Artwork by Leah Sobsey for “In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss” exhibition. Harvard Museum of Natural History, digitized cyanotype

I get daily emails from Hyperallergic, a contemporary art website that definitely borders on the edgy.  Many of the essays are not to my taste, but some of them are great, particularly those written by a professor of art history, John Yau.  I scroll through the half dozen plus offerings each day, and often something catches my eye, as when I saw a detail from Silvina Der Meguerditchian’s installation, Treasures (2015).  Against a black background are pages of text, drawings, and plant specimens.  There are also various amulets and pieces of jewelry.  Of course, it was the plants that attracted me as well as their juxta-positioning with so many other interesting items.

The accompanying article by Louis Fishman gave me some context for Der Meguerditchian’s work.  She is an Armenian artist who grew up near Buenos Aires, in a family that valued their heritage, having been forced to flee Armenia during Turkish violence there in the early 20th century.  She then moved to Berlin where she engaged not only with other Armenian’s but with Turkish immigrants as well, another way into her family’s past.  It is this history that is the inspiration for Treasures.  The plants that are presented—in tiny seed containers, as gold leaf portraits, in color drawings, and as specimens—are all native to Armenia and familiar to Der Meguerdichian’s family.  They are among the plants described in a notebook of medicinal remedies she inherited from her great-grandmother.  The act of pressing plants was part of memorializing this history, infusing life into it by working with the same plants the notebook described.  This is a beautiful example of specimens being employed not as scientific documents but as profound statements about memory and life.

There are many examples of artists using specimens in their work to enrich a variety of themes.  Margherita Pevere is a Finnish artist interested in exploring questions about the way organisms change and persist.  Reliquiarium (2011) presented remains of organisms, such as a bird’s wing, a crab’s carapace, and seed pods half-eaten by mice, each set on red velvet and framed in gold, somewhat like a saint’s relics would be.  This speaks to the sacredness of life, the inevitability of dismemberment and death, and the persistence organic material past that death. 

Somewhat the same themes come up in Herbarium (2012), Pevere’s next piece.  Here she worked with a folder of plants collected along the Adriatic coast of Croatia.  When she opened it, she found that little of the plant material remained.  It had been attacked by mold and insects to the point that, along with a few fragments, there were just stains on the paper  with the tape that had held the specimens down and labels identifying them.  Pevere framed the sheets and raised questions about who really created this work:  the organisms themselves, the collector, the pests that altered them, or the artist who mounted them.  She sees this work as relating to the medieval, to memento mori—reminders of life’s transience.

Mark Dion is known for his art dealing with natural history collections and also has a work called Herbarium (2010) , but he created new specimens in memory of those belonging to the horticulturalist Henry Perrine (1797-1840).  They had been destroyed in a fire at Perrine’s Florida home that also ended his life.  The sheets are stamped “Collection of Henry Perrine” and while a label is attached, no information is provided.  These are ghost specimens of the opposite type from Pevere’s; here the plant remains and the data doesn’t.  As an aside I’ll mention that Perrine moved to Florida from Mexico and brought with him plants including sisal he planned to grow commercially.  After his death the property was abandoned, but the sisal thrived and became a source of plants for those, including Germans, who then grew it on plantations in their colonies (Brockway, 1979).

On a brighter note, there is a wonderful exhibit, In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss, now running at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  It’s based on the Harvard Herbaria’s collection of Henry David Thoreau specimens.  There are 648 of them and they were digitized five years ago.  Two artists have created an installation that allows viewers to look not only at the specimens themselves, but also artistic renderings of them.  I have only seen the online version of this exhibit, but even that is stunning.  Robin Vuchnich, a new media artist, designed an immersive experience in the gallery’s theatre using the digitized specimens along with soundscapes recorded at Walden Pond where Thoreau wrote his masterpiece Walden. 

In addition, Leah Sobsey, a photographer and artist, created cyanotypes on glass from Thoreau’s specimens.  She used a process similar to Anna Atkins’s in making algae cyanotypes in the 19th century.  As the website notes, Sobsey produced cyanotypes for all the Thoreau specimens, creating “a stunning wallpaper consisting of original cyanotypes and digital imagery that tells a story of the survival and decline of plant specimens.”  This sounds like an exciting way to both experience herbarium specimens and think about a classic in American environmental and natural history literature.  It is interesting to consider what Thoreau would make of all this, to say nothing of how Concord, and Harvard, have changed since his day.  What I find so exciting about this presentation is how not only plants, but herbarium specimens are at its core.  Think of the thousands of visitors, old and young, who will discover herbaria in such a visually striking way.


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

Conceptualizing Collections

A print from Herbarium H. Perrine (2010) by Mark Dion

The artist Mark Dion creates works that comment on natural history, collecting, and what doesn’t get collected.  He has been exhibiting for thirty years, producing an impressive body of work.  Just how impressive is documented in a book edited by Ruth Erickson (2020) with commentaries on his art.  It’s called Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st– Century Naturalist.  The title hints at Dion’s often self-deprecating approach, the underlying wit in many of his pieces, and the challenges to being a naturalist in the digital age.

