Curatorial Subjectivity: The Universal Aesthetics of Herbaria



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Breadfruit and Bounty: The exclusion of indigenous knowledge systems

Herbaria are guided by strict standards of scientific empirical observation that purposely disregard forms of knowledge that are perceived to be, at best, peripheral.1 These specific facts were limited to the specimen's Latinised taxonomy based on Linnaeus' binomial system and, usually, the date and location of collection. This "clinical form of presentation" (Thomas 138), meant to evoke the disinterested precision of science, ignores any difference or identity not related to the arbitrarily selected set of natural historical structures (Foucault 140). The example shown here (Fig. 6) is a dried specimen of Artocarpus altilus, commonly known as Breadfruit, collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on Cook's first Endeavor voyage.

Figure 5: herabrium specimen

Figure 5: Artocarpus altilis (Parkinson) Fosberg, collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, 1769. Source: Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom, through JSTOR Global Plants.

Although there are multiple labels to be seen on this specimen sheet, none of them are original to the date of collection which, according to the accompanying records, was some time during 1769. According to Banks's own journal of the voyage, the peoples found to be inhabiting the islands of the South Seas relied heavily on breadfruit as "their cheifest sustenance" (346), making it seem remarkable that we are given no indication of its cultural significance by studying the dried specimen. Yet, Banks and Solander were, to all intents and purposes, following the guidelines laid out by their natural historian predecessors and contemporaries; namely, that "the great purpoſe of Botany" is to diagnose, classify and name "obſcure, rare, and new plants" (Linneaus, A System 11). Their primary task was to arrive upon a binomial appellation based on a plant's "affinity of the genus" and "difference of the species" (ibid 11). In this case, the plant was given the designation of Artocarpus altilus, the first name being derived from Greek, in which artos means 'bread' and karpos means 'fruit' ("Breadfruit").2 The species name is less clear, as sources variously define it as 'fat,' 'tall,' or 'high.' While the Latinised name bequeathed to the plant does bear some relation to its more common English name, this does little for any European unacquainted with the Latin language; moreover, Banks gives us no indication in his journal as to whether the term 'breadfruit' falls in line with its Indigenous appellation, therefore its binomial taxonomy remains both obscure and at least partially arbitrary.

Empty Landscapes: Herbaria and the Politics of Exclusion

While some scholars take issue with Linnaean taxonomy due to its universalising classification project that ignored the peculiarities and particularities of individual growing regions, my critical analysis lies in the erasure of Indigenous presence caused by European taxonomy and the aesthetic regime of the herbarium.3 Just as the rhetoric of colonial exploration made indigenous populations invisible through a discursive framework that highlighted the "discovery" of "unexplored" lands, so too did the creation of herbaria eliminate any trace of an indigenous population, and its relationship to the land and its non-human inhabitants. The Latin binomial disregarded native names for a specimen, serving as a "political nomenklatura" that "defined new power relations" (Lafuente and Valverde 138) in favour of colonial powers, and the standard scientific aesthetic regime that limited the information provided on the herbarium sheet ensured that indigenous knowledge and uses of the specimen were excluded, therefore displacing traditional wisdom and negating any cultural significance it might have carried. This exclusionary regime also denied that much of the information garnered by European natural historians depended upon interaction with native informants (Cook 102). Botanical collectors, like other explorers, required guidance from the locals not only as to where, how, and when to gather specimens, but in fact in terms of which specimens to collect as well. Local knowledge meant safety and success, yet it was rarely given due credit. Fowkes Tobin suggests that the dismissal of local knowledge stemmed from an attempt to valorise intellectual, rather than physical, labour (32). Although this is certainly possible, it belies the more obvious explanation of the fundamentally racist attitude of Europeans towards non-European peoples, who were largely regarded as uncivilised savages. To suggest that local indigenous knowledge was in some way necessary, or as valuable as, European knowledge risked damaging both the prestige of the individual and the wider sense of European superiority.

Working in tandem with this blatant form of racism is what Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls the "extractivist mindset," fundamental to the project of colonialism. This mindset, she explains, is about extracting not just resources, but any ideas or forms of knowledge that are deemed useful and can be assimilated by the coloniser. Working from this notion, the exclusionary nature of herbaria can be interpreted as both a disregarding or erasure of indigenous knowledge through exclusion and, perhaps, an appropriation of that knowledge; for example, the process of renaming a plant in Latin terms can, as in the case of breadfruit, indicate an understanding of the plant's cultural use or edibility, information for which would most likely have come from the local population, yet instead of proper acknowledgement, this information is assimilated into a sanitised European system of knowledge by incorporating it in the language of science.

