Academic project to research links between ‘milk and colonialism’

Professors will study the 'colonial legacies' of dairy in the project, backed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council
Professors will study the 'colonial legacies' of dairy in the project, backed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

A taxpayer-funded project will research the connections between “milk and colonialism”.

The academic enterprise will look at the “political nature of this everyday substance”.

Professors will be funded to look at a museum collection and unearth the “colonial legacies” of dairy.

One of the experts involved in the project has argued that milk is Northern European and a “white supremacist” imposition on other cultures.

The newly announced research is backed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a taxpayer-funded quango.

There is no record yet of the figure for the grant.

Part of the project, which is titled “Milking it: colonialism, heritage & everyday engagement with dairy”, will see academics study the “milk-related” collections of the History of Science Museum in Oxford.

Influence of ‘colonial legacies’

The museum announced the new research, stating: “By focusing on communities intersecting industry, aid and government regulation, the project aims to centre on heritage as a vital framework for understanding how colonial legacies influence contemporary issues and affect people’s lives.

“Through milk diaries, archival research and participatory podcasting, it will investigate historical engagement with milk, building networks with consumers and producers in Britain and Kenya.

“The project will question both the imagined and real aspects of milk, revealing the intimate and political nature of this everyday substance.”

The enterprise will attempt to disclose the 'intimate and political nature' of milk
The enterprise will attempt to disclose the 'intimate and political nature' of milk - Adobe Stock

The ultimate goal is “to develop new methodologies for investigating our relationship with milk”.

The work will be carried out by Dr JC Niala, the head of research at the History of Science Museum, and Dr Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp, a University College London associate professor at the Institute of Archaeology.

Dr Niala has previously done work on the “historical and political significance” of dairy, while Dr Zetterstrom-Sharp has also carried out research in related areas.

As part of a series of talks alongside a Wellcome Trust exhibition on milk in 2022, Dr Zetterstrom-Sharp took part in a talk titled Milk and Whiteness, which outlined some of the problems with the foodstuff which may be covered by the research project.

‘Northern European obsession’

In the panel discussion, the professor outlined a “Northern European obsession with milk” which has led to an assumption that it is a “vital part of any human diet”, and should be produced and provided on a vast scale.

Such an assumption, she argued, “may be understood as a white supremacist one”.

She explained: “Northern European needs and the science the technology devised to address them are the needs that pertain and are most important for global majority populations.”

There are populations who can digest lactose in adulthood, but this trait is most common in white Europeans, and North Americans of European origin. Much of the rest of the world has high levels of lactose intolerance.

The imposition of dairy economies on these regions by colonial powers was highlighted by the Wellcome Collection in 2022.

Dr Zetterstrom-Sharp also highlighted issues with the way local milk production in Africa may have been quashed in favour of industrial methods aimed at volume, and how milk is being distributed by aid organisations.