Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
With only the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in art history, Barbara Harrisson ran the world’s first “experiment” of rehabilitating orphaned orangutans in the 1950s while also excavating Sarawak’s Niah Caves, which was at the time the oldest known human remains in all of Asia. Her meticulous research included some of the first field studies of wild orangutans that did not result in killing and collecting specimen. She did this primarily as a volunteer, a position relegated to wives of colonial technocrats when Sarawak was a British Crown Colony, from the end of World War II until official decolonization.
The problem of how to instill independence was as much a political dilemma for Sarawak’s colonial society as it was a programmatic one in the Harrisson household. Her husband Tom was the curator of the Sarawak Museum since the end of World War II and Barbara Harrisson’s capacity as a German-born university-educated volunteer and then wife of the curator made her an ambiguous representative of British colonial governance. Reflecting on her past when I met her in 2006, she identified as a “British colonial,” despite her persistent German accent. What do we do with such ancestors?