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.


Ayres, E. (2015). Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from

Drinkwater, R. (2017). A collaboration between RBGE and Edinburgh College of Art. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from

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.

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