The Herbarium Aesthetic: Form and Beauty

Sarah Ann Drake

Epiphyllum crenatum by Sarah Ann Drake, courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (1,3) in this series, there is good neurological evidence for a link between cognitive and affective brain activities.  In other words when we think, we also feel.  It seems to follow from this that there would be a biological basis to aesthetics, to the pleasure we derive from many aspects of life.  And since we are organisms for which the visual is so important, it makes sense that what we see would attract us, in others words, be considered beautiful.  There are a number of different arguments for why an aesthetic sense would be wired into our genes.  Some are based on genetic unity, that we share genes with animals that are attracted to colors, scents, and sounds, so why wouldn’t we also have such capabilities (Skutch, 1992)?  If bees are drawn to flower forms and colors, why not us?  Coming from the other side; some argue that what makes us different from other species is an aesthetic sense.  They link it to a drive to make art, as an adaptation that builds community with others and thus makes those with similar genes more likely to survive and pass them on (Dissanayake, 1992).  Still another view is that there is an advantage to being attracted to habitats that might provide shelter or food, explaining why the savanna seems particularly alluring to humans, who evolved in such habitats in Africa (Ulrich, 1993).  Our sense of curiosity and love of novelty might also be innate because they allow us to investigate the world and learn from it.  I have given a very simplistic view of these approaches, because I am less interested in whether or not our attraction to beautiful plants is genetic and more in what that means for our experience of the green world.

It seems that people want to be near plants.  This is why so many have house plants, or garden, or hike, or even work in herbaria.  Of course, this is not just about plants.  Edward O. Wilson (1984) uses the term biophilia for an innate desire to be near living things.  Steven Kellert (1997, 2012) has written on the many kinds of evidence to support this idea, from patients recovering faster in hospital rooms with windows opening onto natural settings to improved mood after a walk in a park.  But there can be a more intimate relationship, getting to know the plant a little better when you have to consider whether you are watering it enough, or if it’s getting too much sunlight.

And then there is simply looking closely at a flower, examining its forms and colors—and doing this over and over again in a garden or on a field trip, or if neither are possible, then in the pages of books.  Humans don’t just want to experience beauty, but to preserve it in order to prolong or remember that experience.  Today, the most obvious way is with photography, in the past it was through drawing.  The advantage of the latter, even today, is that it deepens the visual experience and includes a tactile one as well.  We are back to issues of craft, as I discussed in an earlier post, and calling on different areas of the brain in still another type of cognitive and affective experience.  This is true even if the result is hardly a masterpiece; it’s still the record of a meaningful involvement with a plant.  And there is the comfort of knowing that endless examples of botanical art exist, created by those with greater skill at capturing the essence and detail of plants [see above].  If you need a fix, take a look at the Historical SciArt blog.

There is another possible level of interaction, and I’ll use as an example tree bark, which happens to be my obsession.  Yes, I was thrilled yesterday when I saw the season’s first cherry blossom and examined it closely, but I spent much more time with a piece of pine bark.  The texture appeals to me perhaps because it engages my fingers as well as my eyes.  Maybe it’s texture that also attracts me to herbarium specimens.  It’s certainly not a wide range of color.  But the textures and forms in a collection are endless.  The lack of color is a problem for some people.  Richard Fortey (2008) sees specimens as plant “mummies” and Edgar Anderson (1952) likens pressing specimens, to laying out corpses; neither are pleasant metaphors.  For me, the dull colors allow for more focus on form and surface features.

The deadness is also a reminder that this particular plant has a history, perhaps a long history.  In other words, there is a story attached to it, which might or might be told by the notations on the sheet.  As I discussed in an earlier post on collections and material culture, such stories are layered onto the taxonomic significance of the specimen.  Here again, the cognitive comes into play, but also the affective.  Everyone loves stories, and there is growing evidence that humans organize knowledge in stories, just another example of the intellect and the emotions interrelating.  Once again, biological aesthetic comes into play; it is at the foundation of our experience of the natural world, and the beauty of herbaria in all their facets is just one set of such manifestations.

References

Anderson, E. (1952). Plants, Man and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Dissanayake, E. (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: Free Press.

Fortey, R. (2008). Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. New York, NY: Knopf.

Kellert, S. (1997). Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kellert, S. R. (2012). Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Skutch, A. (1992). The Origins of Nature’s Beauty. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Ulrich, R. (1993). Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. In S. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis (pp. 73–137). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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The Herbarium Aesthetic: Order and Unity

3 Fritillaria imperialis

In this series of posts on the herbarium aesthetic, it’s relevant to touch on aesthetic qualities, those features considered to make something beautiful and capable of eliciting emotions.  The usual list includes form, rhythm, balance, symmetry, unity and order.  The last seems particularly pertinent to the herbarium, which is all about order.  Without some organization, there is no point in having piles of specimens, because individual specimens can’t be easily located.  But besides being a practical necessity, there is something pleasant about order, whether it means tidying up a room or getting files alphabetized.  In the herbarium, order can refer to a number of things.  Consider a collection that’s being moved into a brand new facility with ranks of compact shelving (might as well dream big).  Making such a move requires planning and often involves more than replicating the ordering system used in the old space.  This would be the perfect time to reorganize, perhaps using APG IV (the fourth version of angiosperm phylogeny).  Or maybe it is better to stick with alphabetical order by family, a system used in many smaller academic herbaria where not everyone accessing the collection would be familiar with more taxonomically sophisticated systems.

Then there is finer-grained order.  Usually herbarium sheets are put into folders, perhaps one or more folders per species or per genus, depending on the size of the collection.  In some cases, a single species may require multiple folders, sorted geographically if it is a widespread one.  Many herbaria use colored folders, with different colors designating different geographical areas.  Believe me, there is absolutely no uniform color code here.  The only color used consistently is red to designate a type specimen.  Types may be filed with the rest of the specimens, or kept separately, perhaps in a more secure location, or at least where they can be easily moved if the collection is threatened by damage.

