Aesthetics as Suspect

Gentiana ligustica, photo Botanical Garden of Fribourg

An article published last year deals with bias in the selection of plants for botanical studies (Adamo et al., 2021).  A survey of 280 investigations published between 1975 and 2020 on a well-studied alpine flora found that “morphological and colour traits, as well as range size, have significantly more impact on species choice for wild flowering plants than traits related to ecology and rarity” (p. 574).  Specifically, plants with blue flowers, those that were relatively tall, and those with larger flowers were more likely to be selected along with plants with wider ranges.  None of this is really news since a number of studies using digitized herbarium specimens have found spatial, temporal, and trait biases (Daru et al., 2018; Troudet et al., 2017).  However, the emphasis here on what the authors term “aesthetic” traits drew attention, with Nature (“Flower Power: Pretty Plants Are the Most Studied,” 2021) and Scientific American (“A Flashy Focus,” Kramer, 2021) running news stories including a photo of a blue gentian flower from the journal article.

In their conclusion, the authors came down quite heavily on the problems associated with this bias.  If researchers were attracted by color, form, and size rather than the conservation status particularly of rare plants, then the species that need the most attention would not be getting it:  “This apparently superficial preference has implicit and undesired effects as it translates into an aesthetic bias in the data that form the basis for scientific research and practices.”  They continue, “. . . it would be desirable to develop measures to counteract it, given the potentially negative impact on our understanding of the ecology and evolution of plants and the conservation of vital plant biodiversity” (p. 576). 

In their introduction, Adamo et al. write:  “These biases should be taken into account to inform more objective plant conservation efforts “(p. 574), thus juxtaposing science as objective and aesthetics as subjective.  I take umbrage with this and their implication that “aesthetic” is superficial and undesirable, therefore antithetical to scientific research.  My dissertation was on the aesthetic of biology, so I admit to my own bias, but this work taught me that the aesthetic is an integral part of scientific inquiry and cannot be expunged.  The two are not in opposition in part because the standard mind/body dichotomy is simply wrong.  There is more and more evidence that brain function is intimately interwoven with the physiology of the rest of the body, and so therefore are thinking and feeling.  Feelings generate thoughts and vice versa (Damasio, 2000). 

As far as attraction to large, brightly colored flowers is concerned, as Adamo et al. admit, this bias may be part of our biology.  We are a species that relies a great deal on sight, so in scanning a green landscape, a contrasting color is likely to stand out (Arnheim, 1969).  In studies of collection bias based on herbarium specimens, some researchers found that there was a bias toward collecting white flowers (Panchen et al., 2019) and more than one study has found a bias against collecting plants with green or brownish inflorescences, described as “unattractively colored” in one article (Schmidt-Lebuhn et al., 2013, p.  905).  There are biases for tall plants in one article (Williams & Pearson, 2019) and perennials over annuals in another (Daru et al., 2018).  There are also biases against collecting spiny plants:  this might also be seen as aesthetic in nature:  getting stuck repeatedly is not pleasurable (Schmidt-Lebuhn et al., 2013).  Spatial collecting biases are well-documented and myriad, with sites near roads or railroads, populated areas, and research institutions being more often visited than those that are remote and difficult to access (Haque et al., 2017).  This may also be seen as at least partially aesthetic in origin.  Botanists are human beings who like their creature comforts.

But not all biases are driven by aesthetics.  Colonial powers directed a great deal of collecting in the past, as witnessed by the large Asian, African, and Latin American collections in Europe (Brockway, 1979).  Collection today can often be influenced by a collector’s or an institution’s research interests for a particular family or class.  Since the early modern era, useful plants have been sought after, and this trend continues with quests for crop wild relatives and medicinal plants.  Mark Nesbitt (2014) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew notes that useful plants are over-represented in herbaria worldwide.  What digitization of specimens on a large scale has done is to make these biases much easier to discover because large data sets can be analyzed without actually examining each specimen.  Now all types of biases are more identifiable and therefore more addressable. 