In addition to the stripping away of context and cultural meaning, a plant specimen is decontextualised in the sense of being forcefully divorced from its particular ecological system - the herbarium's creator negates the specificity of a region or locale in an attempt to confirm botanical and political unity, "deanthropologizing" knowledge of plants by "deterritorializing" them (Lafuente and Valverde 139). Disregarding the uniqueness of different regions of the world is a way of symbolically appropriating land by denying value to tradition and local sites. It also left the study of natural history - inextricably linked to global commerce - open to the process of reinterpretation and appropriation aimed at political, economic, and scientific domination, in which indigenous peoples became an inconvenience and in many cases, a negative value. The role of natural history in propelling forward colonial land exploitation through resource extraction cannot be ignored, despite how seemingly divorced a sheet of paper displaying a dried plant might appear.

Highlighting the link between European global hegemony and the appropriation of land and resources, Sarah Blacker argues that the colonial project was based on calculations of the speculative value of such land and resources that were slated to be expropriated, and that such calculations assigned a negative value to indigenous lives and communities.4 It is my assertion that this mandate was supported through an intersection of European racial prejudice and the aesthetic regime of the herbarium, whose taxonomy treated "its objects as interchangeable" (Muller-Wille 37). If botanical specimens and geographical regions were seen to be interchangeable, so too were human populations, insofar as it legitimised colonissation of non-European lands; indigenous communities, if acknowledged at all, could be moved elsewhere in order to empty the landscape. The notion of European superiority that bred racial discrimination, evident in the reluctance to acknowledge not only indigenous knowledge but by extension indigenous presence, perpetuated the colonial fantasy of the "inconvenient Indian" (Thomas King 2012).

Exclusion Continued: The Historical Herbarium Today

Figure 6 herbarium record

Figure 6: Record for Artocarpus altilis (Parkinson) Fosberg (Fig. 6). Source: Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom, through JSTOR Global Plants.

More troubling, perhaps, is the fact that such herbarium specimens and the institutions that house them continue to perpetuate this exclusionary aesthetic regime through a noticeable lack of cultural, historical or socio-political information included alongside their collections. While technological advancements have allowed for widespread digitisation of historical herbarium collections, making it possible for a much wider audience to access them, the institutional records that accompany such images do not include information related to its history of cultivation or use by indigenous inhabitants of its source region, or its cultural significance to said inhabitants. And, although the location of collection is included (when such information is available), such records do not provide any historical context for a specimen's removal from its native habitat in that region, leaving the viewer to guess at the nature and implications of early botanical collection. Banks's breadfruit specimen (Fig. 6) has been made digitally available by the Natural History Museum in London, England, although one would be hard-pressed to track down the image without knowledge of its current and former taxonomical classification, as the common name for the plant is not included in the accompanying museum record (Fig. 7). Nor do we find an indication of its culinary and cultural significance to the inhabitants of the South Pacific Islands with whom Banks had acquainted himself while exploring their "unexplored" natural environments and removing enticing and/or potentially useful flora and fauna; still less, a history of Banks' subsequent attempts to introduce breadfruit to the Caribbean as a staple food source for British-owned African slaves (Alexander). Despite the abundance of information available through not only Banks' journals, but those of other members of the Endeavor voyage, as well as past and current anthropological research, such details are excluded. These exclusions provide a stark reminder of the continued complicity of natural history museums and the herbaria they house in a scientific aesthetic regime that perpetuates the myth of indigenous non-presence.5


The prominent role played by natural historians in European colonial expansion in the eighteenth century allowed for not only the acquisition of global biological knowledge and the confirmation of a unified natural order, but the opportunity to channel new-found knowledge into political and economic centres of calculation, thereby conscripting the natural world into the project of human development and global capitalism on an unprecedented scale. An invaluable aspect of the involvement of science was the collection and classification of plants, at once fulfilling the desire for control through knowledge and providing new profitable resources for trade in the form of cash crops. Botanical collection included the construction of herbaria, collections of dried and pressed plant specimens designed for long-term preservation. Such specimen collections, unlike their live counterparts, were visual representations of flora guided by a strict aesthetic regime of scientifically-justified exclusion.