It must give curators, staff, and volunteers a great feeling of accomplishment when a move is complete, when order has been established.  Order does seem to generate a pleasant feeling at the very least.  That may be one of the reasons why bound herbaria went out of favor.  They confounded new forms of order; it was impossible to reorganize sheets without taking the entire book apart.  A master of order, Carl Linnaeus, devised the herbarium cabinet as an alternative.  But even here, entropy is the enemy of order.  It is very easy to misfile a specimen or a folder, and that can send it into oblivion.

Another aesthetic quality that comes into play in botanical systematics is unity.  I just read Peter Stevens (1994) book on Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu’s natural classification system for plants, definitely not an easy book.  What Jussieu was attempting was next to impossible based on the knowledge available at the end of the 18th century.  Stevens argues that the underlying principle behind this work was the idea of the continuity of nature, a form of the great chain of being.  Essentially this meant that that one form blended into the next: there were no gaps, creating an underlying unity of all living things.  This was an idea that originated with the ancient Greeks and was so attractive it had long staying power despite the fact that there were observations that didn’t fit the scheme.

After the theory of evolution developed, and particularly after DNA sequencing made it possible to put genetic relationships among organisms on a firmer footing, the unbroken chain was no longer tenable and morphed into a tree as the symbol for relationships among organisms.  But note, the necessity for metaphor did not disappear, an image was still needed with which to ground concepts.  Here is yet another aspect of the biological aesthetic: the pleasure of metaphor, of finding a way to link ideas.  As several commentators have shown, metaphor is intrinsic to the way we use language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Brown, 2003).  So here again, as I’ve discussed in earlier posts (1,2), there is a connection between the cognitive and the affective:  what is intellectually useful is also likely to be emotionally satisfying.  There are three great books on the tree metaphor and its visualization which reveal many aspects of this pleasure (Pietsch, 2012; Archibald, 2014; Lima, 2014).

I had a botany professor in graduate school, William Crotty, who saw the beauty of plant forms as variations on a theme.  Right there is a musical metaphor used to describe what makes the study of plant structure so attractive.  When I think of this now, I automatically picture the amazing photographs of leaves, bulbs, anthers, etc. from the genus Fritillaria by the British botanist Laurence Hill [see photo above].  He won a gold medal in portfolio photography at the 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show for a portion of this work, Deconstructed Fritillaria.  To me it’s reminiscent of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book on plant morphology (Arber, 1946 includes a translation of this essay) and of his imagining a urpflanze form to which all individual species’ forms can be related.  There are many good arguments against this romantic idea, but its continuing attractiveness to some botanists indicates its lure as well as, perhaps, some underlying substance.  This brings me back to Agnes Arber, whom I mentioned in the first post in this series.  She used Goethe’s ideas in her book on The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950) and researchers have cited her work in discussing the similarity of flower development genes among angiosperms (Rutishauser & Isler, 2001).  She was also the author of a book on the early printed herbals (1938)  that remains an important reference in this field today.  It is filled with beautiful images from these books, which relates to the topic for my final post in this series:  plants are just plain beautiful.

Note: Thanks to Laurence Hill for his generous sharing of Fritillaria images.

References

Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Arber, A. R. (1950). The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. Cambridge: University Press.

Archibald, J. D. (2014). Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Brown, T. (2003). Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lima, M. (2014). The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Pietsch, T. (2012). Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rutishauser, R., & Isler, B. (2001). Developmental Genetics and Morphological Evolution of Flowering Plants, Especially Bladderworts (Utricularia): Fuzzy Arberian Morphology Complements Classical Morphology. Annals of Botany, 88(6), 1173–1202.

Stevens, P. F. (1994). The Development of Biological Systematics: Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, Nature, and the Natural System. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

The Herbarium Aesthetic: The Private Side of Taxonomy

Virtual Herbarium Image

Trifolium pratense collected by Paul Harwood, in NYBG Herbarium, specimen no. 02626317.

To help explain how scientists actually work, what Gerald Holton calls the private side of science, which I mentioned in my last post, chemist Michael Polanyi (1962) writes about “tacit knowledge.”  This is learning that can’t be put into words.  Driving a car is a good example; it is definitely something that can’t be mastered solely by reading the rules of the road.  There is too much body-centered learning involved:  how much pressure to put on the brake, the relationship between speed and control of the vehicle, how far to move the wheel to make the car turn right.  There is also a lot of tacit knowledge involved in botany.  Send a novice and an expert out into a field, then ask them a few minutes later how many different plant species they found.  Their answers are likely to be very different.  The botanist’s eye has been trained to pick up slight differences in form and color; only a great deal of field work makes this discernment possible.  The zoologist C.F.A. Pantin (1954) writes about what he calls “aesthetic recognition.”  By this he means that experts identify specimens differently than do neophytes.  A beginner will go through a key and systematically narrow down the possibilities until coming up with a name.  The expert is likely to name the specimen quickly without having to bother with this process, though they can then justify their answer by listing distinguishing features.

I find it interesting that Pantin describes the expert’s process as “aesthetic,” as an experience beyond words.  I think in general that is what an aesthetic experience is, one engaging mind and body that’s very difficult to describe.  “Aesthetic” also implies emotion—the expert “feels” that the ID is correct.  Birders talk about the “jizz” of a species, its overall form plus the way it moves, and I think there is something similar for many plants, at least as far as experts are concerned.  There is an emotional jolt that comes with an identification, it feels good to have nailed it, and it feels irksome if the answer turns out to be wrong.

