Dumbarton Oaks and Multimedia Communication

Echeandria terniflora from Novarum, aut rariorum plantarum Horti Reg. Botan., Dumbarton Oaks Research Library

In this series of posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed projects undertaken by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in Washington, DC.  It is affiliated with Harvard University and is known for outstanding scholarship in three areas:  Gardens and Landscape, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian studies.  One result is the book Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Batsaki et al., 2017) that grew out of a 2013 conference; online and onsite exhibits also accompanied the conference, so it’s obvious why I used “multimedia communication” in the title for this post.  Dumbarton does a very good job of leveraging the scholarship it produces to speak to a variety of audiences through time and space.  There are other examples of its productions, but this is one that’s about botany and particularly interests me.     

Historians sometimes use the adjective “long” for a century, wanting to stretch one beyond 100 years to fit the topic they are covering.  This is an example of how human categories don’t always meet human needs, or describe the real world.  Expanding the eighteenth century here allows coverage to include some of William Dampier’s early botanical collecting, including plants in Western Australia in 1699; these were the first from that continent.  Johannes Commelin (1629-1692) would not seem to belong, but in his work as director of Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus, he began a project to publish on what was growing in the garden, including the many plants that were coming into the Netherlands from Dutch colonies in South America, South Africa, and Asia.  After he died, his nephew Caspar Commelin Jr. completed Horti medici amstelodamensis (1697–1701). 

Expanding the other end of century made it possible to treat the series of Spanish expeditions running from 1770-1820 and designed to investigate the botanical wealth in its colonies almost three centuries after they were first established (Bleichmar, 2011).  Earlier the emphasis had been more on exploiting mineral wealth, but the director of Madrid’s botanical garden convinced the king that plants from the species rich tropics could also be lucrative. Potatoes, maize, and tobacco had become major sources of wealth for many nations, why shouldn’t Spain benefit from “home grown” resources. 

It would have been a shame for the conference to ignore Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s private expedition to Latin America in 1803-1808 (Wulf, 2015).  For a variety of reasons, the Spanish projects did not yield as rich a result in terms of economic botany or even botanical publications as might be expected from the number of botanists who participated, the specimens collected, and the illustrations produced by both European and indigenous artists.  On the other hand, Humboldt produced over 20 publications, some with assistance from Bonpland.  These included seven volumes on plants as well as the Essay on the Geography of Plants that opened up the field of botanical geography, which had been developing in the background and with Humboldt’s analysis and illustrations became a significant theme in the 19th century. 

Such century expansion wasn’t really necessary because there was so much botanically important work produced in those hundred years.  Carl Linnaeus and his traveling students’ plant collections fit snuggly in here, as do James Cook’s voyages around the world, and Mark Catesby’s trips to the American Colonies and his illustrated masterwork, The Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahama Islands.  But what I like most about the book are all the topics covered that I didn’t know anything about, including a plan presented to the French National Assembly in 1790 by Louis-François Jauffret to create models of all 25,000 known plant species.  He argued that these would be better than other representations because they would be three-dimensional.  He noted that at the time, botany had to deal with old, dry, pressed plants.  Jauffret had enlisted the assistance of Thomas Joseph Wenzel, Marie Antoinette’s florist, who had made many beautiful blooms often used to decorate her dresses.  I am very sorry that nothing came of this project (Tessier, 2020). 

There are also essays on the development of botany in 18th century Russia, Ottoman horticulture, and Mongolian medicine.  Putting all these pieces and many others together created for me a much richer view of plants in that time period.  Unfortunately, I did not see the exhibition at Dumbarton, but I have spent a good deal of time with the digital exhibit and have been dipping into it as I’m writing this post.  It is a luxury to be able to visit a presentation that was created over eight years ago.  Many digital exhibits of that “era” are no more than dead links now.  It is a credit to Dumbarton that its valuable materials are still online.  It is a sophisticated presentation, but easy to navigate.  And if the exhibition were staged today, I am sure there would be online seminars as well, like the ones held in conjunction with the Margaret Mee exhibit (see last post).  I’ll end by saying that there is NO substitute for a visit to Dumbarton to see the museum and garden.  There is also no substitute for looking at items from its library and archives.  However, many of its treasures have been digitized and there is a guide to the collection.


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

Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tessier, F. (2020). Modèles botanique, des modèles scientifique entre art et science. ISTE OpenScience, 1–19.

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York: Knopf.

