The herbarium at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) comprises thousands of specimens: plants collected, pressed, and affixed to sheets of thin cardboard with glue or small strips of paper or canvas. In addition to the pressed plant, each specimen includes a label with the name of the herbarium and the collector, the plant’s scientific and vernacular name, and the date and location. Although assembled primarily for scientific purposes, herbarium specimens are seductive visual objects. The plants are flattened and arranged so as to maximize the space available and clearly display individual leaves and flowers. They foreground the plants’ physiognomies and yield captivating compositions. The accompanying labels bear not only data pertinent to the plant, but also character in their design and typography.
My Humanities Engage immersive fellowship with the herbarium at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in fall and spring 2021, during my fourth year as a PhD student in the department of History of Art and Architecture, allowed me to examine many such plant specimens up close to immerse myself in the herbarium’s archives. As an art historian, I was drawn to the herbarium in part because of the aesthetic appeal of the specimens, but also because my research on modern art and photography in Latin America has often involved art objects and photographs of plants. I was interested in learning about potential commonalities between the collection, care, and exhibition of plant specimens and that of art objects.
Photographs by Otto Jennings of plants at Isle of Pines. CMNH Herbarium archives
Recurring conversations with Dr. Mason Heberling, assistant curator of botany and co-chair of collections at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, were central to my fellowship experience. Dr. Heberling is an ecologist and botanist. As researchers from very different fields, our approaches to research and knowledge production were different, and our exchanges therefore wide-ranging. My interest in plants was directed towards their histories, including those of herbaria as research collections, while Dr. Heberling’s research is often geared towards the future. His research involves studying the effects of changing climate conditions on local flowering plants at specific field sites and considering the impact and possibilities of mobile apps and digital photography on the future of herbaria and botanical databases. I was grateful to come along on a collecting trip and visit to a field site at Barking Slopes Conservation Area, which is part of the Allegheny Land Trust. Dr. Heberling explained the conventions for collecting plants: trying to collect from sites with many specimens, carefully extracting the plant with its roots, laying it out between newspaper pages, and sandwiching them between thick layers of cardboard. At the time of this particular field visit, it was a key late spring moment of bloom. We also visited one study site where he and other specialists are studying the effects of earlier overstory leaf growth on forest-floor plants.
I kept coming across the notion of the “extended specimen.” Developed within the natural sciences, it refers to the “dynamic suites of interconnected resources” that are now considered part of biological specimens. In other words, it considers the ”specimen” more broadly than just the physical object. Rather, the physical plant is thought of as one node in a web of linked digital data. The concept extends the perspective beyond the singular object to “potentially limitless additional physical preparations and digital resources,” which can include ecological data, evolutionary inferences, and field images, among others. While attaching historical or cultural information isn’t part of the current definition of the “extended” botanical specimen, over the course of my herbarium fellowship, I would continue to come back to this notion, and to the question of how plant knowledge could be enriched, or expanded, through an interdisciplinary lens that would consider not only measurable, quantifiable data but also the historical and cultural narratives related to those plants, including the way they have been visually represented in artworks throughout history. In other words, could we draw a bigger circle around the edges of plant knowledges and research to encompass a broader history and epistemology of botanical species and specimens?
When I first conceived of this fellowship, my goals included the assembling of an online exhibition that would combine art objects with herbarium specimens and offer historical context. Throughout the experience, this idea shifted shape into a digital course module modeled on the idea of an expanded specimen, and organized around herbaria as plants collections, and their relationship to artworks and art history. The module was organized around three key questions: “What are herbaria, and in what ways are they part of a colonial mindset and history?,” “How can we define ‘plant knowledge’?,” and “How might one ‘decolonize’ a herbarium?” It offered potential answers to these questions through the learning materials—a combination of readings, a podcast, an online exhibition that served as a central case study, a live discussion during Zoom class time, a discussion board prompt, and a make-your-own-herbarium specimen assignment. I implemented the module in Dr. Jessica Landau’s History of Art and Architecture course “Decolonizing the Museum,” in spring 2021 and adapted it for the summer intensive course “Introduction to World Art,” which I taught during Summer Session A.
The exhibition Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience, organized by Rashad Bell and Nuala P. Caomhánach at the New York Botanical exemplified the notion of the artistically, culturally, and historically “expanded specimen,” with a decolonial and inclusive agenda. This exhibition served not only as a model for the kind of interdisciplinary historical work that brings together plant histories and cultural and art history but also as a compelling case study for the module, as evidenced by the students’ thoughtful engagement during the synchronous Zoom session that I guest-led and their discussion-board posts following the class. Black Botany focused on the histories of five plants—cotton, rice, peacock flower, peanuts, and vanilla—and on their cultural histories and specific relationship to Black histories via the display of herbarium specimens and botanical illustrations. Caomhánach and Bell sought to “explore how plants are not passive actors in the making of history, a mere backdrop for the drama of the natural and human world, but can shape key societal systems—such as labour.”
The module also included readings on the history of the herbarium, including the colonial history of the Casa de Botánica botanic garden and herbarium in Bogotá, Colombia, in the late eighteenth century; and a podcast interview with US Native American biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer on her perspective on different forms of plant knowledge, i.e. scientific and indigenous. Altogether the materials and guiding questions proposed a decolonial perspective on plant collecting and plant knowledges, while proposing a less anthropocentric history. Although it departed from my original goal, the research, creation, and implementation of this module was incredibly enriching, and had the direct outcome of an engaged discussions with two different groups of undergraduate Pitt students.
Scavenger hunt guide sheet.
The fellowship also influenced my dissertation project, which will now include a section on nineteenth-century photographic representations of the Botanical Garden and herbarium in Rio de Janeiro for the ways its constructed tropical landscape serves as an acceptable foil for the boundless tropical vegetation nearby. I deeply appreciated and learned from the visits to the herbarium and field sites, the interdisciplinary conversations in the museum, and the opportunity to directly implement this intellectual curiosity and research into my pedagogy. I intend for this to be the first of many interdisciplinary collaborations that bridge botany, the history of art, and the cultural histories to which works of art respond and which they embody.