Dumbarton Oaks: Botanical Artists

Heliconia chartacea var. meeana by Alice Tangerini

In keeping with one of its three areas of study, gardens and landscape, Dumbarton Oaks Museum recently held an exhibition of paintings by the British botanical artist, Margaret Mee (1909-1988), who is known for her depictions of Brazilian plants.  She and her husband moved to Brazil in 1952.  She taught art and only became interested in depicting plants after she began to explore the countryside.  She was an intrepid traveler and spent long hours under difficult conditions sketching plants in situ.  She eventually created over 400 completed works in gouache and in the 1960s Mildred Bliss, who with her husband Robert had owned Dumbarton Oaks, purchased 20 of Mee’s paintings.  These were the focus of the exhibit, though also on display were relevant items from Dumbarton’s collection as well as contemporary work by botanical artist Nirupa Rao, scientific illustrator Alice Tangerini, and photographer Amy Lamb.

In a recent Zoom presentation hosted by Dumbarton, Rao and Tangerini were featured along with artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi who uses botanical themes in her paintings, sculpture, and multimedia work.  Each discussed her approach to portraying plants, and I found it one of the most satisfying presentations I’ve seen in some time.  I should note that this was not a seminar that could have happened without the internet since the speakers were on three different continents.  Rao was in her native India, though she learned about botanical art in Australia when she would visit her aunt there.  She was amazed by the uniqueness of the plants she saw and wanted to draw them.  It was only later that she became aware of the long tradition of what is called “Company Art” done in India (Noltie, 2017).  This was painting created by Indian artists, many trained in traditional local techniques, who then worked for the British, including naturalists, for whom they portrayed plants and animals.  The botanical art is accurate and at the same time has a distinctive style.

Rao was trained in present-day botanical illustration, and yet her work, too, reveals her cultural roots.  In a recent project, she collaborated with her cousins to produce a book on trees of India’s Western Ghats mountain range (Divya et al., 2018).  She was asked by botanists to aid in documenting the trees, since photography had failed to do them justice.  Though they rise very tall in the rainforests, it’s impossible to take a photo of an entire tree; there is just too much vegetation on and around them.  Instead, Rao painstakingly did sketches of various parts of a tree and then brought them together in a single portrait:  beautiful, stately, and delicate.  Rao also shares her talent in school programs designed to help young people see and appreciate the botanical riches around them.  They learn why species are endangered and what can be done about it, as they examine artistic treasures and create their own. 

Next to speak was Temitayo Ogunbiyi, a Nigerian Jamaican-American, who now lives in Lagos.  She uses plants in her work in ways that are more expressive than traditional botanical illustration.  She began drawing plants in graphite on herbarium paper and went on to use ink and acrylic paints on found fabric.  She also references West Africa hairstyles along with plant forms in intriguing ways.  Her work is bold and original, and she too is interested in conserving the biodiversity she sees around her.  She is also intrigued by plants as food and brings her artistic talents to working with chefs.  Both she and Rao are young, enthusiastic, environmentally aware artists who communicate a calm sense of joy in their work.

The third presenter was Alice Tangerini, who has worked for many years as a botanical illustrator at the United States Herbarium in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMHN).  As she explained, most of her work is in pen and ink and done at the request of botanists who are publishing descriptions of new species.  She explained how she uses herbarium specimens in her work and also fresh material, if it’s available.  I thought it was interesting that the first thing she does is make a photocopy of the specimen, so she can work from that rather than disturbing the specimen, which is still available for reference.  She can cut the copy up and focus on particular areas.  She, too, is very enthusiastic about what she does, including incorporating digital technologies such as  sophisticated software to create color illustrations. 

I should add that a couple of weeks before this lecture, Dumbarton Oaks hosted one where the speaker was W. John Kress, Distinguished Scientist and Curator Emeritus at the NMNH.  He is an expert on Heliconia, a tropical genus with many species in Brazil, some painted by Mee.  When he saw one of these, he couldn’t identify the species, nor could he find a record of it in the literature.  He tracked it down with the help of a South American botanical colleague.  It turned out to be a new variety that he named for Mee, Heliconia chartacea var. meeana.  This is just one of many examples of an artist’s eye assisting the eye of a botanist.  Kress also spoke of studying gingers in Myanmar and finding a new species that was widely sold in markets, and yet had never been described in the botanical literature.  He named it Globba sherwoodiana in honor of the noted collector of botanical art, Shirley Sherwood.


Divya, M., & Raman, T. R. S. (2018). Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. Mysore, IND: Nature Conservation Foundation.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

A Washington, DC Treasure

Rare Book Room at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, photo by the author.

I have come upon Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in several different contexts recently, so I’ve decided to dedicate this series of posts to exploring some of these encounters.  I mentioned one of its projects, on Plant Humanities, in a post last month, but the institution’s relationship to plants and horticultural is multi-faceted and justifies a closer look.  I have only spent one day at Dumbarton, but it was definitely memorable.  I made an appointment to see an exsiccatae guide to medical plants by the Danish botanist and physician Johannis de BuchwaldSpecimen medico-practico-botanicum (see earlier post).  Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books, also found other items that intrigued me, including a British exsiccatae of grasses published by one of the many agricultural societies then working to improve farming.

After I finished in the rare book room, I toured the museum and learned a little more about its history.  Dumbarton Oaks is an estate in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. that Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred bought in 1920.  They were wealthy philanthropists and he was also a diplomat.  They enlarged the house and had Beatrix Farrand design a garden.  The couple also created a significant library of rare books and manuscripts as well as an art collection.  They had three areas of interest that Dumbarton Oaks still focuses on today:  Gardens and Landscape, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian studies.  Robert Bliss was an alumnus of Harvard University, and he and Mildred left their estate and part of the surrounding gardens to Harvard, while 27 acres were given to the National Park Service as a public park.    