I am interested in the aesthetic in this series of posts because I am trying to get at why interest in plants can be such an addictive pursuit.  I think there are a variety of answers and Pantin provides one.  Arber (see last post) and Polanyi provide others.  In all these cases, they are discussing links among seeing, thinking, doing, and feeling.  The connections are integral to the process of doing the science.  In part, it is about craft, a word with connotations from tacky artifacts to beer to exquisite pottery.  But here I am using the word in terms of expertise, the kind of tacit knowledge that Polanyi refers to.  This is everywhere in the work of a field botanist and taxonomist.  There is craft involved in knowing what to bring on a field trip and what to wear.  It takes skill to arrange specimens for pressing so the resulting herbarium sheet will look good and also display as much of a plant’s information as possible.  I learned this the hard way when I took a class with two masters of the art at New York Botanical Garden, Sheranza Alli and Daniel Atha.  By that time I had seen a lot of herbarium sheets and been enthralled by the beauty of many.  What I didn’t know was how hard it is to wrestle, and I do mean wrestle, a plant down on a sheet of newspaper.  I would get the leaves well placed, and then, while I was attempting to arrange the flower to reveal its parts, the leaves would pop up or the stem would start writhing around.  Darn.  It is very frustrating for a neophyte to see an expert doing this effortlessly—and quickly—but that’s what craft entails.

What is more obviously artistic about a herbarium sheet is the placement of the specimen, but if the plant wasn’t pressed well, the mounter can’t work miracles.  There are definitely issues of style and taste involved in all of this.  Some collectors go for quantity and size, filling a sheet with an overabundance of plant material, while others are more concerned with quality and artful arrangement.  After a while it’s sometimes possible to guess at the collector’s name from specimen characteristics.  This is hardly foolproof but it does point to aesthetic judgments being made.  There is also style in what goes on a label, and even where the label is placed.  This has become more codified over the years.  In many herbaria, it’s de rigueur for the label to be in the lower right-hand corner, in others, it tends to float depending on where there is the most space.  Also, the practice has become to add more and more information to the label, as opposed the terse info of the 19th century.  However, there is still room for personal taste.  When I worked at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden Herbarium, before it was shuttered, the herbarium supervisor, Paul Harwood, told me that his friends accused him of writing labels that were “Faulknerian” in their detail [see specimen above].  But sometimes those added pieces of information—on other species in the area, geology, and landmarks—come in handy, though it can make label transcription laborious.  In any case, herbarium sheets are rarely boring to look at because there can be a great deal of variety, the result of different tastes working at different times.

References

Pantin, C. F. A. (1954). The Recognition of Species. Science Progress, 42, 587–598.

Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Herbarium as Experience

1 Dewey

As a master’s student, I would return to the lab in the evenings to write my thesis on enzyme kinetics.  However, I was often sidetracked by reading my adviser’s copy of a book on the origins of molecular biology (Cairns, Stent & Watson, 1966).  I should have known then that I was more interested in how biology was done rather than in doing research myself:  I wanted to explore the human passion behind the inquiry.  My doctoral thesis was on the aesthetic of biology:  what makes biology beautiful.  I had a wonderful time exploring the many answers to this question (Flannery, 1992).  Then, years later I fell in love with herbaria.  As I explored this new world, I realized that I was drawn to it because it exemplifies the biological aesthetic in a myriad of ways that I’ll explore in this series of posts.

Aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty, or some would say the philosophy of art, because they see a difference between beauty in the natural and human-made realms, and focus on the latter.  I tend to side with those who take the more inclusive view.  I’m particularly drawn to John Dewey’s (1934) Art as Experience.  He argues that any activity in which one is fully engaged has an aesthetic component and involves both cognition and affect.  I can’t think of any activity that fits this description better than biological inquiry.  Consider what it’s like to be out in the field searching for interesting specimens:  the mind and the eye are fully absorbed.  When a species is found, there are decisions to be made:  is this something so rare that it shouldn’t be tampered with, is it in bloom, what would make a good specimen, how should it be arranged so it presses well?  Then there is getting all the necessary information recorded.  This entire process entails, at the very least, mind, eye, and hand.  And I would argue also the heart because there is the excitement of discovery and acquisition, as well as curiosity and the challenge of artful arrangement and of correct identification.

Over the past 30 years, there’s been a move in education to emphasize and nurture the links between the affective and cognitive functions of the brain with the argument that effective learning encompasses both.  This is the theme that neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has enlarged upon in several books (1994, 2000, 2018).  Still, the Cartesian separation of mind and body remains deeply engrained in our collective unconscious, especially when it comes to attitudes toward the differences between art and science:  art is about feeling, science about rational thought.  Yet, in fact, they are both complex blends of many brain and body activities that are strikingly similar in both realms.  Robert Root-Bernstein (1989) did a study on the outside interests of top scientists and found that many of them were involved in the arts, which they pursued vigorously along with their science.  A number saw a connection between the two activities.  Roald Hoffmann, for example, a Nobel-Prize-winning chemist and also a published poet, described going into the deep recesses of his mind and heart in writing a poem, just the places he had to access for his scientific ideas as well.  Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a neuroanatomist and another Nobelist, was an accomplished artist whose drawings were an essential part of his scientific work.

The same can be said of a number of botanists.  I’ve written posts on Konrad Gessner (1,2), whom Florike Egmond (2016) contends used drawing as a way to make discoveries about plant structure as well as to record them.  I’ve also mentioned the British plant morphologist, Agnes Arber (1954), who wrote The Mind and the Eye, in which she argued that plant morphology entailed mental abilities usually associated with art rather than science:  a sense of space, manipulating forms in space, and going beyond rational thought into a realm assumed to be art’s territory.  When I found Arber’s book early in my work on the biological aesthetic, I felt justified in continuing to pursue the subject.  Here was a Fellow of the Royal Society who was convinced of the link between art and science as essential to her scientific inquiry.  Though this is was hardly an isolated case, examples are not easy to find.

