It bothers me when I can’t get into a museum. I don’t mean because I got there on a day it’s not open, but because it’s permanently closed. When my husband and I visited Paris in 1983, this was the case with the National Museum of Natural History, which had been shuttered for years. So it was particularly thrilling 12 years later when we were able to see the entire building and experience its Grand Gallery of Evolution with a parade of organisms spread across it. It was also exciting recently when I was able to tour the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum at the Missouri Botanical Garden. When I was at the garden several years ago, the museum was closed, as it had been for years. It only opened once a year on Henry Shaw’s birthday to celebrate the garden’s founder. When Peter Wyse Jackson became President of MOBOT in 2010, he spearheaded an effort to renovate and reopen the museum. An adjacent facility was added to provide better access and the entire interior was conserved and refurbished. I was lucky enough to tour it with curator, Nezka Pfeifer, who was particularly proud of the first exhibition mounted since the museum’s opening, “Leafing Through History: Plants that Make Paper.” We began in the lower level, originally an area for labs and offices. It is now a gallery, at that moment filled with paper art, including origami done by a number of notable artists in this medium, among them Robert J. Lang. In the center of the room were striking large flower sculptures made by the artist Megan Singleton from paper she created from lotus plants. Fortunately, there is a catalogue of the exhibit available as a pdf.
When we went upstairs to the main gallery, my eyes immediately focused on the ceiling with its elaborate trompe d’oeil mural that resembles a conservatory roof with a trellised balcony filled with plants (see image above). This is a refinished version of the original created by the Italian artist Leon Pomarede who had emigrated to St. Louis in 1831 and became known for his panoramas and landscapes. Shaw commissioned him to create this work for the museum’s opening in 1859, and when it was repainted, some plants were added or rendered more botanically correct. There are now 96 species represented, and they can be found on a story map. But the mural is only the first of many wonders in the two-tiered main hall. The museum was built in the style of one of the economic botany museum buildings at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the major source of inspiration for Shaw in creating many aspects of his garden.
Early in his planning, Shaw got in touch with William Jackson Hooker, director of Kew, and among his queries was where he could find a botanist to assist him. Hooker informed him that the perfect person for the job was already in St. Louis: George Engelmann, a German physician who had arrived in St. Louis in 1835. Engelmann had collected plants on several tours of his adopted land, and had made contact both with collectors like his countrymen Augustus Fendler and Ferdinand Lindheimer and botanists like John Torrey and Asa Gray. Engelmann encouraged Shaw to not only create a garden that would delight the city, but also a research institution. In the mid-19th century there weren’t models for such an enterprise in the United States, however, Kew fit the bill. Shaw made several trips to Europe, and he also sent Engelmann to buy books for a botanical library. While there Engelmann bought the 60,000 specimen herbarium of Johann Bernhardi, that was rich in tropical as well as European species. Along with Engelmann’s own large herbarium collection, this became the foundation for MOBOT’s now nearly seven million specimens.
Since Hooker had created the first economic botany museum that eventually spread over four buildings at Kew, Shaw wanted such a facility as well. As at Kew the glass-faced wooden cases on both levels of his museum were filled with specimens and plant products. Now, the upper cabinets have a display of beautiful ceramics, but there is no public access because the balconies are fragile. Hanging from the balcony railings are portraits of distinguished botanists of the past including, of course, Carl Linnaeus and also Engelmann and Gray. On the main level at the time of my visit, most of the cabinets were filled with displays related to the paper exhibit, including copies of herbarium specimens for plants used in paper making, various paper products, and books on papermaking from MOBOT’s extensive library. There were also two cabinets dedicated to the great Alexander von Humboldt to recognize the 250th anniversary of his death (see earlier posts, 1,2,3,4).
Behind the main hall is a smaller room, with a vaulted ceiling that had been covered over at some time in the past. When the covering was removed, the restorers were surprised to find three painted panels, with small portraits of none other than Gray and Engelmann to either side of Linnaeus. These have been beautifully restored. This room held another portion of the paper exhibit; Michael Powell created abstract works in handmade paper, based on the colors of different areas within the garden, during the day and at night. The entire exhibit on paper was a great way to introduce visitors to this extraordinary building, and the next exhibition is now open. It’s focus is on the potato. My heritage, like that of Wyse Jackson, makes me think that there couldn’t be a better subject. Nezka Pfieffer develops this concept beautifully through art and the wonderful resources in MOBOT’s herbarium, library, and economic botany collections.
Note: I would like to thank Nezka Pfeifer at the Sachs Museum for spending so much time guiding me through the museum and telling me about its history.