If the name Dumbarton Oaks is lurking in the history part of your brain, as it was in mine before it moved to the plant part, it’s probably because you learned about the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in history class.  It was a 6-week-long series of meetings held in 1944 among diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union.  Along with participation from other nations, they worked out plans for an international organization designed to help rebuild the world collaboratively after the end of World War II and became the United Nations.  Being in Washington, DC makes Dumbarton Oaks not only attractive as a research institution but as a tourist attraction with a beautiful museum dedicated to its founders’ three areas of interest.  While these fields are very different, they play off each other beautifully in terms of the aesthetics of the displays.  In addition, the garden focus works into representations of plants in gardens in Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art.  I didn’t have much time in the garden itself, but I did manage to visit the gift shop, with beautiful items to at least look at as well as a selection of books including many Dumbarton Oaks publications, among them The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Batsaki et al., 2017) that I’ll discuss in a future post. 

In connecting Dumbarton Oaks with Harvard University, Robert Bliss envisioned that the art and library would be well-used in education and research, and it is.  Over the years, there have been exhibits and conferences held onsite and many of these resulted in publications.  In addition, there are fellowship programs that allow graduate students and scholars to work in the library for considerable periods of time.  I’ve already mentioned the Plant Humanities Initiative (see earlier post), and there was a recent exhibit on the botanical artist Margaret Mee that included pieces by other distinguished artists.  Both these endeavors are tied to efforts to make the richness of plant biodiversity better known and its perilous condition in the present age better understood.  Dumbarton is definitely an elite institution, but like its founders, who funded an ambulance corps in France during World War I, it is responsive to present-day needs.  I think this is one of the reasons it seems so vibrant.  Though it is a scholar’s oasis, I left there feeling a renewed sense of cultural diversity as well as engagement with the living world.

Mildred Bliss was among several wealthy women who collected botanical and horticulture books and art in the 20th century.  They all created large and distinguished collections that are continuing sources of inspiration and knowledge today.  Rachel Hunt with her husband Roy, endowed the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  It has an outstanding library as well as large archives, and a notable collection of botanical art.  All three are growing collections, with the art program nourished by the International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration series hosted by the Institute.  Then there is Rachel Mellon who with her husband Andrew W. Mellon created the Oak Spring Garden Library at their horse farm in Upperville, Virginia.  The library is now part of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation which was founded after Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014.

I am fortunate to have visited these three institutions.  Each is a notable destination.  Dumbarton is tied to a rich museum, the Hunt is part of a great university, and Oak Spring is nestled on a farm in Virginia horse country.  They are amazing places not only for the riches these women had the intelligence and taste to acquire, but also because of the wonderful people working there that keep the joy of botany alive in all its beauty.


Batsaki, Y., Cahalan, S. B., & Tchikine, A. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plant Digital Humanities

Watercolor of Bombax heptaphyllum by unnamed Indian artist in Roxburgh Collection, Botanical Survey of India

Though I’ve already discussed many digital humanities projects that deal with plants, including most notably the Plant Humanities Lab (see earlier post), there are many projects that I haven’t mentioned, and in fact, there are so many that I could only choose a few I find particularly interesting to discuss here.  They cover a broad spectrum, from historical to artistic to philosophical, and as would be expected, many touch on two or more areas:  the digital humanities are nothing if not interdisciplinary.  The website with the intriguing title The Philosophical Life of Plants is a collaboration among four British and one German institution and presents a wonderful selection of essays that would appeal to anyone interested in plants.  They are grouped into three areas:  Goethe’s views on the stages of plant form development, the history of research on whether or not plants can be considered sentient, and recent work on trees, both scientific and literary.  These three obviously cover a lot of territory as any good digital humanities project should.  The Philosophical Life website is supported by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council, a major funder of such endeavors, including the Sloane Lab I discussed in the last post.

A small project is funding a doctoral student to investigate:  “The Duchess of Botany: Mary Somerset, Jacob Bobart, and the Formation of the Oxford Botanic Garden.”  Somerset was the Duchess of Beaufort, but her title here is appropriate because she was well versed in horticulture and botany.  Jacob Bobart the Younger taught botany at Oxford University and was also director of its botanic garden.  He and Somerset kept up a correspondence and also traded specimens and living plants.  She was known for the wonders she performed in her hothouse growing exotic plants, coaxing into bloom species that botanists only knew as seeds or specimens.  Not only Bobart, but Hans Sloane and James Petiver, two avid specimen collectors, visited her garden to see and study her plants.  When she died, she left her 12-volume herbarium to Sloane. 

Bobart and Somerset had a mutually beneficial relationship, trading information on growing plants, as well as seeds and plants.  Bobart also had many other contacts in the botanical world, as did his father who was the first director of the Oxford garden.  It is thanks to their records, that we know what was grown there in the 17th century (Harris, 2018).  The herbarium and botanical library at Oxford also contain the herbaria of William Sherard and his protégé Johann Jacob Dillenius for whom his will funded a chair in botany.  Researching these botanists among others, Stephen Harris, the present herbarium curator and a professor of botany, has done a great deal in the plant humanities field.  He has written books such as The Magnificent Flora Graeca (2007) about Oxford professor John Sibthorp’s collecting expeditions to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean and the 10 volumes illustrated by Ferdinand Bauer that were ultimately published to describe the species he discovered.  Harris (2021) also recently published a book marking the 400th anniversary of botany at Oxford with the founding of the Oxford Botanic Garden.  This is a quintessential plant humanities work, combining narratives about botanists, specimens, historical artifacts, and manuscripts.  The Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy at Oxford also has extensive resources online, including digitized historical collections. 