Most information about such links belong to what is called the “private side” of science.  Years ago, the physicist and historian Gerald Holton (1973) made the distinction between private and public science to explain why most people have a rather distorted view of science as being rational, logical, and orderly.  This description is correct for science that is published; it has to have these characteristics in order to be understandable and convincing.  Yet, how science is actually done is very different.  It is not an organized product, but often a rather messy, unsystematic, and illogical process.  Much science begins with a conclusion, a brilliant idea, a hunch for which there is little or no evidence.  The route to making sense of the idea and corroborating it may be a long and winding road, with U-turns, detours, and many fallen trees blocking the path—and much excitement as well.  It is this part of science that interests me, and what I was investigating in the lab at night when enzymology was being neglected.  This is the part of science that attracted me to the herbaria, a private side of science if ever there was one, and a topic I’ll pursue in the following posts.

References

Arber, A. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

Cairns, J., Stent, G., & Watson, J. (Eds.). (1966). Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam.

Damasio, A. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego, CA: Mariner Books.

Damasio, A. (2018). The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. New York: Pantheon.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Putnam.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Flannery, M. C. (1992). Biology Is Beautiful. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 35(3), 422–435.

Holton, G. (1973). Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Root-Bernstein, R. (1989). Discovering. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pietro Andrea Mattioli and Luca Ghini

4 Mattioli

Image of crocus in Mattioli’s Sinensis Medici, 1565. Biodiversity Heritage Library.

This is my final post on Luca Ghini and the botanists influenced by him.  My subject here is Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577), who was not one of Ghini’s student but definitely benefited from his mentorship.  Mattioli’s first publication was a 1544 translation and commentary on the Greek physician Dioscorides’s first-century AD book on herbal medicine, the leading reference in the field for over 1500 years.  It was copied in many different versions in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, often with notes added to include new information or to correct mistakes.  Mattioli followed in this tradition.  By the time he was writing, there were several forces at work making updating Dioscorides more difficult.  First was the problem of attempting to relate the plants the Greek described with those botanists found growing in their own localities.  It was becoming clear that biogeography had to be taken into account.  This presented a problem for physicians:  how could they know that a plant with certain medicinal properties that Dioscorides described was the plant they were looking at?  Some saw this as a philological issue, a matter of textual descriptions, and tried to work it out by editing his text and adding comments to it.  Others, and these became more common as the 16th century moved on, saw the solution in direct observation of the plants they had before them, and testing the species’ medicinal properties.

Luca Ghini obviously belonged to this second group, but he was also a product of a time when Dioscorides was still revered.  In fact, he had planned his own commentary on the earlier work and had been accumulating specimens, observations, and illustrations for it.  Yes, illustrations.  While Ghini thought that textual descriptions were necessary, he considered images valuable in communicating information about plant form.  In her article about Ghini that I’ve used as a reference for these posts, Paula Findlen (2017) writes that sometime around 1551, Ghini made the decision not to pursue work on his book.  He had too much else to do and producing a publication was a major task.  In addition, it would be a costly one if there were illustrations involved.  Instead, he freely shared his research with other botanists.  As I’ve mentioned an earlier post, he lent notes, images, and even specimens and also received loans of such materials.  This was how knowledge was shared and developed, but Ghini was particularly giving in this regard.

He was especially generous to Mattioli, who was the recipient of Ghini’s research on Dioscorides’s plants.  In 1551, Ghini completed his annotations to Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides.  Known as the Placiti, it was made up of 69 opinions or notes,.  He sent this to Mattioli and also recommended that illustrations be included.  There must have been correspondence between Ghini and Mattioli over these revisions, but all their letters are lost.  By 1554, Mattioli was preparing another edition, and Ghini spent four days finishing his review of the manuscript and made a list of suggested corrections, which he sent to his protégé Ulisse Aldrovandi for his comments, a great example of the communal nature of botanical inquiry.

Mattioli’s 1554 edition of Dioscorides was the first to be illustrated, including woodcuts of illustrations that Ghini had sent, as well as one made from his pressed plants.  It had quotes from the Placiti and as citations from Ghini’s letters.  Mattioli is well-known today not so much for his written commentaries but for the illustrations in the latter editions of his work on Dioscorides.  The last edition which he oversaw was published in 1565 in Venice and had over 1000 illustrations.  Remarkably, many of the carved wooden blocks used to print these images have survived and are held at a number of institutions including the Oak Spring Foundation Library, and the libraries at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and the Missouri Botanical Garden (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  Oak Spring also has a copy of the 1565 edition that was printed on blue paper—one of only two in existence—with the illustrations highlighted in silver and gold (Tomasi, 2013).  I saw it on display at NYBG a few years ago, open to the page with an illustration of lavender and I found it mesmerizing (Tomasi, 2013).  And this is the point:  Mattioli is known for the beauty of his publication more than for their substance; by the time this edition came out interest in attempting to update Dioscorides and other ancient texts was fading.  Botanists like Ghini’s student Andrea Cesalpino (see last post) were writing new texts based on observation and analysis rather than on philology, analyzing the meaning of ancient texts.

The transition from one approach to the other was slow, and Mattioli was in the middle between the two traditions, with Ghini pushing him toward direct observation and visual evidence.  As Findlen remarks, Ghini’s lack of publication caused him to become rather invisible in botanical history, despite his pivotal role in early modern Italian botany.  His major claim to fame seems to be his development of the herbarium though there are some who see it as having been invented earlier.  In any case, he is the one who proselytized its use to the point where it became a relatively common means of documenting plants.  I should note however, that Mattioli, while he pressed plants and studied those pressed by others, including Ghini, didn’t keep an herbarium.  He tossed his sheets out after he was finished studying them!

References

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.