What is important to me about the study on alpine plants is that is brings aesthetics front and center into a discussion of scientific research, something that doesn’t happen very often.  Many scientists will discuss their attraction to certain topics or species or types of research, but it doesn’t usually get written about in journal articles.  This perpetuates the assumption that science is an “objective” activity.  It neglects what Gerald Holton (1973) calls the “private side of science:”  how science is really done—with all its joys, mistakes, brilliant insights, and wrong turns that get edited out of publications.  John Dewey (1932) argued that any deeply lived experience, and research is definitely that, is an aesthetic experience.  This is the topic I want to explore in the next three posts in this series on the role aesthetics play in collecting and preparing specimens, studying them, and communicating about them.

References

Adamo, M., Chialva, M., Calevo, J., Bertoni, F., Dixon, K., & Mammola, S. (2021). Plant scientists’ research attention is skewed towards colourful, conspicuous and broadly distributed flowers. Nature Plants, 7(5), 574–578. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-021-00912-2

Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual Thinking. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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

Damasio, A. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego: Mariner.

Daru, B. H., Park, D. S., Primack, R. B., Willis, C. G., Barrington, D. S., Whitfeld, T. J. S., Seidler, T. G., Sweeney, P. W., Foster, D. R., Ellison, A. M., & Davis, C. C. (2018). Widespread sampling biases in herbaria revealed from large-scale digitization. New Phytologist, 217(2), 939–955. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.14855

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch.

Flower Power: Pretty plants are the most studied. (2021). Nature, 593, 317.

Haque, Md. M., Nipperess, D. A., Gallagher, R. V., & Beaumont, L. J. (2017). How well documented is Australia’s flora? Understanding spatial bias in vouchered plant specimens. Austral Ecology, 42(6), 690–699. https://doi.org/10.1111/aec.12487

Kramer, J. (2021). A flashy focus. Scientific American, 325(2), 24.

Nesbitt, M. (2014). Use of herbarium specimens in ethnobotany. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 313–328). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Panchen, Z. A., Doubt, J., Kharouba, H. M., & Johnston, M. O. (2019). Patterns and biases in an Arctic herbarium specimen collection: Implications for phenological research. Applications in Plant Sciences, 7(3), e01229. https://doi.org/10.1002/aps3.1229

Schmidt-Lebuhn, A. N., Knerr, N. J., & Kessler, M. (2013). Non-geographic collecting biases in herbarium specimens of Australian daisies (Asteraceae). Biodiversity and Conservation, 22(4), 905–919. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-013-0457-9

Troudet, J., Grandcolas, P., Blin, A., Vignes-Lebbe, R., & Legendre, F. (2017). Taxonomic bias in biodiversity data and societal preferences. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 9132. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-09084-6

Williams, J., & Pearson, K. D. (2019). Examining collection biases across different taxonomic groups: Understanding how biases can compare across herbarium datasets. American Journal of Undergraduate Research, 15(4), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.33697/ajur.2019.005

Plant Specimens in the Future

A sample of herbarium images used for training an AI model for recognizing leaf shape (Hussein et al., 2019)

In the first post in this series, I described ideas Mason Heberling (2022) presents in his paper on the role of herbaria in plant trait studies, including an outline of why specimens have been almost ignored by ecologists and evolutionary biologists in studies of genetic and environmental influences on plant characteristics.  After this survey and a convincing argument for why specimens would be valuable in this research, he discusses how herbaria could become centers for such work.  He begin this topic with a great quote from the corn systematist Edgar Anderson (1952):  “Making a good herbarium record . . . is something like trying to stable a camel in a dog kennel” (p. 47).  I imagine Anderson attempting to wrestle a corn plant, or parts thereof, onto a herbarium sheet.  But Heberling is also thinking about how plant trait studies might need not one specimen, but a number representing different parts of a plant’s life cycle or the variations found within a population.  He is realistic in considering how much more work this would mean for herbarium staff and how much more space would be needed to store all these specimens.  That’s why he argues for a reframing of the work of herbaria, which might seem like overreaching for an article on plant traits, but he makes clear that this type of research ties in nicely with the herbarium community’s present interest in the extended specimen network (ESN):  digitally tying together many types of genetic, ecological, and morphological data with specimen data (Lendemer et al., 2019). 

