Herbaria and Material Culture

Specimen of Coffea arabica with 5 different kinds of paper; Manchester Museum Herbarium, Leopold Grindon Collection

Omar Nasim is an astronomer who writes on the importance of visual inquiry in history of astronomy.  He comes to mind as I write this series of posts (1, 2) on paper because he first came to my attention with his description of how astronomers learned about nebula by drawing them over and over again, getting to know them and in a real sense materialize them on paper (Nasim, 2013).  Since then he has written on the use of photography in astronomical observations.  In a recent article he deals with the photograph from the viewpoint not of the image, but of the substrate on which it is printed.  His perspective is that of material culture, of treating the photo as an object.  Nasim brings up the concept of differentiating between an object and a thing.  This distinction took me some time to sort out (Edwards, 2004).  A photograph is a physical object with an image on it, and it is thing, an entity.  If the image fades to the point of disappearing, there is still a piece of paper, but it is no longer the object it was, though it is still a thing. This approach highlights the fact that a photograph is more than an image, it has physicality.

Once I got my mind around this distinction, I began to think about it in terms of herbarium sheets.  It is not uncommon to read of a collection that was long neglected in an attic or basement.  When finally examined many of the sheets were unsalvageable, that is, the specimens were so rotted as to no longer carry much or any information.  The paper too may have been so damaged by water or lost labels or at least the writing on them.  There was still a thing, but it was no longer the object it had once been.  As I read more about the physicality of photographs, I thought of other similarities with herbarium sheets:  the different kinds of papers they can be mounted on, the ill effects of exposure to light, and the way they can be damaged by  handling:  paper bent, corners missing, stains, and other scars.

Those in natural history museums differentiate between specimens, the remains of living things, and artifacts, human-made objects.  A herbarium sheet is both.  Like a photograph, it is more than just an image, it has physicality both in itself and in its matrix.  In essence, to use a term from the art world, it is a collage.  There is not only the plant but the material such as glue, thread, or linen tape used to affix it to the sheet.  Then there’s the label, and often a stamp with an accession number and the name of the herbarium, perhaps an envelope containing fragments, and one or more determination slips to either verify the name on the label or update it.  There might also be a note concerning the specimen’s provenance or other remarks.  A barcode is a more recent addition, but there can be others:  a map, a sketch or an illustration, or a photograph of the plant in the field.  Some specimens have so much supporting material that it may spill onto a second sheet, as many specimens in Leopold Grindon’s collection at the Manchester Museum Herbarium do.  He liked to append illustrations, journal articles, newspaper clippings to give as full a record of the plant as possible.  The specimen wasn’t enough for him, and really it is never enough.  At least some accessories are essential.

Going through the specimens in a thick species or genus folder may mean encountering different kinds of specimens as physical objects.  There is often an unconscious reckoning of age when holding a specimen.  Some plants have retained their color better than others, and the same may be true of the paper.  It may have yellowed with age, depending upon its composition, may have become brittle, or been blackened by soot or mercuric chloride contamination; it may be thin and flimsy, or thick and stiff.  The plant on a neighboring sheet may have left an imprint or “ghost” on it, if they have been stored together for a long time.  The label is another indication of age, with good penmanship a thing of the past.  And I haven’t even touched on the paper in journals, reference works, and field notebooks, to say nothing of bound ex siccatae, which provide a very different material experience of specimens, somehow more ordered and less intimate.

In writing about the loss of material clues when paper is digitized, Sherry Turkle (2007) compares the experience of looking at the architect Le Corbusier’s drawings on the computer and in the archives:  there is a different sense of scale, a tactile experience, and an awareness of smudges and other signs of use by human beings that doesn’t come through on the screen.  There is also the whole experience of being in the archives—or in a herbarium—surrounded by incredibly informative paper objects.  Many people, including myself, have been separated from specimens over the past months.  Yes, I can see Henry Ravenel’s plants from the 19th century on the A.C. Moore Herbarium website, but it is just not the same as seeing the variety of surfaces on which they are mounted.  Materiality matters!

Refernces

Edwards, E., & Hart, J. (Eds.). (2004). Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. New York: Rutledge.

Nasim, O. (2018). James Nasmyth’s lunar photography; or on becoming a lunar being, without the lunacy. In C. González (Ed.), Selene’s Two Faces (pp. 147–187). Leiden, NLD: Brill.

Nasim, O. W. (2013). Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turkle, S. (Ed.). (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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