Tomasi, L. T. (2013). The Renaissance Herbal. New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Andrea Cesalpino and Luca Ghini

3 Cesalpino title

Title page of Andrea Cesalpino’s De plantis libri XVI, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Andrea Cesalpino (1524-1603) is, I think, my favorite among Luca Ghini’s successors in botany because he most exemplifies the careful attention to detail and to observation that were hallmarks of his teacher’s work.  He also had a philosophical side that manifested itself in his great publication De plantis libri XVI or The Plant in Fourteen Books (1583).  Cesalpino had already achieved a great deal before publishing this work.  He was one of Ghini’s students at Pisa, earning his degree in medicine.  When Ghini left Pisa in 1555, Cesalpino took his place as professor of botany and director of the botanical garden there; he also adopted his mentor’s device for documenting plants for teaching and research:  the herbarium.  He created at least two, one with over seven hundred specimens which he dedicated to Bishop Alfonso Tornabuoni and which survives in the herbarium of the University of Florence.  This gives a hint that herbaria were beginning to be used for a variety of purposes.  While Ghini saw teaching and documenting species information as foremost, Cesalpino also saw the form as a way to thank and honor a patron.

From his correspondence and publications, which were extensive, we know that Cesalpino went on plant collecting field trips, created lists of the species growing in the Pisa botanical garden, and taught both materia medica and then general medicine.  He remained at Pisa until 1592 when he became professor of medicine at the University of Rome and physician to Pope Clement VIII.  This move relatively late in life was provoked by the promotion of another professor, the famous physician Girolamo Merculiale, over him at Pisa.  Cesalpino remained in Rome until his death in 1605.  While I’m interested here in his botanical research, he studied many areas of medicine including geology and the use of minerals as materia medica, as well as the circulation of blood through the heart, making the most progress in this area before William Harvey.

In all his work, but perhaps especially in botany, Cesalpino took a more theoretical view of natural history than was common at the time.  He didn’t want to just collect information and organize it, he sought out fundamental ideas behind the details.  He was Aristotelian in his approach and like Aristotle’s student Theophrastus, he attempted to formulate a system of plant classification.  However, Cesalpino didn’t publish it until after he had spent many years studying plants in the field, the botanical garden, the herbarium, and the literature.  Despite being a physician, he did not, like Dioscorides—then still the leading source of information about materia medica—focus on the medicinal properties of plants.  Instead, Cesalpino sought basic traits on which to base his taxonomy.

Theophrastus began his system by dividing plants into four categories: trees, bushes, shrubs, and herbs, noting that the division among them is not hard and fast—a deep classificatory problem that plagues systematists to this day:  living things refuse to fit into neat categories.  Cesalpino used a different, but related, four-part scheme.  He put trees and shrubs together; had a second category for seeds without coverings, namely gymnosperms; then came non-woody plants with covered seeds: the herbs and finally plants without discernable seeds.  In a letter, he described how he would shuffle through his herbarium sheets, putting them into piles based on similar traits.  This suggests that when he was working with specimens, they were not bound in volumes, but more conveniently loose for just such rearranging.

This and other interesting pieces of information are in Cristina Bellorini’s (2016) book on medicine and botany in Renaissance Tuscany, where she describes the results of Cesalpino’s studies that appeared in De plantis.  Bellorini considers Cesalpino’s system as natural in that it’s based on similarities that link plants having more than arbitrary likenesses.  Within his four basic categories, he groups species according to what he saw as their most fundamental functions:  nutrition and reproduction.  For nutrition, he looked at roots and divided them into those that became woody and those that didn’t.  For reproduction, he examined flowers, fruits, and seeds.  Cesalpino was not alone in focusing on such structures as key to understanding plant relationships.  In an earlier post, I’ve written about Conrad Gessner’s notebooks that are filled with images and notes that often highlight just such plant parts, which Florike Egmond (2016) sees as evidence that Gessner was thinking of these traits in terms of classification.

It’s important to note that Cesalpino’s book has no illustrations.  He wrote that he didn’t think they were necessary because he was less interested in differentiating among species that in illustrating ways in which they were alike.  Lack of illustrations is probably one reason why he is less known today than some of Ghini’s other associates such as Pietro Andrea Mattioli, whom I’ll discuss in the next post.  In many cases images in publications made them more popular and therefore more likely to be republished.  In the present day, early botanical works are often valued for their illustrations rather than for their texts, which is definitely the case with Mattioli.

In his history of botany, A.G. Morton (1981) regards Cesalpino’s contributions to the development of plant classification very highly.  He presents Cesalpino’s work in detail relative to how he treats many other botanists’ thought.  Morton sees Cesalpino as one of the few botanists before the 17th century to deal with fundamental questions about how to organize plant knowledge.  Obviously this issue became more urgent as more and more species became known, but even in the 16th century, plants from the Americas and Asia were being grown in Pisa.  For example, Cesalpino discusses the tomato, sunflower, and agave.  He seemed to understand the way botany was heading and felt it necessary to think deeply about plant organization.  He followed in the tradition of his teacher, Luca Ghini, in amassing specimens and information, and then subjecting it all to careful analysis.

References

Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, A. G. (1981). History of Botanical Science. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Ulisse Aldrovandi and Luca Ghini

2 Aldrovandi

Website for the Herbarium of Ulisse Aldrovandi

In the last post, I discussed the life of Luca Ghini, the Italian botanist who created the first herbarium, but is little remembered because he published none of his botanical work.  However, several of his students had distinguished careers and carried on his tradition of careful observation combined with documentation in notes, illustrations, and specimens.  The one considered his heir in terms of depth of botanical knowledge is Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), yet he never officially studied with Ghini.  Aldrovandi received his medical degree from the University of Bologna while Ghini was teaching at the University of Pisa.  However, Ghini often returned to his native Bologna where he had taught earlier, and they probably met during one of these visits.  Paula Findlen (2017) speculates that they might have been introduced sometime around 1553 by one of Ghini’s former students, Francesco Petrollini, who taught Aldrovandi and who, like Ghini, kept an herbarium.  Aldrovandi soon took up the practice, and even improved upon it, describing a paste he used to hold down the specimens on paper and help preserve their color.

