Zoë Varley


I am an interdisciplinary researcher and museum worker undertaking a collaborative PhD with the Wellcome Collection and the University of Leeds, funded through the White Rose College of Arts & Humanities (WRoCAH).

My project is investigating the role of late-19th/early-20th century marketplace in the development, management and display of the vast, varied collections of US-born pharmaceutical businessman and museum-founder Henry S. Wellcome (1853-1936). Using the Wellcome Library’s extensive archive collections of accession registers, correspondence, diaries and auction catalogues, I will consider the changing value and conceptualisation of these collections, considering the impact of the discourse of empire and colonialism in shaping the processes of transculturation they underwent. I am particularly interested in the role of curios and curiosity within Wellcome’s collections- both within his lifetime and in the ‘afterlives’ of his collections up to the present day- and the sites from which he acquired them, changing notions of value across such varied material culture, as well as the legacy and potential impact of this provenance on museum objects, and their audiences, today.

I have worked in museums, libraries and archives in a range of roles at the intersection of science and humanities. I am on the board of the Museum and Galleries History Group and a Research Associate at the Natural History Museum, where I have worked as a research assistant and curator for a number of years. I am passionate about reframing collections that are typically valued as ‘scientific’, highlighting their role as social, cultural and historical resources. The current focus of this research concentrates on the often overlooked, collaborative nature of collecting during historical voyages, moving beyond notions of solo, ‘hero’ collectors and the importance of resituating ‘specimens’ within their historical context. I am experienced in researching and reconstructing the human stories that underpin the formation and dispersal of collections and interested in the value of ‘restorying’ such materials for diverse audiences.

Twitter: @Zoe_Varley

Research interests

I have varied research interests across the history of museums, collections, collecting and art history. These include:

  • The history of museums, libraries, collecting and display
  • Changing notions of value in material culture
  • Object stories- bringing human narrative, context and emotion into the museum
  • The value of interdisciplinary approaches to investigating, researching and presenting collections in museum and heritage contexts
  • The interplay between museum collections and archival materials
  • The reframing of ‘scientific’ collections as social, cultural and historical resources
  • Curatorial practice, object care and documentation, collections engagement and accessibility 


  • MA Museum Studies- University of Leicester
  • BA History of Art- University of Leicester