I have seen a few of his works including a set of photogravure prints called Herbarium H. Perrine (2010), supposedly of marine algae specimens collected in Florida by Henry Perrine (1797-1840).  As with all of Dion’s work, this one has a complex backstory and several layers of meaning.  Most obviously, it comments on the 19th-century interest in collecting seaweed, in part fed by a general interest in natural history and also by the opening up of sea shores to tourists and vacationers (Barber, 1980).  Perrine arrived in the Florida Keys in 1838, relatively early in the area’s development.  He had been a United States consul in Mexico where he became intrigued by tropical plants.  He and he family went to the Keys to wait out the end of the Second Seminole War and then planned to move to a land-grant property where he hoped to create a settlement and cultivate tropical species.  In preparation, he planted seeds of Mexican plants and studied their growth while he also collected widely in the area.  In 1840 his home was attacked by Seminole defending their rights to the land.  Perrine was killed, his house—and specimens—burnt.  So there are no extant Henry Perrine specimens.

Dion collected algae and mounted them on herbarium sheets.  They were exhibited as the Herbarium Perrine (Marine Algae) in 1996 and became the basis of the prints Dion made later.  Like any self-respecting herbarium sheet, these are stamped with the name of the herbarium and have a “Marine Algae” stamp (see image above).  Each sheet also has a printed label with the heading:  “Ex. Herb. H. Perrine,” with lines to fill in place and date of collection, but the labels are blank, there is no information, a gesture to the missing specimens.  The irony is that Dion is highlighting a man who brought exotic plants to a fragile ecosystem; some of them later became difficult-to-control invasive weeds.  As with so much of the history of botany, this is a story about a complex passion for plants, particularly unusual ones, an interest in economic botany, colonization, humans as an invasive species, and the inherent beauty of algae.

To give the saga one more twist, the herbarium itself became part of another Dion work, an installation called South Florida Wildlife Rescue Unit: Mobile Laboratory (2006).  It included what appears to be a food truck, painted yellow, with its side panel open as if ready to sell hotdogs.  But on the counter are tools for examining specimens that would apparently be collected by biologists wearing outfits like those on two manikins alongside the truck.  This is a commentary on the continuing damage being done to Florida ecosystems by developers and by poachers looking for rare plants, particularly orchids (Orleans, 1998).  Two biologists with gear are hardly a match for such forces.

The only other Dion installation I’ve seen was part of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s biennial exhibit in 1999.  Actually, the piece was placed in the adjacent Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  There is free access between the two institutions, which makes for a wonderful blend of art and science.  Dion’s work was called Alexander Wilson—Studio, and it was just that:  a log cabin filled with what a bird artist in early 19th-century Pennsylvania would need for his work.  There were stuffed birds, a rifle, a table with art materials, clothing, a cot, etc.  Wilson emigrated from Scotland, worked as a teacher, and eventually met another famous Pennsylvania naturalist, William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson to use his obvious artistic talent in painting American birds.  Over the course of several years Wilson documented hundreds of species, discovering 26 new ones, and published nine volumes of American Ornithology.  He was followed just a few years later by John James Audubon, whose work was considered superior because birds were in more natural poses with realistic landscapes.  Dion’s tribute to Wilson is a reminder that forerunners like Wilson face unique obstacles, such as crude living conditions, lack of recognition, and difficulties in understanding subjects before painting them.  It was said that Wilson’s death at age 47 was the result of dysentery, overwork, and poverty (Kastner, 1977).  Dion does a good job of making those conditions come to life.

I’ll close by mentioning one more work of dozens that make this book well worth reading.  It is one I didn’t see, but when I read about it, the idea stuck with me.  It is called The Great Munich Bug Hunt (1993) and involved Dion and an entomologist investigating a huge tree trunk in an art gallery; they were looking for and collecting insects.  The focus was on creatures that are so often missed:  rotting wood is not always appreciated.  The fact that the two were dressed in lab coats sent the message that this was serious scientific work as well as an art installation designed to change the viewer’s sense of what is significant in nature.


Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. New York: Doubleday.

Erickson, R. (n.d.). Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kastner, J. (1977). A Species of Eternity. New York: Knopf.

Orlean, S. (1998). The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Obsession. New York: Ballantine.

Herbaria and Art: Diversity


Alberto Baraya, a prominent contemporary artist in Columbia, has taken up this herbarium theme in a different way than any of the artists I discussed in the last three posts. He has a long-term project called the Herbarium of Artificial Plants (Herbario de Plantas Artificiales) which he began in 2002. He collects artificial plants—made with plastic, paper, fabric—and mounts them on herbarium sheets. He includes “dissected flowers,” pasting them in the lower part of the sheet much as botanical illustrators include enlargements of flower features in their drawings. In addition, there is at least one small photo of where the plant was “collected.” This is a colorful group of works because these plants don’t loose their color, and in that sense remain more aesthetically pleasing than herbarium specimens do. There is something eerie about this: that the artificial remains more “real.” Also, it is suggestive of invasive species, since plastic-leaved ficus trees, for example, are found in hotel lobbies the world over. Baraya’s method of collection—often surreptitiously lifting plants from restaurants or waiting-rooms—is reminiscent of the collections made by colonials: no permission asked.