I have to tear myself away from Oxford and mention a number of other projects that focus on the digital.  I joined the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network as a way to stay connected during covid, to learn about a wide variety of conferences, exhibitions, and projects in the plant humanities.  This group includes many in literature and philosophy who are interested in critical plant studies, but there are also offerings that are more in the art and botany areas.  While the network is relatively new, a broader one that is useful is NINES: Nineteenth-Century Scholarship Online, providing links to a variety of topics.  Type in “botany,” and you will get some interesting finds.  This is a site that I found through someone in literature; it sometimes pays to hang around with such people.

Another site that is also broad but contains material of interest to botanists, particularly those who don’t mind straying from time to time, is hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago.  It’s called “Digital Collections for the Classroom” and could be used as such, but many topics are simply interesting to explore, such as one on “Sugar and Power in the Early Modern World,” that features the library’s holdings of images of everything from preparing sugar confections to the role of enslaved Africans on sugar plantations in the West Indies.  And finally, I recently found a site hosted by the Botanical Survey of India that has been working for a decade to digitize type specimens as well as illustrations by Indian artists along with other plant-related materials such as fabrics and dyes stuffs.  This makes for an intriguing combination of botanical and cultural objects and points the way to other projects linking botany with economic botany and art.  While the botanic gardens at Kew and Edinburgh have large collections of botanical art by Indian artists, this project seems a big step toward broadening what is available online.  The BSI has an impressive collection of 6000 paintings.  This site is one more step toward decolonial collections that I wrote about in a previous post


Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. A. (2018). Seventeenth-century plant lists and herbarium collections: A case study from the Oxford Physic Garden. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhx015

Harris, S. A. (2021). Roots to Seeds: 400 Years of Oxford Botany. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

Digital Humanities: Many Approaches

Specimen of Pinus virginiana collected by John Clayton, Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

I wrote in the first post in this series, Digital Humanities is a broad term that describes many different kinds of projects.  In this post, I will look at a few that are germane to the botanical world but not specific to it.  One just getting underway is The Sloane Lab: Looking Back to Build Future Shared CollectionsHans Sloane has cropped up in many of my posts because he had one of the foremost plant collections of the pre-Linnaean era, and most importantly, it is still extant today at the Natural History Museum, London.  Sloane’s specimens from his time in Jamaica have been digitized, as have other portions of the collection including specimens of John Clayton from Virginia, Paul Hermann from Sri Lanka, and George Clifford from his garden of exotics in the Netherlands.  But there are many other important collections that have yet to be digitized or extensively studied.  In addition, there are Sloane’s correspondence and other manuscripts in the British Library, art and anthropological objects he owned in the British Museum, and Sloane items in several other British institutions involved in this project.

Digitizing more of these resources will be a major boost to research on Sloane, a pivotal figure in British science and culture.  His roles as a chronicler of the British colony in Jamaica and owner of enslaved persons who worked on his Jamaican sugar plantation make him important in the effort to decolonize British cultural collections.  The Sloane lab is just one of five projects funded by the British Arts and Humanities Council for five years, with an emphasis on new ways to connect institutions, areas of knowledge, and communities within Britain.  This is the digital humanities writ large, and it will be exciting to view the results, open to all of us online.

A very different project, but also very ambitious, has been going on for several years and has matured to the point that many of its fruits are available, while others continue to develop.  This is the Making and Knowing Project founded in 2014 by the historian of science Pamela Smith of Columbia University.  In her research Smith has (2003) argued for the importance of craft in early modern science.  This work led her to investigate precisely how crafts like metal casting and preparing pigments for paints were done.  She fashioned projects where her students attempted to reproduce close to original conditions in order to recreate tools and materials early modern artists and scientists used.  One major result of this work is a massive website, Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France.  It was built around a translation of a 16th-century French manuscript composed of handwritten entries on medicine, life casting, painting, dying, metal working, printing, and more.  In addition to the translation alongside a digital copy of the manuscript, are over 100 essays on various aspects of the document, including reports on attempts to reproduce the methods it describes.  A recent review of the site by Lan A. Li (2021) of Rice University notes its many strengths, including a “restrained” technological design.  In other words, it doesn’t have a great many bells and whistles so it will not be difficult to maintain and is likely to remain available.  This is something I can appreciate as a number of my favorite digital humanities sites have disappeared due to complex data architecture that didn’t age well. 

Smith’s work has been influential in the education not only of historians but artists, particularly those interested in the intersection between these fields.  This approach is now used in many institutions and one of my favorite examples is the work of a young historian and artist, Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen, who is researching 17th century flower painting by making pigments and then using them to create plant illustrations.  She writes that she used painting as a way to relax from her research, and slowly it became part of her work.  She has even taught online classes in creating pigments from plant material. 

While I am not ready to dive into this world, I can see both its attraction and its value.  Grinding pigments and mixing in other ingredients is not trivial work.  There is a reason few artists do this today.  However, there is still a reason to attempt it, just as there is in mounting your own specimens.  That quiet work allows time for thinking, and for looking at the material aspect of science and craft in a new way.  Here I am purposely mixing art and science.  Both involve close observation, and one of Smith’s key ideas is that early modern craft workers, including painters, were such close observers of nature that this translated into their art.  It was this art, naturalistic plants by artists like Albrecht Dürer, that led to closer observation by botanists and the artists who worked for them.  There is some evidence that Hans Weiditz, the artist of Otto Brunfels’s 1532 herbal, may have been trained by one of Dürer’s students.  This is a beautiful example of one aim of digital humanities projects:  to make such cross fertilization more obvious in the hope of creating new examples of it.