Heberling deals with what information should be on a herbarium sheet for trait research beyond the basics of plant name and collector as well as date and location.  Phenological data—presence of flower or fruit—is becoming more standard, but what if leaf areas have been measured or chemical analysis done?  This information is usually fed into trait databases such as Morphobank, but is not at present often linked to a specimen.  This is why Heberling calls for the participation of the functional trait researchers in building the ESN.  It would be helpful in convincing this community of the importance of vouchers to substantiate trait data.  This might not always be feasible, but at least photographic evidence could be linked.  In the other direction, it’s important for herbarium curators to be involved in developing the Open Traits Network that is attempting to standardize and integrate trait data.          

Heberling contends that rather than declaring specimens as too imperfect a form of evidence to use in trait studies, researchers should seek to change collection practices:  “We must ask how herbaria can better address the needs of new and unanticipated specimen uses.  What information do we wish that collectors a century ago had provided with their specimens?”  Then he gets more daring:  “I propose an open reevaluation of the very collection event” (p. 108).  Decisions have to be made in the digital age about what information is on the specimen itself and what is linked to it.  As one example, he cites work that he and his colleague Bonnie Isaac (2018) have done in linking online specimen data to information including photographs they input into iNaturalist at the time of a collection event. 

As to what information is actually recorded on the specimen, Heberling notes that research shows that data fields in taxonomic software are well-standardized, but the information in those fields may not be.  Anyone who compares label data to the digital record can attest to this.  Sometimes the problem may be just a random input error, but there is also the problem of fields without controlled vocabularies, or OCR difficulties, or a particular individual’s own take on what goes where.  These problems are being resolved as best practices become more widely standardized and employed.

Then there is also the issue of intensive collecting for life history or extent of variation studies.  Heberling admits that this cannot be done in all circumstances and requires budgeting for increased curatorial work and storage that might not be possible for all institutions.  But these issues definitely need to be part of conversations on the future of herbaria.  He ends by enumerating several moves that will lead to increased effectiveness and use of plant collections including archiving population-level and ontogenetic or developmental variation.  Also there needs to be more environmental context on labels.  This has become more common with habitat descriptions and associated species often listed, but available light and other abiotic conditions should be noted, and to make this information optimally useful, a standardized vocabulary should be adopted.

Also, the ENS should be built into specimen collection itself, as in the iNaturalist case; collectors should leverage the ability to create “born digital” specimens as much as possible.  The accession should also include storage of material such as silica dried leaved in fragment packets for future research requiring destructive testing.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, collection should be planned well into the future in order to track traits at a time of climate and habitat change.  This outline for the future is a great way for Heberling to end his article that is both rich in data and in good ideas about why herbaria are important and how they can become even more significant in the future.   

References

Anderson, E. (1952). Plants, Man and Life. University of California Press.

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118. https://doi.org/10.1086/717623

Heberling, J. M., & Isaac, B. L. (2018). INaturalist as a tool to expand the research value of museum specimens. Applications in Plant Sciences, 6(11), e01193. https://doi.org/10.1002/aps3.1193

Hussein, B. R., Malik, O. A., Ong, W.-H., & Slik, J. W. F. (2021). Automated Extraction of Phenotypic Leaf Traits of Individual Intact Herbarium Leaves from Herbarium Specimen Images Using Deep Learning Based Semantic Segmentation. Sensors, 21(13), 4549. https://doi.org/10.3390/s21134549

Lendemer, J., Thiers, B., Monfils, A. K., Zaspel, J., Ellwood, E. R., Bentley, A., LeVan, K., Bates, J., Jennings, D., Contreras, D., Lagomarsino, L., Mabee, P., Ford, L. S., Guralnick, R., Gropp, R. E., Revelez, M., Cobb, N., Seltmann, K., & Aime, M. C. (2020). The Extended Specimen Network: A Strategy to Enhance US Biodiversity Collections, Promote Research and Education. BioScience, 70(1), 23–30. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz140

Collections in the Future

Methods for measuring leaf shape in butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, (Woodson 1947, p. 368)