In a blog post on Columbian artists including Baraya, the art critic Tom Jeffreys notes that botanical illustration was one of the first independent threads in the development of modern Columbian art. This was largely through the work of the Spanish priest and botanist José Celestino Mutis who led a collecting expedition to Columbia and stayed there for the remainder of his life. His project, which lasted more than 30 years, resulted in sending thousands of specimens and illustrations being sent back to Spain (Bleichmar, 2011). Most of the art was done by native Columbians trained by European artists. Their work is strikingly beautiful and accurate, while definitely having a style of its own. Baraya’s herbarium is in part a commentary on how botany has changed since the late 18th century when Mutis arrived in Columbia. The artificial has replaced the real, providing a poor substitute for the green world humans crave. The rich botanical environment that Mutis experienced has changed into a gaudy unreal show.

Disappearance of species is also one of the messages of Mark Dion’s Herbarium, a portfolio of seven photogravures the size of herbarium sheets. To create this work, Dion mounted seaweed specimens on herbarium paper that had been stamped in purple ink: “Herbarium Henry Perrine.” There is also a green stamp: “Marine Algae.” Each sheet has a label attached with the heading: “Ex. Herb. H. Perrine, Indian Key, Florida,” but aside from this the labels are blank, no information on the specimens is given. Much of Dion’s oeuvre is a commentary on the history of natural history and of collecting. Here he is alluding to Henry Perrine, an early 19th-century plant collector who died in a raid on his Florida land which also destroyed his plant collection. Dion’s work suggests what Perrine’s collection might have looked like, but the blank labels also tell of what was lost.

While Dion’s art references herbaria directly, often the relationship between plant specimen collections and art is more subtle. Paul Klee, for example, created a herbarium as reference material for his drawings. His specimens are definitely “unscientific.” They are mounted on paper he has painted dark brown, several species per page, with no labels. Klee was interested in plants from an early age, doing botanical drawings at age ten. At one point, he writes in his journal that he looks forward to seeing his herbarium after being away on a trip: “It surprises me that these treasures of form have been apart from me for so long” (Baumgartner & Moe, 2008, p. 16). It is the forms, not the details, of plant structure that fascinated him, and this comes through in his art. Several hundred of his pieces relate to plant growth, including Botanical Theatre which he worked on for ten years.

Two 20th-century German artists took a more direct approach and actually used pressed plants in their works. Joseph Beuys did a series of what can only be called herbarium specimens: pressed plants pasted to paper with a penciled title, Ombelico di Venere, or the umbilical cord of Venus, the name of the attached species Cotyledon Umbilicus Veneris (now botanically designated Cotyledon rupestris) (Tempkin & Rose, 1993). In some of these, Beuys must have moved the plant after pressing it to the paper because there are stains where water from the plant was absorbed. This is not good herbarium technique but it adds to the texture of the piece and is reminiscent of some of Beuys’s other works where he employed plant material such as moss to color the paper’s surface. The use of plant material suggests life and regeneration, important themes in Beuys’s post World War II work.

Anselm Kiefer, Beuys’s student, uses a great deal of dried plant material in his art. The closest he comes to suggesting a herbarium, a bound herbarium, is For Paul Celan-Ukraine, a stack of lead-paged book sculptures with aluminum sunflowers sticking out from them. In earlier work, he pasted dried plants to painted canvases, in what Matthew Biro (2013) suggests is a form of biographical memorialization. In others pieces, Kiefer employed straw to suggest both death and new life emerging beneath this covering. For a very different setting, a vitrine, a pressed algal specimen sits amid gold-plated organs including a heart. Obviously the plant form is being used metaphorically, both in looking like an abstract ribcage and in implying that all life is related, that we are an amalgam of plant and animal material.

What is clear in the variety of examples and contexts I’ve explored here and in the last three posts is that pressed plants can have multiple layers of meaning, that they are important sources of inspiration for artists as well as sources of information for botanists. I come back to the first post in this series and Victoria Crowe’s ideas of fragility and timelessness, the pairing of these seems to be the essence of what makes herbaria so attractive as symbols, combined with their aesthetic appeal. While I have mentioned a wide variety of artists here, there are many more I haven’t cited, including Joanne Kaar’s work with the herbarium of the Scottish baker-botanist Richard Dick, John Walsh’s (2016) prose/herbarium piece The Arctic Plants of New York, and M.F. Cardamone’s surreal takes on herbarium sheets. Fortunately, there are many artists working in this area.


Baumgartner, M., & Moe, O. H. (2008). In Paul Klee’s Enchanted Garden. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.
Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York, NY: Phaidon.
Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Tempkin, A., & Rose, B. (1993). Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Walsh, J. (2016). The Artic Plants of New York City. New York, NY: Granary.