After they met, Aldrovandi spent time in Pisa learning from Ghini.  Together they collected on field trips into the mountains and also investigated the plants in the Pisa botanical garden.  The younger man published a catalogue of the 620 species growing there.  Ghini shared teaching and research materials, including his class notes, which were helpful to Aldrovandi when he became professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna.  Ghini left Pisa and returned to Bologna in 1555; by this time, he was a sick man.  Aldrovandi worked with Ghini, attempting to get his mentor’s papers in order, and thus was seen by other botanists as the person to contact about Ghini’s medical condition as well as about botanical matters.  Aldrovandi went on to live for another 50 years and had a rich career involved in a number of fields, including botany.

Ghini and Aldrovandi had much in common as botanist-physicians.  They were intent on learning about plants not only to use in treatment but as objects of curiosity—a trend that became more common as the 16th century went on (Ogilve, 2006).  They also differed from each other in many ways. They were both born in Bologna and studied there, but Ghini eventually left, while Aldrovandi spent most of his life there.  They both came from families that weren’t wealthy, however, the Aldrovandis were noblemen and their fortunes improved when a member of his mother’s family became pope in 1570.  By the time Aldrovandi died, he had amassed a reasonable fortune and a large natural history collection, which included everything from plants and minerals to insects and a variety of other animals.  He had over 14,500 specimens and 2,000 drawings of plants by 1570 (Findlen, 1994).  Like Ghini, he saw both text and image as necessary for communicating about the form of organisms; neither alone would suffice.  Aldrovandi had a large library of 4000 volumes including many of his bound collections of letters and notes.  He had an impressive network of correspondents, many times larger than Ghini’s 227.  This indicates that the perception of science as a solitary profession has never been the case:  the making of scientific knowledge has always been communal.  Even in the early modern period, no one person could know it all, though people like Aldrovandi definitely made an attempt at it.

Aldrovandi used his specimens, illustrations, and library as the basis for the many books he published, most on zoological topics.  Like Ghini, he was interested in other areas of natural history besides botany.  While I am focusing on plants here, most of Aldrovandi’s published works deal with animals, including books on birds, one on snakes, and a volume on monstrous animals.  The last is hardly surprising: curiosities and oddities remained an interest from the Middle Ages, and new and strange species were being discovered around the world.  However, Aldrovandi’s writings were based primarily on first hand observation, as was the case for his botanical work, a legacy of his time with Ghini.  He used an organizing system that was becoming common: making notes on slips of paper and pasting them into notebooks along with other relevant information, sometimes including images.  Aldrovandi did write a book on trees, Dendrologiae naturalis, which was illustrated but like most of his writings it wasn’t published until decades after his death.  That he left publication to those who followed him is probably one reason that so little about plants went into print:  books about animals seemed more fascinating, a problem that persists to this day.

Besides the fact that his work was published and Ghini’s wasn’t, another reason Aldrovandi is remembered is that his collection didn’t quickly disappear as Ghini’s did.  Aldrovandi insured its survival by willing it to the Senate of Bologna, and it was conserved in the city palace.  But in the 19th century the collection was distributed among several libraries and other institutions, leading to loss of a great deal of the material.  Some of what is left is now on display in Bologna’s Palazzo Poggi, but it is a poor remnant of its former richness.  The legacy of another of Ghini’s protégés, Andrea Cesalpino, will be the subject of the next post.

References

Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

At the Beginning: Luca Ghini

1 Ghini

Portrait of Luca Ghini. Wikipedia.

I recently read an article by Paula Findlen (2017) on Luca Ghini (1490-1556), the Italian botanist credited with creating the first herbarium.  Her piece was a revelation to me.  It presented Ghini as a multifaceted individual who did so much more than press plants, and it put the herbarium into context within Ghini’s approach to the study of plants.  Findlen argues that Ghini is not better known today because he published nothing during his life, however, he was extremely influential among his students and fellow botanists throughout Europe.  In this post, I’ll discuss why he was so important in botanical circles.  In the following ones in this series, I’ll profile three significant Italian botanists of the next generation who were influenced by Ghini.

Practicing medicine throughout his career, Luca Ghini was educated as a physician at the University of Bologna.  He soon began to teach practical medicine at Bologna and started to collect plant specimens around this time.  He then lobbied to teach medical botany, doing so for the first time in 1534.  He eventually became professor of materia medica and kept this position until he moved to the University of Pisa in 1544.  There he founded the first botanical garden connected to a university, taught medical botany, and served as personal physician to Cosimo I de’ Medici.  He remained in Pisa until 1555 when he returned to Bologna where he died the following year.

Findlen begins her paper with the reaction of Ghini’s students and colleagues to his passing.  They were horrified at being without their mentor, without the person to whom they brought their botanical questions knowing he would give them solid and thoughtful answers.  How had Ghini developed such a reputation?  Findlen credits careful observation as central to his method.  His professor at Bologna, Niccolò Leoniceno, taught that it was important to correlate words with things, that observation mattered in medicine.  To make observation matter, it had to be recorded, so careful note taking was essential as was physical documentation.  That’s where botanical gardens and herbaria, both of which Ghini pioneered, came into the picture.  Ghini moved to Pisa in part because Medici was willing to finance a garden to be used in teaching.  After a lecture, Ghini would spend an hour or two walking among the plants with his students, pointing out species, structures, and medicinal traits relevant to the day’s lesson.  But when winter came and the garden was rather useless for demonstrations, Ghini could fall back on his hortus siccus, his dried garden, in the form of pressed specimens.  Since this winter garden was rather colorless and flat, Ghini also had illustrations made to preserve plant form and color.

Several students took up Ghini’s practices, and while none of his illustrations or specimens survive, some of theirs do.   Gherardo Cibo’s (1512-1600) herbarium, which was begun in 1532, is the oldest one surviving and is held at the Pontifical University Library in Rome.  Cibo also painted beautiful illustrations that are in the British Library.  They are unique in that unlike most plant images, his are painted against landscape backgrounds where the plants loom very large.  Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), who was considered by most of his peers as the person to go to for botanical information after Ghini’s death, amassed a large herbarium and a library of 8000 natural history illustrations, some of which are still extant in Bologna (Bellorini, 2016)  The specimens of another Ghini pupil, Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), are in Florence.  (Aldrovandi and Cesapino will be the subjects of the following posts).