Li, L. A. (2021). Crafting Digital Histories of Science: A Review and Tour of Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. Isis, 112(3), 586–589. https://doi.org/10.1086/715712

Smith, P. H. (2003). The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Plant Humanities and Decolonial Collections

Avocado Persea americana by John Tyley. By permission of the Linnean Society of London.

In the last post, I wrote about how difficult it is to define the digital humanities.  The same holds true for decolonizing collections, which is basically about viewing collections in a broader cultural perspective as well as returning items that were inappropriately acquired.  It also means bringing to light what have often been aspects of natural history long hidden by colonial powers who downplayed or ignored those who actually collected specimens, played a role in directing the search, and explained the significance of finds.  I used the term in the title of this post as shorthand for opening up collections by expanding the questions asked about them beyond the purely scientific.  As I mentioned, this is an aspect of the extended specimen concept that is underplayed. 

There is a great article by Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe (2018) on:  “Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections.”  The term “decolonial” seems better than “decolonize.”  The latter more precisely describes the process by which colonial nations became independent, more than ferreting out how natural history collections were shaped by colonial power.  Das and Lowe begin quite directly with a Twitter comment by Danny Birchall of the Wellcome Collection to the effect that natural history museums are more racist than anyone will admit.  The challenge is to describe this racism and find ways to change the situation. 

This piece includes an analysis of the racist nature of many anthropological exhibits in natural history museums.  Then the authors discuss what is missing in zoological and botanical exhibits, such as an exhibit on Colombian butterflies in which the cultural history of Colombian science was ignored.  They attribute this to the “hard science” lens used in creating natural history exhibits.  The thought crossed my mind that this may be why so many economic botany exhibits and even collections have disappeared:  they were too much about culture and not enough about the plants themselves in the way taxonomists see them. 

Lowe and Das then present a section on hidden figures:  the collectors, elders, artists, and assistants of all kinds from porters to cooks to scouts, who were essential to the work collectors did all over the world.  They lay out several cases where contributions have been neglected, including an enslaved Ghanaian named Graman Quassi who was taken to Suriname by the Dutch where he worked as a scout and negotiator.  He was able to buy his freedom and became a noted healer who discovered that a plant, which Linnaeus later named after him, could be made into a tea to treat intestinal parasitic infections.  It is still used today.  And there is John Edmondstone, a freed Guianan slave, who taught taxidermy to Charles Darwin, then a student in Edinburgh.  They also mention Hans Sloane’s extensive notes on enslaved Africans’ knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses. 

Das and Lowe make the argument that ignoring these aspects of collections alienates audiences who could be more interested in the scientific aspects of plants if they saw a relationship to their own culture and experiences.  And I would add, these stories are fascinating, no matter what your background.  They are coming to light in such projects as the Plant Humanities Lab narratives that I wrote about in the last post.  However, there is so much more to do.  In its new science strategy, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew recognizes the need to tackle the issue and acknowledges it central role in British colonial management of plant wealth around the world.  One response is the new Plant Humanities Centre being planned.  Kew has already had an important conference, Botany, Trade and Empire, on the colonial botanic gardens that were administered by Kew and resulted in the cultivation and dissemination of everything from rubber to cinchona to hemp worldwide (Brockway, 1979).  The conference focus was on what were designated Miscellaneous Reports that the garden directors sent to Kew.  Now digitized, these are a storehouse of information that has only begun to be mined, with interesting case studies done on cinchona, for example. 

There is also a massive correspondence archive at Kew.  J’nese Williams of Notre Dame University has used this, among many other sources, in her study of Alexander Anderson, who was curator of the St. Vincent Botanic Gardens from 1785 to 1811, and John Tyley, a free person of color, who worked there as an illustrator.  Williams presented at a conference on Natural History and Visual Art from the Margins sponsored by the Linnaean Society that also included papers by Josepha Richard of the University of Bristol on the British trader John Bradby Blake’s work with the Chinese botanical artist, Mak Sau in Canton, and by Malini Roy of the British Library on a collection of Indian zoological illustrations by an artist identified at Haludar.  These presentations required digging into the archives of a number of institutions and finding links between disparate types of information.  They are in essence treasure hunts, which make them all the more interesting.  As more archives come online, the hunts will be easier to do, but only if the data is prepared in a way that is highly searchable, and that can be linked to taxonomic databases so specimens that may be related to these stories can also be studied.  This is hardly a trivial matter.  But the stories that have been uncovered so far make is clear that the work involved is worth it to blur the line between science and the humanities. 


Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.

Das, S., & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 4–14.

The Plant Humanities Lab

Figure adapted from the Biodiversity Collections Network’s 2019 report: Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education

I’m interested in herbaria writ large, that is, how they relate not only to areas of biology beyond botany, but to the arts and humanities.  That’s why I’ve delved a bit into the field of digital humanities and how it might enrich the herbarium world.  From what I can gather the term digital humanities covers a lot of territory, but all related in some way to harnessing digital technology.  This can range from textual analyses such as tracing the frequency of use of a term in Emily Dickinson’s poetry to creating an online archive that brings together all her poems.  There’s also a great deal of work on developing new tools for visualizing social networks, linking different types of information, and creating new forms of communication.

