Herbaria and Material Culture

Specimen of Coffea arabica with 5 different kinds of paper; Manchester Museum Herbarium, Leopold Grindon Collection

Omar Nasim is an astronomer who writes on the importance of visual inquiry in history of astronomy.  He comes to mind as I write this series of posts (1, 2) on paper because he first came to my attention with his description of how astronomers learned about nebula by drawing them over and over again, getting to know them and in a real sense materialize them on paper (Nasim, 2013).  Since then he has written on the use of photography in astronomical observations.  In a recent article he deals with the photograph from the viewpoint not of the image, but of the substrate on which it is printed.  His perspective is that of material culture, of treating the photo as an object.  Nasim brings up the concept of differentiating between an object and a thing.  This distinction took me some time to sort out (Edwards, 2004).  A photograph is a physical object with an image on it, and it is thing, an entity.  If the image fades to the point of disappearing, there is still a piece of paper, but it is no longer the object it was, though it is still a thing. This approach highlights the fact that a photograph is more than an image, it has physicality.

Once I got my mind around this distinction, I began to think about it in terms of herbarium sheets.  It is not uncommon to read of a collection that was long neglected in an attic or basement.  When finally examined many of the sheets were unsalvageable, that is, the specimens were so rotted as to no longer carry much or any information.  The paper too may have been so damaged by water or lost labels or at least the writing on them.  There was still a thing, but it was no longer the object it had once been.  As I read more about the physicality of photographs, I thought of other similarities with herbarium sheets:  the different kinds of papers they can be mounted on, the ill effects of exposure to light, and the way they can be damaged by  handling:  paper bent, corners missing, stains, and other scars.

Those in natural history museums differentiate between specimens, the remains of living things, and artifacts, human-made objects.  A herbarium sheet is both.  Like a photograph, it is more than just an image, it has physicality both in itself and in its matrix.  In essence, to use a term from the art world, it is a collage.  There is not only the plant but the material such as glue, thread, or linen tape used to affix it to the sheet.  Then there’s the label, and often a stamp with an accession number and the name of the herbarium, perhaps an envelope containing fragments, and one or more determination slips to either verify the name on the label or update it.  There might also be a note concerning the specimen’s provenance or other remarks.  A barcode is a more recent addition, but there can be others:  a map, a sketch or an illustration, or a photograph of the plant in the field.  Some specimens have so much supporting material that it may spill onto a second sheet, as many specimens in Leopold Grindon’s collection at the Manchester Museum Herbarium do.  He liked to append illustrations, journal articles, newspaper clippings to give as full a record of the plant as possible.  The specimen wasn’t enough for him, and really it is never enough.  At least some accessories are essential.

Going through the specimens in a thick species or genus folder may mean encountering different kinds of specimens as physical objects.  There is often an unconscious reckoning of age when holding a specimen.  Some plants have retained their color better than others, and the same may be true of the paper.  It may have yellowed with age, depending upon its composition, may have become brittle, or been blackened by soot or mercuric chloride contamination; it may be thin and flimsy, or thick and stiff.  The plant on a neighboring sheet may have left an imprint or “ghost” on it, if they have been stored together for a long time.  The label is another indication of age, with good penmanship a thing of the past.  And I haven’t even touched on the paper in journals, reference works, and field notebooks, to say nothing of bound ex siccatae, which provide a very different material experience of specimens, somehow more ordered and less intimate.

In writing about the loss of material clues when paper is digitized, Sherry Turkle (2007) compares the experience of looking at the architect Le Corbusier’s drawings on the computer and in the archives:  there is a different sense of scale, a tactile experience, and an awareness of smudges and other signs of use by human beings that doesn’t come through on the screen.  There is also the whole experience of being in the archives—or in a herbarium—surrounded by incredibly informative paper objects.  Many people, including myself, have been separated from specimens over the past months.  Yes, I can see Henry Ravenel’s plants from the 19th century on the A.C. Moore Herbarium website, but it is just not the same as seeing the variety of surfaces on which they are mounted.  Materiality matters!


Edwards, E., & Hart, J. (Eds.). (2004). Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. New York: Rutledge.

Nasim, O. (2018). James Nasmyth’s lunar photography; or on becoming a lunar being, without the lunacy. In C. González (Ed.), Selene’s Two Faces (pp. 147–187). Leiden, NLD: Brill.

