During the pandemic, I became interested in digital medieval manuscripts after reading a blog post by a researcher studying the digitization of manuscripts at Cambridge University and being unable to access the manuscripts themselves (Haaren, 2020). I began comparing this digitization process to that of herbarium specimens. “Materiality” is a term much used in the manuscript world for the look and feel of parchment or paper and the way documents are damaged, annotated, amended over time. It struck me that such issues also pertain to herbarium specimens, but it’s not something that’s often a matter of focus. Botanists are interested in the information on sheets: what the plant itself can tell them and what else they can learn from the label, determination slips, and other notations.
What I want to argue here is that materiality can have at least a subliminal effect on how specimens are viewed and handled. I want to use as a study case a number of specimens from the herbarium I’ve been highlighting in this series of posts (1,2,3), that of the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. As I mentioned earlier, it holds the collection of the 19th-century botanist and planter Henry William Ravenel (1817-1887). Ravenel was born into a family of planters in South Carolina’s low country relatively near the coast. In the 1840s, he moved to the southwest part of the state, to the town of Aiken, and bought a plantation there. Of course, the American Civil War is the elephant in this room. Before then, he was successful in large part because he owned 80 slaves who worked his land, giving him time to devote to plants and fungi. By 1860, he had published five volumes of fungal exsiccati and had a wide correspondence with the likes of Asa Gray, George Engelmann, and Edward Tuckerman.
Convinced of the confederate cause, Ravenel sunk all his money into war bonds and was thus left in dire financial straits after the war, with no slaves to farm his land and no one willing to buy it at anywhere near its previous value. He turned to botany, no longer as just a beloved avocation but as a source of income. His journals and letters, which have all been transcribed and are available online and cross-referenced with his specimens, record his efforts. After the war, he was able to resume correspondence with his former botanical colleagues. He wrote to them asking for advice: would there be an interest in southern specimens (not really in the post-war era), was there a market for the volumes of his exsiccati (Tuckerman was able to sell some of them and also bought some of his books), what about starting a nursery (nurseryman Thomas Meehan in Philadelphia sent him stock and gave him $50 in start-up money that didn’t need to be repaid).
Ravenel did cobble together a livelihood and a botanical support group. He was sent by the federal government to collect plants in Texas in 1869, prepared large cuttings of southern trees for Charles Sprague Sargent in Massachusetts, and traded specimens with the likes of Alvan Chapman in Florida, Stephen Olney in Rhode Island Delaware, and Moses Curtis in the Appalachian regions of the Carolinas (Haygood, 1987). I can’t go into any more of his background, but you can learn about him on the Plants and Planter website. Now I want to get to the materiality of Ravenel’s specimens by looking at a couple of them. As was common in the 19th century, most were mounted on thin paper, now discolored. After Ravenel’s death, a cousin bought the flowering plant collection from his widow and contributed it to Converse College, in Spartanburg, SC (now Converse University). The college transferred the collection to USCH in 2004, when its conservation was begun.
There are a variety of sheets in any one folder. In some cases, the original sheets are themselves mounted on heavier sheets (see image in earlier post); in many cases the original paper is cut around the plant, creating a collage that includes the original label and later determinations, some made in the 1930s when the collection was obviously given attention. The grasses, for example, were sent for annotation to Mary Agnes Chase at the US Department of Agriculture. There are also specimens that were apparently easier to remove from damaged mounts and pasted to new sheets. The original labels are also included, and their darkened paper stands out against the white background (see above).
These remounted specimens, which make up most of the Ravenel collection, are what got me thinking about the materiality of the Ravenel collection. They look so different from the few older sheets that are extant. All the plants are from the same period, yet the ones on new sheets look so much fresher. I think there is also a tendency to handle them with less reverence because the paper is not fragile, there is little reminder of their age. This got me thinking about the folders in the main collections. Most of the specimens are from the 20th century, with a good number from the 21st. However, the specimens from the 1930s and 1940s are often on thin and yellowed paper. Going through a folder, I think there is a subconscious assessment made in handling each sheet: delicate, old and fragile; recent, tough and vibrant; or somewhere in between. These are obviously aesthetic assessments, but they are also practical ones in terms of how the sheets are handled. They may not require the care in handling a medieval manuscript does—or maybe they do. Plant material is more fragile than the paper on which it is mounted and paper is more fragile than parchment. Materiality does matter.
Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.
Haaren, S. van. (2020, May 25). Physical distancing from manuscripts and the presence of the digital facsimile. Cambridge Medieval Graduate Students. https://camedievalists.wordpress.com/2020/05/25/physical-distancing-from-manuscripts-and-the-presence-of-the-digital-facsimile/
Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.