In many cases, the humanities are doing much the same thing that the natural history community is doing:  using digital tools to not only make resources available online but to provide tools to use these resources in powerful and creative ways.  The problem is that the two are working in separate spheres and approaching similar issues in different ways, suggesting that the two cultures of C.P. Snow (1959) survive into the 21st century.  Snow (1905-1980) was a physical chemist and novelist; functioning successfully in the two spheres allowed him to appreciate what divided them.  Since he wrote, a great deal of work termed “interdisciplinary” has attempted to bridge the divide that Snow saw as dangerous, with each side unable to appreciate the other’s perspective.  Yet the problem remains.

My pet example is one that I’ve brought up here before.  What is coming to be called the Digital Extended Specimen is the vision that eventually a natural history specimen can be linked to many other types of information including species’ genome sequences, ecological data, field notes, field images, phylogenies, etc. (see figure above).   The focus in these conversations is on various scientific databases linking to each other.  This is a massive job and one that is just beginning.  But what I would like to see, even at this early stage—particularly at this early stage—is to make the job more massive by building history and art collections into the infrastructure.  Now is the time to do it, when frameworks on both sides are still being developed and haven’t yet become so complex that adaptation becomes almost impossible.  The FAIR principles for scientific data management could also apply in the other areas, making digital objects:  Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. 

While I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of two realms unable to talk to each other, there are some wonderful projects that do link science and the humanities in interesting ways.  In the botanical world, perhaps the most notable at the moment is the Plant Humanities Lab, a joint project of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and JSTOR Labs.  This grew out of what could only be termed a summit at the library that included botanists, historians, librarians, and technology experts.  They outlined a series of different approaches to linking botanical, historical, and cultural resources (see video).  This was just a set of ideas, and over the next few years the library and JSTOR developed a plan and received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create the Plant Humanities Lab. 

The lab’s first manifestation was a set of narratives on such plants as boxwoods, watermelons, agaves, and bananas.  Each gives a well-written introduction to the species and outline not only its biology but its social history as well.  The narratives, richly illustrated, often with art from the Dumbarton Oaks collection, have hyperlinks to more information on everything from species descriptions to food, gardening, and colonial exploitation of crops and medicinal plants.  They do indeed connect history, art, and science, revealing how these are inseparable from each other.  These are wonderful stories for those interested in delving deeper into particular aspects of a plant.  One thing that becomes clear is that the history of plant use by humans is a long and winding road, sometimes stretching back millennia, with many problems along the way including the difficulties of breeding plants wrested from their native soils and brought to very different climates.  Then there was the use of indigenous knowledge about plants without in anyway acknowledging it and with no benefits to those who provided it.  In addition, there are the intriguing characteristics of so many of these species.  The subjects seem to be chosen carefully to provide many paths to different kinds of information in order to attract a variety of audiences who can explore them in their own ways. 

It’s obvious when using this site that it has a sophisticated framework.  Created by JSTOR labs over several years, the wonderful thing about it is that this digital tool is open access and now available to users as Juncture in the Beta version.  It does involve some knowledge of coding and accessing needed tools from GitHub, so this will pretty much eliminate people like me from using it.  However, we can still benefit from the sites created by those who do use it, and from the continuing development of new and more sophisticated plant narratives.  One problem with Juncture is that is allows linking to so many different kinds of information that there are endless rabbit holes to fall into, but each is just another wonderful aspect of the plant world.  Also it can be used to create narratives on any subject.  JSTOR is developing it as a tool of the future for education and research.


Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Digital Circulation: A Different Experience

A reminder that specimens have depth: Pine folders at the A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

In the last post, I discussed the digitization of specimen data to make it more available to researchers.  I think it’s important to state the obvious here:  digital examination of specimens is not the same as studying the specimen itself.  To begin with, it is a different phenomenological experience.  Sitting at a table or standing at counter strewn with specimens, gives a sense of being in a particular kind of environment, one with metal cases filled with plants and with the faint order of plant material.  Then there’s the physical experience of a specimen:  touching it if necessary, smelling it, viewing it from all different angles, using a hand lens or dissecting microscope.  These actions enrich observational practice and provide more information about the plant.

Though there are similarities in making an image of a book page and a specimen sheet, printed material is much flatter than a specimen.  Even though the plant material is pressed, it still has depth.  Pressed leaves aren’t completely flat, to say nothing of stems, flowers, and fruits.  Leaf surfaces slope away from veins; spines and hairs stick out from stems; flowers refuse to completely cede their dimensionality; and stems are not lines but columns that can have ridges.  There are complex textures everywhere in plant material, and some sense of that is lost in even the best photograph (Flannery, 2012). 

The argument could be made that some textural information has already been lost in pressing the specimen, and this is definitely true.  However, digitization compounds the problem.  There are new imaging techniques including reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) that give a greater sense of the depth in a specimen by integrating a large number of images.  The equipment and related software are complex, the amount of data generated massive, and the process time-consuming—all translating into unmanageable expense.  This system is now mostly employed on works of art; using it to image millions of specimens is a dream. 

Still, the images now available digitally are of high quality, and while the experience is not the same as examining a specimen in real time, it can often provide the information a researcher needs.  Particularly helpful is being able to study a number of specimens from different sources at the same time; and software is being developed to make this easier.  The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) community was originally composed of those in art museums and libraries with the aim of creating better software for accessing and working with images from multiple institutions.  Those involved in natural history collections are now joining this group.  Not only can IIIF improve the way images are accessed and used, but collaboration between art and science institutions could lead to interesting new collaborations.   