Nasim, O. W. (2013). Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turkle, S. (Ed.). (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Collections: Material Culture and Stories

4 Aplopappus

Aplopappus spinulosus specimen in the Steere Herbarium, New York Botanical Garden

At last fall’s History of Science Society meeting (see earlier post), Sally Kohlstedt of the University of Minnesota discussed a Maori amulet called a hei-tiki that had been acquired during the US Exploring Expedition’s visit to New Zealand in 1840.  She analyzed how this artifact, which was sacred to the Maori people, was displayed in a number of contexts over the years in the United States, where it became part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.  Kohlstedt began with a 1906 quote by Otis Mason, ethnology curator at the Smithsonian:  “An ideal specimen is an object that has something to teach about humanity. . . . In the untaught mind it is a curiosity or monstrosity, and the more mystery there is about it, the better.  But all such notions are far from the sciences of Anthropology.  A good specimen is capable of telling more than one story.  It may talk about race, development, geography, progress, skill, art, social life, or whisper of a spirit world.”  This statement stuck with me, because I think that in large part, it holds as true for many herbarium specimens as for human-made artifacts.

In a related article on the hei-tiki, Kohlstedt (2016) notes that the distinction between artifacts and specimens only became common in the 20th century.  This is important to my argument here that herbarium specimens are objects that can be described through the lens of material culture, which deals with objects that people use to define their culture.  In other words, specimens can be considered as cultural products, much as pottery or hei-tikis or tools can.  After all, a herbarium specimen is a plant that has been selected by a human being, cut to fit on a sheet of paper, attached there often using an artistic sense, and then labeled.  The specimen is thus much more than a plant, it is a written document about the plant, and both are essential to the meaning of this artifact.  The place and time of collection as well as the collector’s name are part of the specimen’s story.  All specimens tell stories, not only through the text attached to them, but also through, for example, such aspects as the paper used in labeling and mounting.  Labels made from reused scraps suggest that paper was a precious commodity that couldn’t be wasted.   A specimen’s meaning can alter, as later determinations change the plant’s name, or the sheet is moved from one collection to another through trade, purchase, or gift.  Thus specimens can become more meaningful with time.  They can come to be used in new ways, as evidence in biodiversity studies or as sources of DNA for genomic work.  Recently, meanings have grown beyond science since herbaria have encouraged artists to use their collections as sources of inspiration for paintings, sculptures, and installations (Drinkwater, 2017).  Also, there are projects involving historians of science working with plant collections and the documentation related to them (Ayres, 2015).

Susan Pearce, a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, writes that objects can have a “chameleon-like quality, the ability to take on different cultural colors while retaining the same body.” (Pearce, 1995, p. 127).  A goldenrod specimen, Solidago edisoniana, documents a plant growing in a specific place, but it takes on an entirely different meaning, as a historical rather than a botanical document, when a letter from Thomas Alva Edison is discovered in the same herbarium file.  This led Lisa Vargues, a curatorial assistant at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) to investigate Edison’s interest in rubber cultivation and his work with the herbarium’s head curator at the time, John Kunkel Small on several species of goldenrod that had potential as rubber producers.  This is a great example of what could be called the “biography” of a specimen, it’s life history that can continue to unfold into the future.

Also at the NYBG Steere Herbarium is a sheet with two specimens of Aplopappus spinulosus, one collected by a newspaper writer on General Custer’s 1874 expedition to the Black Hills of South Dakota, two years before his last stand.  The other was obtained in 1880 in California by John Lemmon, a prolific collector who married botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon, a wedding mentioned in the journal edited by John Merle Coulter, the individual responsible for this sheet.  He was at Hobart College when he received the first specimen, and at Wabash College when the second arrived.  However, these specimens are at NYBG because Wabash donated it in the 1980s when it was making room for what it saw as more important space needs.

The layers of meaning attached to this sheet are likely to grow in the future since it has been imaged and is now available on the web.  The internet makes for an entirely new set of meanings, including the juxtapositioning of specimens that would never have been seen together.  In other words, material culture now has an immaterial aspect that changes the character of our interactions with objects.  The physicality is gone, and that is a loss.  There is no substitute for physical examination of any object, but there are attendant pluses to virtual access as well.  Constant handling of the Edison letter would hardly do it any good, but many people can enjoying reading his words at the same time that they are looking at the plant specimen in question.  Collecting can be an obsession, as Hans Sloane and John Jenks with whom I began this series of posts, well knew.  Today, it is much easier for us all to share these obsessions and learn from the objects in question.


Ayres, E. (2015). Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from https://publicdomainreview.org/2015/10/14/richard-spruce-and-the-trials-of-victorian-bryology/.

Drinkwater, R. (2017). A collaboration between RBGE and Edinburgh College of Art. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from https://stories.rbge.org.uk/archives/23575.

Kohlstedt, S. C. (2016). Museum perceptions and productions: American migrations of a Maori hei-tiki. Endeavor, 40(1), 7–23.

Mason, O. T. (1906). Annual Report for Ethnology (No. RU158). Smithsonian Institution.

Pearce, S. (1999). On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition. Routledge.