This month’s series of posts will diverge from usual where I keep to one theme.  This time, I’ll seesaw between two topics that I, at least, see as related.  Each stems from a recent publication I found particularly noteworthy on how plant collections will be used and curated in the future.  The first is an article by Mason Heberling (2022) on “Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits” and appeared in the International Journal of Plant Sciences.  It is a review of a topic that hasn’t received enough attention:  how herbaria can be used in functional trait analysis.  The other is Issue 8 of The Ethnobotany Assembly or T.E.A., a quarterly online journal about plant-people relationships.  It’s entitled Plant Humanities: Where Arts, Humanities, and Plants Meet and is edited and with a contribution by Felix Driver and Caroline Cornish.  There is a great deal coming out about the plant humanities and some of it I find disappointing, but not this publication.  The articles are varied and thought-provoking, but I’ll save further comments until the next post. 

Why am I juxtaposing such different types of work?  Precisely because they are so different.  Yet they both speak volumes about the possible future of herbaria if researchers of this caliber continue to give their attention to the amazing resources that plant specimens provide to so many fields.  I begin with plant traits because this topic fits squarely within biological inquiry, where recent reports like those on the Extended Specimen Network clearly put herbaria.  However, Heberling argues that specimens have been neglected by plant trait researchers who tend to look elsewhere for data.  He lays out his case in the first part of the article and also provides examples of where herbaria have made significant contributions to the field.  In the second part, which I’ll discuss later, he outlines how in the future herbaria and collecting might adapt to support this area of research. 

After his introduction, Heberling discusses community ecologists’ growing use of plant functional traits in their research during the past 20 years.  Functional traits include morphological, chemical, phenological, and physiological attributes that serve as surrogates in understanding individual fitness.  He uses as an example work on the leaf economics spectrum (LES) where characteristics such as leaf mass per area, construction costs, photosynthetic rate, and leaf life span have been found to relate to each other.  This quartet varies along a spectrum from long-lived, high construction costs, low photosynthetic rates, and large area to the other end with opposite traits.  Patterns falling outside the spectrum are thought to be maladaptive. 

Heberling notes that in most of this work “little or no explicit attention has been paid toward specimens as primary sources of trait data (p. 90).”  One reason he gives is that functional trait analyses are a recent development in plant science and preparing specimens is a technology that has been around for a long time.  In the past, noting traits like phenological status was not necessarily considered important, especially because it would be apparent to someone looking at the specimen.  This made sense until the age of digital data when researchers can be searching online databases for label information on phenological status and not finding it.  An image may not be available, and even if it were, it would be much more time efficient to simply search the data files.  Other changes in processing specimens that could aid trait research include preserving plants in different stages of development for life history research.

Also tackled are the arguments ecologists and evolutionary biologists have against using specimens, including issues of collection bias, such as toward ignoring young and immature plants and choosing those with flower and fruit.  This makes sense for taxonomic studies but not for plant life history work.  However, he contends that “we cannot assume the limits of herbaria without trying (p. 101).”  In this case, awareness of the issue could lead to changes in collection practices, with a broader selection of material chosen.  As for the idea that leaf area changes markedly over time in dried specimens, the assumption has been disproven in comparative studies.  Several traits, including amino acid and metal contents have also been validated for herbarium-based measurement.

Heberling provides an extensive table citing findings where specimens have been studied in trait research and describes many ingenious approaches used both in early studies and also more recently.  One of my favorites is a 2002 paper by Teece et al. on 11 Lewis and Clark specimens, among the earliest collected in the Western United States before development and industrialization caused substantive environmental changes.   Leaf fatty acid content was measured as was stable carbon isotope composition.  These results served as an important baseline for comparison to later specimens.  Heberling also discusses the vast literature on stomata, leaf area, herbivory, and other traits that is based on specimens.  It is a fascinating review.  However, he then notes that there is little herbarium specimen data in the two major trait databases TRY, begun in 2007 and BIEN, started in 2016.  With about 12 million records, TRY has only 10.4% of North American woody plants represented by even one specific leaf area measurement.  It is this dearth that Heberling addresses in the latter part of his article and that I’ll look at in the third post of this series. 