Humanistic Uses of Herbaria

Secret of the Ferns by Anselm Kiefer in the Margulies Collection

This series of posts (1, 2) is highlighting projects sponsored by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Research Library.  I’ve already mentioned their Zoom presentations.  One particularly notable one was held in March 2021 and dealt with Humanistic Uses of Herbaria.  It was hosted by New York Botanical Garden Humanities Institute along with Dumbarton which is home of the Plant Humanities Initiative along with JSTOR Labs.  There were four speakers that day, all stars in their respective fields.  First was Barbara Thiers, now Director Emerita of the NYBG herbarium, leader in many endeavors to digitize herbarium collections, and author of Herbarium (see earlier post).  She gave a great introduction to the history and importance of herbaria and was followed by Pam Soltis, curator at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, one of the leads on the iDigBio project to digitize specimens, and an expert on evolutionary genetics and ecology.  She presented on the future of research using herbarium specimens.  Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books at Dumbarton, was the next speaker and discussed herbaria in the collection including a very interesting manuscript by the landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr., Leaves of Hardy Oaks and Maples.  He created it early in his career as a way to study leaf form and how this might affect the shade a tree produced. 

Yota Batsaki, executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, gave the last presentation on “The Apocalyptic Herbarium: Anselm Kiefer’s Secret of the Ferns (2007).”  She dealt with the herbarium as metaphor for the deterioration of life, particularly plant life, on earth.  Kiefer is among the most noted postwar German artists and often uses plants in his works.  He was born in 1945 in a Berlin bunker and played in ruble as a child, so it is not surprising that the war and the holocaust have been among his major themes.  Many of his paintings, often multimedia works, are devastated landscapes, with thick layers of paint, sometimes splashed with molten lead and embedded with dried plants (Biro, 2013). 

As Batsaki noted, more recently Kiefer has turned to other forms of devastation, including thoughtless abuse of the earth.  In dealing with this theme he uses some of the same tropes he employed in earlier work.  In particular, she discusses a large installation, Secret of the Ferns, that fills a room at the Margulies Collection in Miami.  At the center of the room are two concrete bunkers that have seen much wear and tear.  A two-story one is at the back and in front of it is one with a pile of coal at its entrance.  Along the left and right walls are hung large framed works in two ranks on each side, 48 in all towering over the viewer. 

Kiefer’s installations are complex; there are many layers to them and many details.  I was intrigued by Batsaki’s presentation but I knew I was missing some of the nuances.  I hoped that she would publish on this topic, and she has, in an article in Environmental Humanities (2021).  Through the text and images of the work, I was able to dig more deeply into it.  While I was somewhat familiar with Thiers and Solitis’s work, this was another realm.  Here were plants being used in a very different way, not to reveal information about genetics or environmental change, but to get at deep questions of what humans value and how they relate to other forms of life on earth.  Batsaki does a great job of “interrogating” the work.  This is a term that scholars in the humanities use regularly, but it is sort of foreign to me.  Interrogating living things seems rather aggressive and is a verb seldom used by biologists, though many of their techniques can be quite aggressive.  It is an example of how science and the humanities have to learn each other’s language and attitudes if they are to do more than just meet occasionally as at the March seminar.

Hanging to the left and right of the bunkers, many of the frames hold large pressed fern fronds against a dark background, in some cases, with the stipe appearing to rise from dried, cracked earth.  Each is encased in what Batsaki describes as a vitrine and framed in lead, a common material for Kiefer, who is intrigued with its role in alchemy.  The ferns relate to the installation’s title which is from a Paul Celan poem.  Celan’s work, often dealing with aspects of German history and the holocaust, has proved a rich reservoir of inspiration for Kiefer.  The artist is drawn to ferns because of their long history on earth as the earliest vascular plants and one source of the organic material in coal.  Their presence in the frames is tied to the coal by the bunker:  a reminder that burning coal has led to disastrous changes in the earth’s atmosphere that threatens the long-resilient ferns and all life on earth, what Batsaki describes as the “slow violence of extinction.” (p. 394). 

In this short post, it’s impossible to do justice either to the artwork or to the essay.  There is a great deal here as Batsaki investigates a variety of themes including that of transformation, examining how ferns were long thought to be mysterious because they did not form seeds and so their mode of reproduction was unknown until their tiny spores were studied in the mid-19th century.  One line from her essay that I find particularly memorable is: “If the herbarium started as an aide to memory [in the early modern era], the installation transforms it into a vehicle for memorialization.” (p. 409).  Unfortunately too many sheets in herbaria serve the same function for extinct species.


Batsaki, Y. (2021). The Apocalyptic Herbarium: Mourning and Transformation in Anselm Kiefer’s Secret of the Ferns. Environmental Humanities, 13(2), 391–413. https://doi.org/10.1215/22011919-9320211

Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York: Phaidon.

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.

