Collections Everywhere

Soldier's hut, Valley Forge

Soldier’s hut at Valley Forge

Since I dabble in art and sewing, I decided to treat myself to a week-long workshop with the Canadian artist, Dorothy Caldwell, who uses stitching in her work. Held at the Crow Timber Frame Barn near Columbus, Ohio, it ended a couple of days before a workshop on Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so I tacked that on to my road trip. Driving home, I realized that the theme of collections and preservation pervaded my entire journey. In this series of posts, I’d like to discuss why. I will eventually get to herbaria, but first I’m going to meander through a few other collections, much as I meandered through several states. Heading west when I set out, I came upon signs for Valley Forge, and since I’d never visited, I made a stop there. I didn’t have much time, so I just walked a trail and visited the Washington Memorial Chapel, a beautiful structure, built more than a 100 years after the Revolutionary War. Near it is an old reconstruction of one of the huts Washington’s soldiers used during the terrible winter of 1777-1778 (see figure above). It gave some sense of the cramped, uncomfortable quarters, but a lovely day in May is not the best time to experience what Valley Forge must have truly been like back then. The park is quite expansive and several old farm buildings are on the site so it’s easier to picture this area in peacetime. This is one of several places I visited on this trip where I felt grateful to the people who had the foresight to preserve such locations with their rich history and biological interest as well.

The next day I headed to Pittsburgh and visited another area full of treasures: Schenley Park. Both the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History are located on the park’s periphery. The latter has a lovely plant exhibit with beautiful replicas of plants and fungi that are amazingly lifelike. There is also an herbarium, but since I visited on Sunday, I couldn’t stop in. A couple of blocks away is the Phipps Conservatory, a late-nineteenth-century aggregation of connected glass houses, each devoted to a different plant group including cacti, orchids, palms, and ferns. There are hundreds of species represented and to walk among them is an impressive experience. Andrew Carnegie and Henry W. Phipps were business partners in the steel industry and obviously both appreciated the importance of philanthropy and of preserving nature. They did it in different ways but visitors can still reap the rewards of each.

While I knew of Phipps and Carnegie, I had never heard of Beman and Bertie Dawes, the couple who created the 2,000-acre Dawes Arboretum near Columbus Ohio in 1929. It is an amazing place, particularly because it is perfectly maintained and is free to visitors. The Dawes home is preserved as a museum, and there is an impressive living plant collection of over 5,000 different types of woody plants (see figure below). Engraved in the memorial to the Dawes family is a quote from Henry Van Dyke: “He that planteth a tree is the servant of God. He provideth a kindness for many generations, and faces that he had not seen shall bless him.” This to me is what all important collections are about: taking future generations into account.

1b Dawes Arboretum, from Japanese Tea House

Japanese Tea House at Dawes Arboretum

I visited the arboretum the day after the end of the Caldwell workshop, called “In Place,” so I was particularly attuned to my environment. We had done a series of exercises on experiencing place, and Caldwell had asked us to bring a soil sample (see figure below) as well as a collection of a 100 items related to where we live. Not surprisingly, I brought pressed leaves and had assumed that others would also bring natural history materials, and some did—sticks, seeds, stones, fungus, and lichen—but there were also collections of buttons, photos, found objects. This made me realize the obvious fact that place also includes the indoors. When all the collections were spread out on tables, they made an impressive array and caused us all to recalibrate what sense of place means. We also collected around the Crow barn where we had class. Art quilter Nancy Crow and her husband own over 100 acres of Ohio farmland so we could roam widely. We each claimed a two-foot-square plot to observe closely for the week, not only sketching what was there but listening, smelling, feeling the environment. I am particularly interested in bark, so I chose a site with a tree, but found myself also drawn to the grasses growing there—and to the insects exploring the plot along with me. My sense of this place thus became richer and more dynamic.

1a Soil samples from Caldwell workshop

Soil samples displayed at Dorothy Caldwell workshop

I went to the Caldwell workshop to learn something about art and sewing—and I did—but I also came away as a better, or at least changed, observer of place, something that very much relates to herbarium specimens. Location is noted on every well-labeled herbarium specimen, but often the information is sketchy: along rte. 5, near the railway station in Butte, on the shore of Lake Placid (Faden, 2005). Many recent labels include lists of other species at the site to give a sense of the specimen’s milieu, but this is hardly standard procedure, so the plant’s attachment to place is often severed conceptually as well as physically. This is where field notes become important; there a sense of place is likely to be more fully recorded, in words, maps, drawings, and in the case of David Griffiths’s work on cacti, nature prints of prickly pear fruits. As the collections at Caldwell’s workshop suggest, there are a great many elements that contribute to a sense of place, and the question becomes how best to preserve this sense into the future. This was among the issues discussed at the Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference that I headed to when leaving Ohio and that I’ll discuss in my next post.


Faden, R. B. (2005). Day flowers: Family Commelinaceae. In G. A. Krupnick & W. J. Kress (Eds.), Plant Conservation: A Natural History Approach. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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