of Nottingham. September 2016.

'Conflicting estimates of character': The little owl in England, 1843-present day. BA (Hons) Dissertation, University of Nottingham. June 2016.