As did many of botanists of his time, Ghini considered travel and communication as crucial to the development of knowledge (Ogilve, 2006).  He took field trips during the summers, going into the mountains between Pisa and Bologna, often in the company of his students or fellow botanists, many of whom travelled to consult him.  Valerius Cordus visited from Leiden, William Turner from England, and Guillaume Rondelet from Montpelier.  Leonhart Fuchs, the author of one of the first modern herbals (1542) traded specimens, illustrations, and notes.  To facilitate the exchange of seed with other botanists, Ghini created the first seed index and circulated this list so botanists would know what they could request from the botanical garden in Pisa.  Ghini maintained correspondence with a large number of botanists including many of his former students such Bartolomeo Maranta in Naples, who dedicated his book on medicinal plants to Ghini from whom he had learned research methods.  Ghini was very generous with his knowledge and his resources, which was one reason it was difficult to organize his materials after his death—many of them were out on loan.

Around 1551, Ghini made a conscious decision not to publish any work, although he had amassed notes and illustrations for a projected natural history.  It was the herbals of Otto Brunfels (1530) and Leonhart Fuchs (1542) that convinced him of the importance of illustrations, but they were expensive to produce, and he wasn’t in a position to take the financial risk involved.  Instead, Ghini shared his writings and observations with others, so his work did in part become published in the writings of several botanists, including Ulisse Aldrovandi, Andrea Cesalpino, and most importantly, Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1578).  These botanists will be presented in the next three posts.

Note:  I want to thank Paula Findlen for generously sharing the reference to her Luca Ghini article with me.

References

Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Collections: Material Culture and Stories

4 Aplopappus

Aplopappus spinulosus specimen in the Steere Herbarium, New York Botanical Garden

At last fall’s History of Science Society meeting (see earlier post), Sally Kohlstedt of the University of Minnesota discussed a Maori amulet called a hei-tiki that had been acquired during the US Exploring Expedition’s visit to New Zealand in 1840.  She analyzed how this artifact, which was sacred to the Maori people, was displayed in a number of contexts over the years in the United States, where it became part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.  Kohlstedt began with a 1906 quote by Otis Mason, ethnology curator at the Smithsonian:  “An ideal specimen is an object that has something to teach about humanity. . . . In the untaught mind it is a curiosity or monstrosity, and the more mystery there is about it, the better.  But all such notions are far from the sciences of Anthropology.  A good specimen is capable of telling more than one story.  It may talk about race, development, geography, progress, skill, art, social life, or whisper of a spirit world.”  This statement stuck with me, because I think that in large part, it holds as true for many herbarium specimens as for human-made artifacts.

In a related article on the hei-tiki, Kohlstedt (2016) notes that the distinction between artifacts and specimens only became common in the 20th century.  This is important to my argument here that herbarium specimens are objects that can be described through the lens of material culture, which deals with objects that people use to define their culture.  In other words, specimens can be considered as cultural products, much as pottery or hei-tikis or tools can.  After all, a herbarium specimen is a plant that has been selected by a human being, cut to fit on a sheet of paper, attached there often using an artistic sense, and then labeled.  The specimen is thus much more than a plant, it is a written document about the plant, and both are essential to the meaning of this artifact.  The place and time of collection as well as the collector’s name are part of the specimen’s story.  All specimens tell stories, not only through the text attached to them, but also through, for example, such aspects as the paper used in labeling and mounting.  Labels made from reused scraps suggest that paper was a precious commodity that couldn’t be wasted.   A specimen’s meaning can alter, as later determinations change the plant’s name, or the sheet is moved from one collection to another through trade, purchase, or gift.  Thus specimens can become more meaningful with time.  They can come to be used in new ways, as evidence in biodiversity studies or as sources of DNA for genomic work.  Recently, meanings have grown beyond science since herbaria have encouraged artists to use their collections as sources of inspiration for paintings, sculptures, and installations (Drinkwater, 2017).  Also, there are projects involving historians of science working with plant collections and the documentation related to them (Ayres, 2015).

Susan Pearce, a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, writes that objects can have a “chameleon-like quality, the ability to take on different cultural colors while retaining the same body.” (Pearce, 1995, p. 127).  A goldenrod specimen, Solidago edisoniana, documents a plant growing in a specific place, but it takes on an entirely different meaning, as a historical rather than a botanical document, when a letter from Thomas Alva Edison is discovered in the same herbarium file.  This led Lisa Vargues, a curatorial assistant at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) to investigate Edison’s interest in rubber cultivation and his work with the herbarium’s head curator at the time, John Kunkel Small on several species of goldenrod that had potential as rubber producers.  This is a great example of what could be called the “biography” of a specimen, it’s life history that can continue to unfold into the future.

Also at the NYBG Steere Herbarium is a sheet with two specimens of Aplopappus spinulosus, one collected by a newspaper writer on General Custer’s 1874 expedition to the Black Hills of South Dakota, two years before his last stand.  The other was obtained in 1880 in California by John Lemmon, a prolific collector who married botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon, a wedding mentioned in the journal edited by John Merle Coulter, the individual responsible for this sheet.  He was at Hobart College when he received the first specimen, and at Wabash College when the second arrived.  However, these specimens are at NYBG because Wabash donated it in the 1980s when it was making room for what it saw as more important space needs.