The Herbarium as Publication

2a Dumbarton

Lower side of Buchwald’s Specimen medico-practico-botanicum in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

In this series of posts, I’m exploring the different purposes for which herbaria are produced.  In the last post, I discussed a manuscript that was clearly a presentation piece, a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.  Now I want to examine a few published books that contain specimens.  These are often called exsiccatae, and in many cases, they were produced by plant collectors as a way to sell the specimens they had painstakingly gathered in the field.  Kathryn Mauz (2018) has recently published a chronicle of Cyrus Pringle’s collecting in the Southwest US and in Mexico in the 1880s, and one of the products of that work was series of exsiccatae.  However here I want to look at several other types of such publications.

I went to the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, DC expressly to see a 1721 guide to medicinal plants written by Johannis de Buchwald, a botanist, physician to the Danish king, and director of the Copenhagen botanical garden.  The book was originally published in Latin and then translated into German by his son.  A long with a description of the plant and its uses, the Latin name for each is given in one column, followed by columns for common names in Danish, German, and French.  There is space left after this information for a specimen, though not all entries include one.  Both editions were sold with or without plant material attached.  The copy of the translation I saw had specimens, usually rather small because the book itself is only about 7.5 inches high.  The entire volume has been digitized and is available on the Dumbarton Oaks website along with many other treasures, including a number of books on botanical illustration and information on their Plant Humanities Initiative in collaboration with JSTOR.While I had examined the book on the web, I still wanted to take a look at it, to get a sense of its physical presence.  Its thickness made it difficult to open [see image above], so I didn’t want to examine every page, but seeing it made me realize just how well-preserved the specimens are.  In most cases they are still tightly attached to the paper, with only a few missing or damaged.  This volume represents an interesting approach to illustrating a botany book:  letting the plants speak for themselves, perhaps as a way to encourage others to begin their own reference collections.  It can be seen as a forerunner of late 19th-century publications where plants are described and blank pages are left for users to attach examples of species they collected.

Another exsiccatae at Dumbarton Oaks also provided information on the specimens included, but it is a very different kind of book, published in 1790 by George Swayne, identified on the title page as Vicar of Pucklechurch (yes, that is the name of a place in Britain).  In addition he was a member of the Bath Agricultural Society.  Groups like this were common at that time in Britain and were organized to encourage improvements in farming methods.  This book is entitled: Gramina Pascua or A Collection of Specimens of the Common Pasture Grasses.  The plants are arranged in the order of flowering time and are accompanied by their Latin and common English names as well as descriptions that cite agrarian literature of the day.  The book’s dimensions are just the opposite of the Buchwald.  It is almost 19 inches high and has six pages of specimens, with the accompanying text for each specimen limited to a third or half a page.  The paper is of high quality as are the specimens that seem to have been very carefully selected [see image below].  The stems are straight and the flowers complete, obviously picked at just the right moment.  This was a book for wealthy landowners such as the Duke of Gordon who is mentioned on the title page as having Vicar Swayne as his chaplain.

2b Dumbarton

Page of grass specimens from George Swayne’s Gramina Pascua in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

A different type of published exsiccatae is in another superb botanical collection, the Oak Spring Foundation Library which holds the volume I discussed in the last post.  Carl Jeppe’s Herbarium Vivum is a 1826 catalog of 44 grasses available from his nursery.  The Latin name of the species was followed by names in German, French, and English with accompanying descriptions of the grass.  At the end he added specimens of six more species, noxious weeds that were not for sale, but included as a guide for his customers in what to eliminate from their land.  Jeppe apparently wanted to advertise not only his plants but his clients as well:  he lists all those who subscribed to the catalogue.  It came in three formats:  a smaller version without specimens, a larger one with specimens, and what could be called the deluxe edition that included jars of seeds for 40 species.  Jepp notes that his royal highness the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg, not surprisingly first on the list, subscribed to all three editions as did a bookseller in the town of Rostock, home to the nursery.  Another bookstore bought six copies of the catalogue with specimens, suggesting that such herbaria were considered marketable books.  Most of the other individuals listed just bought a single copy of one format.  This is a neat little volume, about 12 inches tall, so it would be useable as a reference work; Jeppe published a second edition nine years later, suggesting his business had flourished.  To me, it indicates yet one more function of herbaria in the past, and particularly in the 19th century where these collections reached the height of their popularity.


Jeppe, C. (1826). Herbarium Vivum. Rostock, Germany: Kaufmann and Saamenhandler.

Mauz, K. (2018). C.G. Pringle: Botanist, Traveler, and the “Flora of the Pacific Slope” (1881-1884). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden Press.

Swayne, G. (1790). Gramina Pascua. Bristol, UK: Bonner.


I would like to thank Anatole Tchikine and Taylor Johnson of the Rare Book Room at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library for all their help during my visit.  In addition to the Buchwald book that I requested, they also showed me other wonderful material including the Swayne book.