Felix Driver of Royal Holloway University of London was the first speaker at the Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, which is the focus of this series of posts. He was one of the authors of a recent report mapping out future plans for the plant humanities in Britain, making him a good choice for the leadoff role. He was also the principle investigator for a study called the Mobile Museum on how the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew distributed items from its Economic Botany Collection to schools and museums throughout the country, while still maintaining the core collection at Kew (Driver, Nesbitt & Cornish, 2021). The height of the distribution was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a way to provide hands-on exhibit and spread the word not only about the usefulness of a large variety of plants, but also the ability of the British Empire to develop and utilize plant products.
The economic botany collection still exists at Kew under the care of Mark Nesbitt, another contributor to the Mobile Museum project. With over 100,000 items, the collection is growing, though most items are no longer exhibited as they were when Kew had four buildings with economic botany exhibits in the early 20th century (Nesbitt & Cornish, 2016). Now the collection is used for research that often involves what Driver terms “co-producing knowledge with nonacademic partners.” This includes collaborations with Pacific barkcloth makers and North Brazilian Amazonia indigenous peoples. Driver ended his presentation with a photo of one item in the collection, a glass lime juice bottle. He chose this because his grandfather had been born on a lime plantation in Monserrat, with lime juice shipped in barrels from there to bottling plants in England. The bottle is a small symbol of the British colonial apparatus.
The next day Ashanti Shih, who teaches history at Vassar College, presented on her research in the collections of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum. She was studying the career of the German botanist Otto Degener who worked in Hawaii for thirty years. She focused on his interactions with Asian and indigenous people whom he employed. One of the latter was Henry Wiebke, a native Hawaiian of the Kanaka Maoli people. Wiebke was studying medicine, and Degener hired him because he had knowledge of native plants, their indigenous names, habitats, and uses. The pair planned to write two books, one a popular guide to the flora of the Hawaiian National Park, the second a comprehensive flora of the Hawaiian Islands. After working together as colleagues and friends for six years, their relationship frayed, at least in part over Wiebke’s decision to defer his medical training in order to work to support his family. He did collaborate for some time with Degener after this, but eventually they parted ways.
When Degener did publish the books, they were without mention of Wiebke (Degener, 1945; 1932-1969), but the erasure of his contribution went beyond that. Shih showed a specimen of the iconic silver sword, Argyroxiphium caliginis, collected by both men. Degener’s name is printed on the label with the typed addition of “and Henry Wiebke.” But Degener later crossed out the latter, as he did on a number of sheets. This was a small record of petulance preserved in a herbarium where few would see it, until the age of digitization when the principles were long gone. Shih related the story with more nuance, but the message was clear that here was one of many untold cases of appropriation of indigenous knowledge without proper, or any, attribution.
The next day the conference provided a very different aspect of indigenous knowledge and in this case, its relationship to art. The presentation was by the artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi, a Jamaican-American from New York who has lived in Lagos, Nigeria since 2011. She is interested in the culture of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and found a 1995 book by Pierre Verger, The Uses of Plants in Yoruba Society, with Latin and vernacular plant names. It also has poetry that Ogunbiyi uses for inspiration for her art which often includes plant forms. Several years ago, Ogunbiyi was an artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian, and as she delved into collections she became fascinated by the herbarium. There she asked a very basic question: why are herbarium sheets always 11.5 by 16.5 inches? She couldn’t get a good answer, and that just added to her interest in the sheets. She now does her drawings on herbarium paper, which she sees as “pivotal to my practice.” She showed several of her works from a recent exhibit in the Berlin Biennale. They often combine plant forms with African hairstyles in intriguing ways. She noted that in southwest Nigeria, hairstyles have meaning, and that the head is the foundation of the Yoruba religious practice Ifá.
It’s this thoughtful interweaving of indigenous practice, plants, and art that makes Ogunbiyi’s art so fascinating to me. She has journeyed back to the continent from which her ancestors were transported centuries ago, and she uses that cultural heritage along with what amounts to a colonial artifact, the herbarium sheet, as a vehicle for exploring it. She sees her drawings as a form of plant portraiture and the presence of human forms reveals the connections between the two worlds present in Yoruba traditions. To me, her work and her presentation suggest the power of the plant humanities to open up new worlds for all of us.
Degener, O. (1932). Flora Hawaiiensis: The New Illustrated Flora of the Hawaiian Islands (Vol. 1–7). Honolulu.
Degener, O. (1945). Ferns and Flowering Plants of Hawaii National Park. Ann Arbor, MI: Edward Brothers.
Driver, F., Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (Eds.). (2021). Mobile Museums: Collections in Circulation. London: UCL Press.
Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: Economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 29, 53–70. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43915938
Verger, P. (1995). Ewé: The Use of Plants in Yoruba Society. São Paolo: Odebrecht.
2 thoughts on “Discussing the Plant Humanities: Collections”
11.5 by 16.5 inch herbarium paper is A3, one of the standard sizes defined in 1922. http://www.explisites.com/paper-size-A0-A1-A2-A3-A4-A5.html