References

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118. https://doi.org/10.1086/717623.

Teece, M. A., Fogel, M., Tuross, N., McCourt, R. M., & Spamer, E. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 3. Modern environmental applications of a historic nineteenth century botanical collection. Notulae Naturae, 477, 1–20.

Woodson, R. E. (1947). Some Dynamics of Leaf Variation in Asclepias tuberosa. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 34(4), 353. https://doi.org/10.2307/2394774.

Swiss Treasure Rooms

Facing pages from Felix Platter’s Herbarium. Bern City Library.

This post in the series (1,2) on the whereabouts of early modern herbaria begins with two notable collections in Switzerland, Felix Platter’s (1536-1614) at the Bern City Library and Caspar Bauhin’s (1560-1624) at the University of Basel’s herbarium.  Both are significant and both were the subject of an article by Davina Benkert (2016), where she does a wonderful job of describing each and comparing them.  As with many collections this old, portions are missing.  Platter eventually bound his specimens and had 18 volumes of which nine survive.  In many cases, he pasted a plant on the right hand page and one or more illustrations on the left.  Among these are prints as well as watercolors, including 77 by Hans Weiditz, the originals of the plates used in Otto Brunfel’s 1530 Herbarum vivae eicones.  Paper being valuable, Weiditz had painted on both sides of each sheet.  Wanting to get the most out of them, Platter cut them out so he could use both plants, sometimes painting in parts that were missing.  He also at times “fiddled” with specimens, such as pasting stamens to the outside of tulip flowers to make them visible.  These practices horrify present-day art historians and botanists, but this was early modern botany and techniques had yet to be codified. 

Bauhin was Platter’s student at the University of Basel and they collected together.  Eventually Bauhin joined the faculty and worked on his plant compendium, Pinax theatri botanici published there in 1623.  They used the specimens differently, so they treated them differently.  Platter used his in teaching and as reference.  Though he had early on kept his specimens loose, he eventually preferred bound volumes because they allowed him to show his collection to visitors, something he relished, without damaging the plants.  He used Bauhin’s classification system.  Even though it hadn’t been published yet, he was obviously privy to the manuscript.   

On the other hand, Bauhin was trying to build a comprehensive collection to use in creating a planned work on taxonomy.  He kept his specimens loose, slipped between folded sheets of paper with identification slips.  This enabled him to reorganize them as his ideas about relationships among them changed, but it also meant fragments and labels could easily slip out.  It also made it easier to remove specimens.  Bauhin’s collection continued to be used for teaching and reference after his death.  His descendants allowed botanists to select specimens, which explains why two-thirds of the originals are gone (Benkert, 2016).  In 1774, what remained was purchased by Werner von Lachenel, a University of Basel botanist who integrated the sheets into his own herbarium.  When the University acquired his herbarium, they then sorted out Bauhin’s sheets, but 400 were in such poor condition they were discarded.  Here at least we have some idea of why the collection is so greatly reduced.  In many cases, the dwindling of a collection isn’t as well documented.  I should add that sometimes items are later found as when 300 of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s specimens (see last post) were discovered in a later Italian collection (Mossetti, 1990).  Again, this might seem horrifying, but it is really a form of borrowing, a common practice; it’s just that in the Bauhin and Aldrovandi cases it was done posthumously. 

Alette Fleischer (2017) has written an article with a great title Leaves on the Loose and subtitled “The Changing Nature of Archiving Plants and Botanical Knowledge” and that deals with these issues.  She notes that when herbaria were unbound all ties could be lost to the history of a sheet and who made it.  She sees the digitization of old collections as a boon to “recombining” specimens, setting them next to each other for comparison.  James Petiver, an avid British collector, amassed over 100 herbaria, which eventually become part of Hans Sloane’s herbarium, now at the Natural History Museum, London.  Fleisher writes that “According to his beliefs on order, Petiver compiled, or more precisely recompiled nearly every herbarium that came into his possession.  .  .  .  He not only took sheets from older herbaria, but also cut out bits of paper and plants and glued these together with other specimens, thereby losing labels, names, and information” (pp. 125-126).