Each herbarium uploads its own data and continues to be responsible for it.  In order to contribute to an aggregator like iDigBio or GBIF and have specimens circulate more broadly, data have to be in a particular format.  Curators are now aiming to make their data FAIRfindable in a variety of ways, accessible to a large audience, interoperable in platforms changing over time, and reusable into the future.  Each of these elements hides a host of problems, and to solve them will require continued investments.  Digital assets are wonderful but fragile things; they require as much curation as physical assets and in some cases more.  They have to be protected from damage and deterioration if they are to continue to circulate.  Some web interfaces are so user-friendly that it’s easy to forget the complexity of creating and maintaining them.

There are huge costs involved in digital collections and in facilitating new ways to make them useful with software to make it quicker and easier to query data.  This digital sophistication might seem counterintuitive to those who see natural history as an old-fashioned, outdated area of science.  Also counterintuitive is the idea that simple observation, looking at a specimen, can involve sophisticated technology and issues of dimensionality and phenomenology.  Observation is placed relatively low in the hierarchy of cognitive skills, yet has been recognized as a sophisticated research tool since the early modern period when botanists realized that careful observation was essential for learning about plants.  It was the only way forward in obtaining secure knowledge about a species.  What digital access allows is an entirely new level of observation, the ability to view an image without causing it any physical damage, to access many specimens of one species instantaneously, and to have colleagues in different institutions look at the same specimens in real time.  This communal aspect of digital collections is extremely important; it opens up a new form of image circulation. 

It is a paradox that in order to continue to share earth with such a diversity of organisms, we have to create an in-silico world where we experience nature not even second hand as we would in a herbarium, but removed even further onto a screen where the contact is only through the visual.  This digital world can be as fragile and easy to disrupt as an ecosystem, perhaps even more so.  It is a product of human ingenuity and must be sustained by that ingenuity if it is to survive, flourish, and circulate equitably and usefully.


Flannery, M. C. (2012). Flatter than a pancake: Why scanning herbarium sheet shouldn’t make them disappear. Spontaneous Generations: A Journal of the History and Philosophy of Science, 6(1), 225–232.

Digitization: A Boost to Circulation

In the last two (1,2) posts, I’ve discussed how herbarium specimens have circulated since they were first created, and also how sometimes specimens get stuck in a limbo of uncurated collections.  Now I want to discuss how circulation has changed thanks to the massive digitization projects of the 21st century.  This is a familiar story to those in the herbarium world, but I’ll quickly review it for those who aren’t lucky enough hang around herbaria.  The upshot of digitization is that now everyone can hang around them, at least virtually. 

Digitization is very much tied to the development of computer technologies, but also to globalization that has brought an awareness that the planet we live on is a shared asset and a shared responsibility.  Over the years there have been a number of international conferences and agreements that articulated this vision and made it actionable.  The 1993 international  Convention on Biological Diversity gave each nation sovereignty over its biological wealth, which implies knowledge of that wealth.  This led to the 2002 Global Strategy for Plant Conservation with later updates and goals including a global flora of all known plants with online access, the best way to make the information widely available.  While this goal has yet to be met in full, there have been significant advances toward it.  

In the early 21st century, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation spearheaded the digitization of type specimens so that researchers around the world could access the plants that were used in describing species.  Because of the way many specimens circulated—collected in the species-rich tropics and transported to botanist-rich Europe and North America—researchers in developing nations did not have ready access to these materials.  Botanical literature was also relatively unavailable so the project digitized many publications of the past as well.  This project morphed into the portal JSTOR Global Plants and also set the stage for other large-scale digitization projects such as ADBC (Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections) in the United States with its massive iDigBio portal and what ultimately became DiSSCo (Distributed System of Biodiversity Collections) in Europe.  Meanwhile GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) has aggregated data from these projects and others worldwide to create the largest portal for natural history collections along with observational data. 

While an amazing achievement, digitization has not totally solved access problems for those in developing nations.  They often do not have the hardware, software, and internet connections to make good use of these resources.  Still, digitization has broadened availability in other ways.  It was difficult for those not involved in botanical research to visit herbaria, if for no other reason than specimens’ fragility; each use opens the possibility of damage.  This is not a problem with a digital collection, so students can study specimens on the web as can curious gardeners and artists looking for new forms of inspiration, leading to greater plant awareness, a positive counter to what has been called plant blindness. 

Digital collections have already had a major impact on the ways specimens are used in research (Heberling et al., 2021).  For phenological work, botanists can now search GBIF for a particular species and by checking a specimen’s flowering or fruiting status against the date it was collected, they can see if there is a pattern of change in the dates over a period of 100 years or more.  They may check hundreds or even thousands of specimens, something that wouldn’t be possible for physical examination.  Niche or species distribution modeling, determining areas that might provide suitable habitat for a species based on what is known about its range, is another area where digital specimens are pivotal:  geographic coordinate data on where plants were collected are used to create a model of the environmental conditions that meet a species’ habitat requirements.  This research is helpful in identifying possible collection areas and also where a species might be able to grow as the climate changes. 

There’s also an increase in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to recognize traits like leaf shape and even to identify species.  This work requires a great deal of computer power and sophisticated neural networking techniques, so it’s costly in both technology and human input.  However the field is advancing rapidly in exciting ways.  Botanists foresee being able to rapidly analyzing large numbers of specimens and at least sorting them into families or genera if not species.  However, at the moment even the identification of leaf shapes is still in its infancy.  When deep learning AI techniques are tested in identifying specimens, this is done on carefully selected specimen sets.  It requires a great deal of computer capacity, but the increasing frequency with which AI projects presented at conferences on digital specimens suggests that these tools will soon become widely used in biodiversity research.             

