Plants in Sweden: Specimens and Photos

2 Gothenburg BG

Gothenburg Botanical Garden, September 2017

As I wrote in my last post, I recently spent a week in Sweden at a planning meeting for a grant on increasing people’s awareness of plants.  Among those I met was Eva Nyberg, a senior lecturer in biology in the Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.  When she learned that I was interested in herbaria, she mentioned her surprise at discovering that when another professor took over a course that she had taught and had always included students’ collecting plants and making herbarium specimens, they were now taking photographs of plants rather than collecting specimens.  She thought there was something lost in this shift and I totally agree.  Here I want to discuss what’s lost, which I think is considerable.  However, in the interest of full disclosure, I also have to admit that during my Scandinavian visit, I took many photos of plants, especially to record what I saw in botanic gardens (see photo above), and I produced no herbarium specimens.  Of course, I didn’t have permission to collect nor to bring foreign plant material back into the US.  But leaving that out of the picture, it is also much less time consuming to take a picture, even though I was careful to label each, something I wasn’t so conscientious about than in the past.  I also made a few sketches, a much slower process, but one that requires more observation and therefore more learning and experiencing of plant form.

When it is possible to make specimens, it’s an experience that isn’t replicated by photography or drawing.  A student has a very different physical relationship with a plant in taking a photo of it versus making a specimen of it.  The latter is a far richer way of knowing the plant.  Photography is about distance, about not getting too close to the subject, and it really doesn’t make much difference what the subject is, almost anything can be photographed.  Not everything can be preserved by being pressed between sheets of newspaper.  Also, the physical contact with the plant provides much sensory engagement:  the smell of leaves and flowers, the sticky or velvety or prickly feel of stems, the snap sound of breaking off a dry branch.  What I am talking about is the materiality of the plant, and materiality of almost everything is something we tend to take for granted or neglect to appreciate, especially in our increasingly virtual world.   There is also the process of selection: what is to be collected, what constitutes a good specimen  Yes, selection decisions are also made in taking a photo—angle, proximity, inclusiveness—but these decisions are often done in a matter of seconds and usually don’t involve as much physical rummaging amid the plant material.

Then there is the crucial tactile process of arranging the material for pressing.   This requires a combination of knowledge of what needs to be displayed and of how this particular specimen responds to manipulation, as well as manual dexterity in setting all parts of the specimen in place.  Though an important skill, such manual work is less and less common today.  An art professor I know bemoans the fact that art students come to college much less adept at the physical manipulation of materials than they were in the past.  If art students are deficient, where does that leave students in less hands-on fields?  Then there is all the work involved in arranging the dried specimens on a sheet, labeling them properly, and gathering stray material in a small envelope attached to the sheet.  When I made my first specimen labels I felt a sense of responsibility that I don’t feel when I name a photograph.  The label seems a more public record, something that could last a long time and be seen by many eyes, something with my name attached.  The metadata is not just virtual as it is with a digital photo, it’s right there in black and white.

I would also argue that there is a greater sense of accomplishment in producing five or ten herbarium sheets compared to five or ten photographs of plants.  Again, there is the physicality which is more multifaceted than are photos, even if printed.  Also, in many cases, the specimens, if they are well done, are added to the permanent collection of the institution’s herbarium.  In digitizing specimens at the University of South Carolina’s A.C. Moore Herbarium, I often come across specimens that were created by students 10 or 20 or more years ago.  I assume they are students, because the collection numbers are in the single digits.  They many not have gone on to further work in botany, but they have left a permanent record at their alma mater.

There is one more issue I want to mention:  pressed doesn’t mean totally two-dimensional.  Flattened specimens still have depth and texture, they give a much better sense of the materiality of a plant than any photograph could (Flannery, 2012).  They almost invite inspection because of their physicality.  They have more of a presence than a photograph does.  This is something that a student might not be fully aware of, but nonetheless, it has a subliminal effect on their experience of the plant.   That was what was at the heart of my conversation with Eva Nyberg:  how to most effectively engage students with plants, and the more multisensory experience involved, the better.  In my next post I’ll continue with this theme.

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