The layers of meaning attached to this sheet are likely to grow in the future since it has been imaged and is now available on the web.  The internet makes for an entirely new set of meanings, including the juxtapositioning of specimens that would never have been seen together.  In other words, material culture now has an immaterial aspect that changes the character of our interactions with objects.  The physicality is gone, and that is a loss.  There is no substitute for physical examination of any object, but there are attendant pluses to virtual access as well.  Constant handling of the Edison letter would hardly do it any good, but many people can enjoying reading his words at the same time that they are looking at the plant specimen in question.  Collecting can be an obsession, as Hans Sloane and John Jenks with whom I began this series of posts, well knew.  Today, it is much easier for us all to share these obsessions and learn from the objects in question.

References

Ayres, E. (2015). Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from https://publicdomainreview.org/2015/10/14/richard-spruce-and-the-trials-of-victorian-bryology/.

Drinkwater, R. (2017). A collaboration between RBGE and Edinburgh College of Art. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from https://stories.rbge.org.uk/archives/23575.

Kohlstedt, S. C. (2016). Museum perceptions and productions: American migrations of a Maori hei-tiki. Endeavor, 40(1), 7–23.

Mason, O. T. (1906). Annual Report for Ethnology (No. RU158). Smithsonian Institution.

Pearce, S. (1999). On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition. Routledge.

Curating Collections

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Herbarium of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, Glasnevin

The word “curate” seems to have become very popular.  It once referred almost exclusively to what the people did who worked with collections in museums, but now everything is being curated, from websites to wardrobes.  It seems to have become a synonym for the verb “select:”  to put some thought into what is chosen.  However, in its original meaning it connotes more than just picking what should belong in a collection; it involves the care, study, and organization of the items.  Naturally, I’m thinking primarily about herbaria and other natural history material, but this meaning holds for all kinds of collections from art to anthropological, from libraries to historical materials.  Without curation, collections deteriorate and lose value because their attendant knowledge is not used and nurtured.

In my last two posts (1, 2), I’ve referred to Steven Lubar’s (2017) book, Inside the Lost Museum, in which he discusses why the Jenks Museum of Natural History at Brown University has not survived, why its collections have been lost.  This is hardly a unique situation.  Many herbarium specimens have been tossed into dumpsters to free up space for what are considered more pressing needs in museums, botanical gardens, and universities.  In many cases, however, they have been saved by being incorporated into other collections that continue to be curated.  Still, there is a problem:  while the specimens may get moved and properly filed, it is unlikely that curatorial staff moved with them.  Those working at the host institution must just take on the added burden of more materials to curate.

But what is all that curation about?  Answers come not only from books on managing herbarium collections (Bridson & Forman, 1998; Metsger & Byers, 1999), but also from curators of other types of collections, such as Lubar, Hans Ulrich Obrist (2014), and Nicholas Thomas (2016), who makes the point that “an object may be stored, but an object cannot be said to be cared for if curators don’t know they have it, if it can’t be located or is miscatalogued” (p. 65).  This comment would strike home for most herbarium curators because they have inherited specimens that don’t have accession numbers, are filed under outdated names, or are still in the cardboard boxes in which they arrived, perhaps decades ago.  While an art museum may have to deal with thousands of works, most herbaria must cope with tens of thousands of specimens, some of which were not treasured as art works often are.  By that I mean that they need to be remounted on acid-free paper, studied by a taxonomist to update nomenclature, georeferenced, entered into a database, and be imaged.  This is the work that curators have to manage, and it requires a great deal of time and expertise, both of which are expensive.  So curation is a nice term to bandy about, but it’s something that must be taken seriously if collections are to be useful and bear fruit in the future.

While I have been emphasizing difficult issues facing curators, there are also wonderful things about the job as well.  Both Thomas and Obrist emphasize the importance of curiosity to curators.  Obrist quotes Paul Chan’s observation that “curiosity is the pleasure principle of thought” (p. 42).  Thomas writes that a curator’s activities are often driven by curiosity to encounter something new about an item and discover novel ways to juxtapose the pieces in a collection.  He admits that some part of a collection may be better cared for more than others because that’s the curator’s area of interest, an admission that any one person’s breadth is limited.

A number of writers on the history of museums discuss the importance of catalogues as curatorial means not only of documenting and organizing a collection but also communicating that information to those who can’t examine the items firsthand.  Hans Sloane (see earlier post) not only labeled his own specimens, but created catalogues as well.  Unfortunately, though his herbarium survives, its catalogues.  Philipp Blom (2002) sees a catalogue as necessary because “it is not an appendage to a large collection, it is its apogee” (p. 215).  It is not only a sign of curatorial attention, but of the knowledge residing in it.  I am thinking specifically of the digital portals that are now providing access to herbarium materials.  These are indeed the apogee of biodiversity information, the plant world writ large .  They are the result of renewed curatorial interest in these collections, and an awareness that even if amalgamation of collections often makes physical examination of specimens more difficult, at least electronic access provides some if not all of what a specimen can reveal.

Everything I’ve read about curation includes the topic of selection.  This is often a difficult process in the art world, where funds are limited, trustees and donors must be satisfied, and the institution’s mission kept in mind.  Not every offered item is a gem, so curators have to be diplomats while also strategizing how to acquire the best pieces.  This might seem less of a problem in a herbarium, but space is limited, inferior specimens add nothing to the collection’s value, and every offered item is not a gem.  Wise curators also know how to use duplicates to obtain specimens that will enrich a particular area of the collection, and diplomacy is often needed to negotiate the acquisition of collections being “orphaned” by other institutions.  Reading about such curation issues in a broad sense has given me a greater appreciation for what herbarium managers and curators do and why their work is so vital to the health of these natural history treasure troves.

References

Blom, P. (2002). To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

Bridson, D., & Forman, L. (1998). The Herbarium Handbook (3rd ed.). Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Metsger, D. A., & Byers, S. C. (Eds.). (1999). Managing the Modern Herbarium: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Vancouver, Canada: Elton-Wolf.

Obrist, H. U. (2014). Ways of Curating. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Thomas, N. (2016). The Return of Curiosity: What Museums Are Good for in the 21st Century. London, UK: Reaktion.