I should add that there are obviously many research areas where digital specimens cannot possibly replace the real thing.  There is no DNA in a data file.  Specimens have proved to be goldmines for those working on plant genetics.  As sequencing techniques become more sophisticated, even the rather short degraded DNA fragments found in specimens, hundreds if not thousands of years old, can provide substantial information on a plant’s relationship to other species.  But this isn’t the only reason why physical specimens need to be retained.  They can give clues on chemical changes in plants under siege from herbivores (Zangerl & Berenbaum, 2005), and more than one entomologist has found new insect species hidden away on plant specimens (Whitehead, 2016).  Each specimen is unique:  a particular plant collected at a particular place and time, and therefore irreplaceable.


Heberling, J. M., Miller, J. T., Noesgaard, D., Weingart, S. B., & Schigel, D. (2021). Data integration enables global biodiversity synthesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(6). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2018093118

Whitehead, D. R. (1976). Collecting Beetles in Exotic Places: The Herbarium. The Coleopterists Bulletin, 30(3), 249–250.

Zangerl, A., & Berenbaum, M. (2005). Increase in toxicity of an invasive weed after reassociation with its coevolved herbivore. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(43), 15529–15532. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0507805102

Circulating Specimens: Getting Stuck

Acer circinatum collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the Academy of Natural Sciences Herbarium at Drexel University, owned by the American Philosophical Society

The last post dealt with the way specimens have been moved around since the first herbaria were created in the 16th century.  But like the human circulatory system that can suffer from clots and narrowing arteries, specimens can end up stuck in forgotten cabinets and cluttered attics.  In the late 19th century Thomas Meehan was a botanical curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  Its herbarium is home to specimens collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, though a portion of the original collection was lost in transit and some are still unaccounted for.  Once during the expedition and then after it, collections were sent, at President Thomas Jefferson’s direction, to the noted Philadelphia botanist Benjamin Barton, who had written the first botany text published in the United States.

Barton enlisted the aid of a German botanist Frederick Pursh who came to the United States to collect,.  Pursh worked on the plants, but eventually left for England with some of the specimens.  There he published a work describing many new species both from the Lewis and Clark specimens and also from those of Thomas Nuttall and John Bradbury who had collected in the United States and sent material back to Britain (McKelvey, 1955, p. 73).  Pursh got to examine and describe the plants before the two arrived home in a notable bit of taxonomic piracy.  He eventually sold the Lewis and Clark material to a voracious British botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert whose collection was auctioned after his death.  A young American botanist, Edward Tuckerman, bought the lot with the Lewis and Clark specimens and eventually donated them to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, also the home of another portion of the expedition’s collections.  However, the plants were put in storage and remained in relative oblivion for decades.

If your head is spinning at this point, botanists working at the Academy of Natural Sciences have written two very lucid accounts of this and other aspects of the Lewis and Clark material (Spamer & McCourt, 2002; Spamer, Hawks & McCourt, 2002).  But now back to the late 19th century and Thomas Meehan.  He was on the hunt for the Pursh specimens when someone told him that they might be at the APS.  Some searching finally brought them to light.  Since the ANS was nearby and had a significant herbarium plus the staff to curate it, the APS agreed to have the Lewis and Clark specimens transferred there, but the APS retains official ownership.

An even older collection had a different fate.  John Fraser was a British plant collector who arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1786.  He made contact with the French botanist André Michaux who had a nursery there, and also with Thomas Walter, who had a plantation outside the city and was writing a flora of the Carolinas.  Walter and Fraser went collecting together, and Fraser also traveled on his own more widely, going along the Savannah River with Michaux and traveling into what is now part of North Carolina on his own.  He made a collection of specimens, and Walter identified plants for him and even wrote descriptions of new species, which Walter added to his flora.   When Fraser was returning to England, Walter asked him to see to the publication of the flora.  Fraser did so and the specimens were bound in a volume with “Thomas Walter’s Herbarium” on the title page.  They became part of the collection now at the Natural History Museum, London, and didn’t receive much attention until the botanist Daniel Ward (2007) did a thorough study and published an article entitled “The Thomas Walter Herbarium Is Not the Herbarium of Thomas Walter.”  He argues that most of the plants were probably collected by Fraser, since many of the labels are in his handwriting and some of the plants are from areas visited by Fraser, not Walter.  Ward’s work was part of his effort to find type specimens for the plants Walter described.  In the process, he brought attention to Fraser and this rather obscure collection (Ward, 2017).

The work of Meehan and Ward played out before the mass digitization of specimens, but that effort has done wonders for the specimen circulatory system not only for the obvious reason of making them available on the internet.  A side effect is that preparing specimens for digitization has brought to light many interesting finds.  The curators at the University of Connecticut’s George Safford Torrey Herbarium discovered two specimens collected by Henry David Thoreau.  Moving to a new space is another was to revive circulation.  When the Cambridge University Herbarium relocated into a new building, historical collections were unearthed that have yet to be thoroughly studied (Gardiner, 2019).  Even more spectacular were the results of the project at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris to renovate the herbarium and at the same time digitize the collection.  The result was estimating the backlog of unmounted specimens at over 800,000; the process of organizing them is definitely the herbarium equivalent of open-heart surgery (Le Bras et al., 2017).  I find all these discoveries cheering, not only because I like surprises, but because they hint at still more interesting finds yet to come.


