I just finished Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Ways of Curating (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) where he discusses how he got into the field and how he approaches it. He is definitely post-modern and deals primarily with conceptual art. His method is very much about art beyond formal settings and about working with artists in creating work. He asks them: what would you like to do that you haven’t been able to do? He often has exhibits outside of museums and frequently in small spaces, even a single shelf or wall.
Obrist’s book doesn’t seem to have much to do with curating herbarium collections, but it has gotten me thinking about what it means to curate a plant collection. Obrist sees a curator as having four functions: preservation; displaying and arranging the art; selection of new work; contributing to art history. Plant curation means taking care of the collection, which can be a big job: protecting specimens from damage, keeping them organized, and keeping of loans and acquistions. There is also the work of communicating what is in the collection. At the present time, this often involves presenting the specimens digitally, or at least preparing for this, and dealing with questions of how to provide access to a broader audience.
Curating entails deciding on what is added to the collection. No institution has unlimited resources, so decisions have to be made based on the quality of objects. For plant specimens, this can mean a number of things including how they relate to what is already in the collection. When Donovan Correll arrived at the Fairchild Gardens Herbarium he deacquistioned material that was not from the Florida area or from the Neotropics. He planned to write a flora of the Bahamas and didn’t want to have the herbarium cluttered with material that wasn’t in any way relevant to his project. While making sure they were dispersed to institutions that could use them, he cleared out European and Asian specimens; these donations were often in trade for material he wanted, so the Fairchild Herbarium ultimately expanded, but in a focused way. This example highlights the need not only for order in a collection but also for space. The latter constraint is what makes many curators very selective about specimens added to their collections. Many herbaria are already crammed, and that’s not good for the specimens: compression can lead to damage, with fragile material more likely to crumble under pressure. A herbarium with compact shelving and plenty of workspace is a beautiful thing, but it is a luxury not available in many institutions.
To do the job well, the curator must know the collection well. This means many things including what specimens are there and what information is on the sheets including historically important information, handwriting, and collector preferences. Recently, I visited Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC and met Dane Kuppinger, the curator of the herbarium there. The collection was begun in the 18th century by the Moravians who founded the college. The oldest dated specimen they have is from 1819. Kuppinger has been there 5 years and has a sense of the collection. By this I mean, he knows where the interesting specimens are. He knows what’s in good shape and what isn’t. He has a sense of who wrote what on the specimen, and he can tell when things are out of place. It is a relatively small collection, but Kerry Berringer could do the same with the 750 thousands specimens in the now-closed herbarium of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and Marina Potapova with the thousands of diatom slides, bottles, and packages in the Academy of Natural Sciences Diatom Herbarium in Philadelphia.
All these people would like to spend more time just going through the collection, spending time with it, inhaling it. But there are so many other things to do: grants, paperwork, meetings–all are part of the job of curating. Some curators focus on one aspect more than on others, and this focus can change with time. In any case, there is a passion to the work. What Orbst relates in his discussion of projects with which he has been involved is a total commitment to the work. For him, curating is about working with people and ideas to create as well as present forms of conceptual art. For a herbarium curator, the passion is also there, passion for the wonder of plants and the linkages that every specimen has to places and periods, to people and stories. Someone told me at the beginning of my interest in herbaria, that there are two kinds of herbarium curators, those who are interested in the history of their collections of botany in general, and those who are not. Curators in scientific institutions, like those in the art world, have individual tastes, and these rub off on the collections they serve. This collaboration is just one aspect of what makes herbaria so fascinating.