Existing at the intersection of science and aesthetics, the herbarium as a creative material object reflects the experience of both its maker and its wider historical context. At the same time, it actively works to construct a fixed, sensorial reality that promotes European global hegemony through the abstractive process of selective knowledge accumulation. The decontextualisation of plants through their removal from their native ecosystems and appropriation into a European scientific knowledge system, as well as the strict curation of information within herbarium collections, resulted in an aesthetic, symbolic, and ultimately political erasure of indigenous presence on colonised and to-be-colonised lands. Working within a project of domination and guided by an aesthetic regime that functioned through a political process of inclusion and exclusion, the herbarium, despite the seemingly benign nature of botanical study, should be considered complicit in colonial violence.

There is, undoubtedly, a beauty to be found in the strict simplicity of herbaria. The placement of a single specimen on a blank page begs the viewer's dedicated study to a profound level of detail that leaves one in awe of nature's botanical creations. However, the beauty of such a specimen cannot be divorced from the sociopolitical, cultural contexts in which it resides. As an aesthetic practice and object whose very materiality contributes to an insidious form of hegemonic world-making that continues to subjectively intervene in the everyday through its place in current museum and research collections, the herbarium is an artefactual representation of European colonial expansion. As such, it demands that we acknowledge the legacy embedded in these collections and consider present and future herbaria in ways that continue to interrogate and critically engage with the political subjectivity of representational regimes.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1: Theobroma cacao L., collected by Sir Hans Sloane, 1687-1689. Source: Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Figure 2: Laguncularia racemosa, collected by Sir Hans Sloane, 1687-1689. Source: Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Figure 3: Teucrium pyrenaicum, collected by George Clifford, ca. 1720. Source: Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Figure 4: Festuca purpurascens, collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, 1769. Source: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., United States.

Figure 5: Artocarpus altilis (Parkinson) Fosberg, collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, 1769. Source: Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom, through JSTOR Global Plants.

Figure 6: Record for Artocarpus altilis (Parkinson) Fosberg (Fig. 6). Source: Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom, through JSTOR Global Plants.

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  1. Environmental historian Londa Schiebinger astutely writes that such collections displayed "specific facts about those specimens rather than worldviews, schema of usage, or alternative ways of ordering and understanding the world" (128). 

  2. The specimen record also identifies the plant as a type of Sitodium, which is derived from the Greek word sitos, referring to food made from grain (Eckel). 

  3. For scholars whose critique of Linnaean taxonomy focuses upon its universalization of knowledge, see Lafuente and Valverde, 2005. 

  4. Unlike the measuring of profitability in the slave trade, for which slaves were assigned a speculative value based on their future labour, the belief of colonial powers "that the land would be more valuable if it was not occupied by Indigenous people ... worked to construct this fantasy as historical fact," making indigenous people the collective antithesis of profitability (Blacker 127). 

  5. Equally lacking in contextual information is the Sloane collection, now also housed in the Natural History Museum and available digitally in full on their website. While there is an accompanying document to the collection, to which a link is provided on the Sloane Database webpage, offering a detailed timeline of Sloane's period in Jamaica and an extensive overview of his herbarium collection, this document makes no mention of his contact with local indigenous or slave populations, or of the cultural contexts from which the plants may have come. And, largely resembling the example above, each herbarium specimen is accompanied by a sparse record that lists the collector, location, binomial and polynomial names, and various numerical identifiers (barcode, record number, volume in which it appears). Records also include mention of any notes or drawings that were included with the specimen. Strictly scientific in design, the specimen record, like the specimen itself, is devoid of context and sanitized from any peripheral information. A particularly wonderful example of this limiting of information is the specimen and record of Theobroma cacao (Fig.1), otherwise known simply as cacao or cocoa, from which we derive chocolate. Although Hans Sloane was not the first European to discover cacao, having been introduced to Europe during the 16^th^ century, it is a plant that was known to have been cultivated by indigenous groups throughout Central America ("Plants"), and was being grown as a commercial crop on plantations in Jamaica during Sloane's time there. Its cultivation by Europeans points not only to an initial appropriation of resources from Central and South Americans, but also implicates the plant and its growers in the African slave-trade. However, this fraught history of its use, its common names, or even its edibility are all excluded from the scientific record, as is the fact that the species name given to the plant by Carl Linnaeus is in fact derived from the Aztec Nahuatl term, xocolatl (ibid). This narrowing of scope - what Thomas calls a "discursive deprivation" - is damaging in its construction of a natural environment that, taken to be a fixed reality, disallows alternative knowledge systems and disregards non-European cultures.