Gardiner, L. M. (2019). Cambridge University Herbarium: Rediscovering a botanical treasure trove. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 31–47. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3603520

Le Bras, G., et al. (2017). The French Muséum national d’histoire naturelle vascular plant herbarium collection dataset. Scientific Data, 4(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1038/sdata.2017.16

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Jamaica Plains, MA: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Spamer, E., Hawks, C., & McCourt, R. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 2. Notulae Naturae, 476, 1–16.

Spamer, E., & McCourt, R. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 1. Notulae Naturae, 475, 1–46.

Ward, D. B. (2007). The Thomas Walter Herbarium is not the herbarium of Thomas Walter. Taxon, 56(3), 917–926.

Ward, D. B. (2017). Thomas Walter and His Plants: The Life and Works of a Pioneer American Botanist. New York: New York Botanical Garden.

Circulating Specimens: History

Silene fruticosa collected by Paolo Boccone in 1674, now at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

Like many people during the covid pandemic, I became more dependent on social media for links to the world.  I didn’t spend that much more time on Twitter, but I used it differently.  It had been a way for me to find out about the latest articles and books on botany, as well as the goings on in herbaria and botanic gardens.  Then I began using it to find online opportunities.  For example, the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine has been around for over 10 years, but I had never become involved.  A notice on Twitter sent me to the consortium website where I discovered, and joined, two of its groups:  Collections and Collecting, and Visual Cultures in Natural History, the Life Sciences, and Medicine.  Each hosts seminars by group members, with a paper for the monthly meeting available beforehand so participants can be ready for a discussion that is always thoughtful.  I come away with both information and an intellectual high.  This year the Visual Cultures group also hosted a three-day workshop on “The Circulation of Images in the Life Sciences.”  This seemed like a perfect opportunity to think about the history, and future, of the circulation of plant specimens.  This series of posts is drawn from the work I presen

My central argument was that at this moment in time there’s a great shift going on in the circulation of herbarium specimens.  More and more of it is virtual rather than physical thanks to the large-scale digitization projects.  I outlined how specimens circulated in the past in contrast with today, and both the advantages and challenges of each.  I will do something similar in these posts, beginning with this one on how mobile specimens were even from the earliest days of herbaria. 

The Italian botanist Luca Ghini, one of the first proponents of using pressed plants, was known for his generosity in lending specimens to others, along with his notes and illustrations.  This was one way he propagated the herbarium habit; others saw how useful it was to have a hortus siccus, dry garden, or hortus hyemalis, winter garden, for reference.  By the mid-16th century, the practice had spread throughout Europe (Arber, 1938).  The German botanist Leonhart Fuchs, the author of one of the first modern herbals, traded specimens, illustrations, and notes with Ghini, some of which were in Fuchs’s possession when Ghini died.  To Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who was preparing a translation of the ancient materia medica text by Dioscorides, Ghini sent several hundred specimens.   A little later in the Netherlands, Carolus Clusius and Rembert Dodoens compared the collections they made on their travels to get a fuller picture of plant diversity.

Botanists also shared specimens in other ways besides lending.  If they had collected more than one example of a species, they might give the duplicate to a colleague.  The botanical etiquette related to such a “gift” was, and is, to send back a comparable specimen of a different species, usually of similar worth.  Something common in the sender’s area might be gifted or traded for something common in the recipient’s region.  A rare plant might be met with the return of more than one specimen.  If a colleague identifies an unnamed plant, the understanding is that they could keep the specimen.  Routinely the plants are sent unmounted.  A mounted specimen is “worth” more than an unmounted one because of the labor involved and the cost of the paper. 

Some plant collectors financed their expeditions by selling specimens to those who couldn’t or didn’t wish to travel.  Those with means built large collections by buying from such entrepreneurs and also purchasing entire collections.  These often became available after a collector died, and the family either needed the money or the space taken up by piles of dead plants for which they had no use.  That’s how the British collector Hans Sloane acquired many of the 265 volumes in his herbarium now at the Natural History Museum, London, and the French financier Benjamin Delessert amassed much of his collection now at the herbarium of the Geneva Botanical Garden in Switzerland. 

Another form of accumulation was that of colonial powers, the British Empire being perhaps the premier example.  Particularly from the time of Joseph Banks, Britain purposefully set about sending plant collectors throughout the world to find new species, especially those that could be useful for the empire’s economic engine.  One collector could send back hundreds or even thousands of specimens, along with seeds for cultivation either at botanical gardens, like Kew and Edinburgh, or at colonial gardens where tropical species were more likely to flourish and could then be grown on plantations.  This is how breadfruit got from Asia to the West Indies, rubber from Brazil to Southeast Asia, and cinchona from Peru to India (Brockway, 1979).  The result of all this circulation was that plants were grown worldwide, while specimens tended to accumulate in Europe forming what Bruno Latour (1990) terms “centers of calculation.” 

Still, no herbarium can have everything a botanist needs when thoroughly investigating a particular group of plants.  That’s why they will ask other institutions to lend them what they want to see.  These requests are usually honored, another long-held tradition in natural history.  In some cases, the borrower may have to pay for postage, but that’s about it.  In “payment,” the sheet will receive a determination slip to either confirm the species name on the label or to revise it if the borrower thinks it belongs to a different one, or if the name has been updated since the label was made.  In any case, the specimen is returned with value added. 


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.

Latour, B. (1990). Drawing things together. In M. Lynch & S. Woolgar (Eds.), Representation in scientific practice (pp. 19–68). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.