Reading statements like this explains a lot about why the early history of herbaria is fragmentary.  It also makes what is available that much more wonderful.  Particularly wonderful is the website that has been created around Platter’s herbarium, with the pages organized by volume and by species names.  In addition there are webpages with information on Platter and the collection’s history.  It’s thrilling to be able to closely study the pages, especially those with Weiditz images.  The University of Basel herbarium website states the Bauhin herbarium has been imaged, but I could not find a link to it, so I am not sure if it is available online.  In time it probably will be, another wonderful digital treasure.  In the meantime, the Platter volumes would keep anyone with an interest in early modern botany busy for a long time. 

References

Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden: Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004325760_010.

Fleischer, A. (2017). Leaves on the loose: The changing nature of archiving plants and botanical knowledge. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 117–135. https://doi.org/10.5840/jems2017616.

Mossetti, U. (1990). Catalogue of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s herbarium: The specimens found in the herbaria of Giuseppe Monti and Ferdinando Bassi. Webbia, 44(1), 151–164. https://doi.org/10.1080/00837792.1990.10670471.

Italian Treasure Rooms

Orchid specimens, Aldrovandi herbarium. University of Bologna.

In this series of posts I am exploring some early modern herbaria that are becoming better known in the 21st century after having been carefully preserved in collections for centuries.  Since the habit of pressing plants in all likelihood arose in Italy, with efforts by Luca Ghini to encourage his students to take up the practice, it’s not surprising that many of the oldest herbaria remain in Italy (Findlen, 2017).  In the last post, I mentioned that the oldest one, begun in 1532, is at the Angelica Library in Rome and now attributed to Ghini’s student Francesco Petrollini, who taught at the University of Bologna.  One of his students, Ulisse Aldrovandi, was also a protégé of Ghini’s.  Aldrovandi had the financial means to amass a large herbarium and a collection of botanical illustrations, as well as other natural history materials and art.  Fifteen volumes of plant material survive in Bologna.  The almost 5000 specimens they contain attest to Aldrovandi’s interest in plants that went beyond the medicinal.  He acquired plants from the eastern Mediterranean, northern Europe, the Americas, and even the Far East.  In many cases, he also had the same plants painted, many from life.

There is interest in such early herbaria because they are physical links to what botanists were looking at and studying at the time.  The botanists were often as interested in receiving seeds.  If they could coax them to germinate, then they would have both living material to study and also to preserve as dried specimens, enough specimens to share with others along with the seeds.  Seeds, unlike specimens, were botanical capital that could increase over time.  While they are less likely to survive than specimens (seeds were capital that was meant to be spent), their importance is documented in surviving letters and other archival materials.  This is how researchers working on another Petrollini herbarium, the En Tibi in Leiden (see last post), were able to find evidence that he had probably received the tomato seeds that produced the plant preserved in his collection from Ghini, who in all likelihood had received them from another of his former students Luigi Anguillara.   

It is these links that are lurking in museums and libraries.  Digitizing specimens and in some cases correspondence will make ferreting out connections easier, but it is still slow and painstaking work.  And work that requires the skills of a historian.  I hate to admit this because I am not a historian and would like to be able to easily find and use the most arcane of materials.  But Google and Wikipedia just don’t cut it.  Even much more sophisticated databases aren’t enough.  That’s why it’s such a joy to read what historians have been able to discover.  In a recent paper, Italian researchers reported finding a specimen of tobacco in the 16th century Erbario Estense preserved in the Modena State Archives (Vicentini et al., 2020).  This is one of only four tobacco specimens of that age in Italy; the others are in Aldrovandi’s collection.  The creator of this herbarium is unknown, but there is evidence that it was made in Ferrara between 1570 and 1598.  It also contains other American species including the tomato which seems to have become ubiquitous in Europe by the end of the century. 

Another important Italian herbarium, this one at the Botanic Garden of Florence, is Andrea Cesalpino’s.  Also one of Ghini’s students, he took over from Ghini as director of the Botanical Garden of Pisa when Ghini returned to Bologna the year before his death (Findlen, 2017).  Cesalpino’s herbarium is particularly important because of its organization.  It was made for a bishop as a way for him to learn about plants and their relationships.  Cesalpino was one of the first to go beyond just describing plants and attempted to organize them by similar traits.  He published on this work but with the herbarium it’s possible to see his theory in action.  Cesalpino also had other collections but this is the only one that survives (Nepi & Gusmerol, 2008). 

It is no wonder that extant herbaria are rare this early in the history of modern botany.  First, preserving specimens had yet to become an essential part of botanical practice.  Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who published a famous translation of the ancient materia medica by Dioscorides, used specimens when writing plant descriptions but then disposed of them.  He later rued this practice.  In other cases, future generations were responsible for the loss.  While Conrad Gessner’s amazing illustrated notebooks remain, his specimens do not, perhaps because his heirs saw the beautiful watercolors as more valuable than the dried “plant skeletons.”  The Neapolitan pharmacist Ferrante Imperato had an 80-volume herbarium but his collection was dispersed about 30 years after his death during a plague in 1656 and only nine volumes remained.  A political uprising in 1799 led to destruction of eight of them.  The remaining volume with 440 plants survives at the National Library of Naples.  A 1903 report on the specimens notes that the collection did not seem to be well taken care of and suffered from insect damage (Giglioli, 1903).

There is a recent update on Imperato’s specimens.  Two researchers studied specimens in the herbarium of the agriculture school at the University of Naples.  They were in the collection of the 18th century botanist Domenico Crillo, who had once owned the nine Imperato volumes.  The specimens were very different from the rest, and when analyzed with a variety of techniques including carbon dating, watermarks, and handwriting analysis, were found to probably have once been part of Imperato’s collection.  (De Natale & Cellinese, 2009).

References

De Natale, A., & Cellinese, N. (2009). Imperato, Cirillo, and a Series of Unfortunate Events: A Novel Approach to Assess the Unknown Provenance of Historical Herbarium Specimens. Taxon, 58(3), 963–970. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.583024.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and Community in Late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York: Springer.

Giglioli, I. (1903). The herbarium of Ferrante Imperato in Naples. Nature, 67(1735), 296–297.

Nepi, C., & Gusmerol, E. (2008). Gli erbari aretini da Andrea Cesalpino ai giorni nostri. Florence: Firenze University Press.

Vicentini, C. B., Buldrini, F., Romagnoli, C., & Bosi, G. (2020). Tobacco in the Erbario Estense and other Renaissance evidence of the Columbian taxon in Italy. Rendiconti Lincei. Scienze Fisiche e Naturali. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12210-020-00959-x.

Open the Treasure Rooms

Tomato specimen from the En Tibi herbarium, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

This post’s title comes from Tinde van Andel’s inaugural lecture as Clusius Chair of History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University in the Netherlands:  Open the Treasure Room and Decolonize the Museum.  Working with a team of researchers, the room van Andel is exploring is at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and is indeed a particularly rich collection.  It has a number of 16th-century herbaria, including the En Tibi dated to about 1554 and attributed by van Andel and her team to Francesco Petrollini, a student of Luca Ghini who was at least an early proponent if not the originator of preserving pressed specimens (Stefanaki et al., 2019).  Petrollini is also now thought to have created a herbarium in Rome’s Angelica Library that had been attributed to another Ghini student, Gherardo Cibo.  It was begun in 1532, making it the earliest extant collection.

Also in Leiden are herbaria created by Leonhard Rauwolf who collected in France as well as in the Middle East (see earlier post).  Van Andel’s commented in her lecture that when she showed specimens of sorghum, eggplant, and pistachio that Rauwolf had found in agricultural plots in Syria, it was the first time in over 400 years that someone from the Middle East had set on eyes on them.  These plants document what was being grown at the time and may yield DNA revealing more about the history of these crops (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  That they are physical evidence for plants of the past is one reason the collections are treasures.

As another example of what these riches have revealed, van Andel, working with molecular biologists as well as historians, has taken a look at the early history of the tomato in Europe.  They have recently published on this work, presenting specimens as well as illustrations, putting together a possible timeline of how the plant spread through Europe from Spain to Italy and then to northern Europe (Andel et al., 2022).  The fact that there was quite a bit of evidence suggests interest in this strange fruit.  The specimen in En Tibi even has half a tomato attached.  A small portion of a leaf was removed and DNA extracted from it; research suggests that it was a domesticated plant.  Petrollini probably obtained seeds from Ghini, who may have gotten them from a former student Luigi Anguillara, director of the botanical garden in Padua near Venice, which was a busy port where many exotic species arrived.  So this one page of En Tibi reveals much not only about the plant’s biology but also about its history in Europe and about how a tightly knit botanical network enabled rapid transmission not only of information but of seeds and other botanical material. 

For a long time, early herbaria were ignored, as van Andel’s comment about Rauwolf’s collection indicates.  Any pre-Linnaean herbarium that had not been studied by Carl Linnaeus and therefore not used by him in naming species was considered irrelevant to modern botany, which dates from the publication of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum of 1753.  The collections were deemed worth keeping, but not worth serious study.  This has changed recently for a number of reasons, including the renewed interest in natural history collections in general as sources of information about biodiversity.  There is also interest in botany’s social history as the second half of van Andel’s title suggests:  decolonize the museum.

The Netherlands was an important naval power with an eye on botanical riches such as nutmeg and cinnamon from the East, but any plants of interest were welcomed in the homeland by eager gardeners looking for novelty.   One collection in Naturalis was created around 1587 by an unnamed Dutch collector working in what is now Suriname.  It preserves plants native to the area and also African food plants—okra and sesame (Andel et al., 2012).  This indicates that the plantation culture, with the presence of African enslaved persons, had brought with it new species, one of many examples of the early movement of plants with links to the slave trade.  It shows how herbaria can contribute crucial evidence on cultural and political history and can help clarify portions of history that have long remained hidden, including the early pervasiveness of enslaved labor in the Americas.

I have focused on the Leiden treasure room in this post, but in the others in this series I’ll mention herbaria kept in collections throughout Europe.  Some, like part of Felix Platter’s collection in Basel, had been there for hundreds of years but had only been rediscovered in the 1930s.  Others, like Ulisse Aldrovandi’s in Bologna were cared for over the centuries, but still, it wasn’t investigated until recently.  One reason for the increased attention is that there have been efforts to digitized important cultural collections of all kinds, making the 15 volumes of Aldrovandi’s herbarium available to a wider audience and also making it much easier to compare specimens of the same species from different collections, as done in the paper on the history of the tomato. 

To me this is the exciting thing about what could be considered the renaissance of Renaissance herbaria:  allowing careful study without necessarily disturbing the very fragile originals.  I would love to experience the physical heft of En Tibi or see the pages that Rauwolf saw as he, or an assistant, reinforced/decorated them with patterned paper.  However, the very newest of technologies have made these oldest of specimens available to all, even in the age of covid.  The important thing now is to mine these works thoroughly to learn more about plants and botanists in the early modern era. 

References

Andel, T. van. (2017). Open the treasure room and decolonize the museum [Inaugural lecture]. Leiden University. https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/51665.

Andel, T. van, Veldman, S., Maas, P., Thijsse, G., & Eurlings, M. (2012). The forgotten Hermann Herbarium: A 17th century collection of useful plants from Suriname. Taxon, 61(6), 1296–1304. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24389114.

Andel, T. van, Vos, R. A., Michels, E., & Stefanaki, A. (2022). Sixteenth-century tomatoes in Europe: Who saw them, what they looked like, and where they came from. PeerJ, 10, e12790. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.12790.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the Historical Herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565–580. https://doi.org/10.12705/673.7.

Stefanaki, A., Porck, H., Grimaldi, I. M., Thurn, N., Pugliano, V., Kardinaal, A., Salemink, J., Thijsse, G., Chavannes-Mazel, C., Kwakkel, E., & Andel, T. van. (2019). Breaking the silence of the 500-year-old smiling garden of everlasting flowers: The En Tibi book herbarium. PLOS ONE, 14(6), e0217779. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217779.

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

References

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.

References

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.

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.

Reference

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.

Reference

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.