Botany is commonly understood to refer to the study of plants. In this field of biology, scientists study plants’ relationships to the environment (ecology), internal processes (physiology), evolutionary development (phylogeny), and naming and classification (taxonomy).
Materials in this collaborative exhibit come from the arts and the sciences, both historically and institutionally: they are drawn from the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and from the A. C. Moore Herbarium. A key aspect of this exhibit is its pairing of the Irvin Department’s eighteenth-century botanical illustrations and the Herbarium’s twenty-first-century scientific specimens of the same (or closely related) plant species. These pairs of illustrations and specimens, of plants rendered artistically and plants preserved scientifically, call attention to the blurred boundaries between the arts and sciences, and they invite you to consider how different methods of representing plants might serve to define botany as a historical, cultural, and scientific practice.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the study of plants was not the narrowly-defined discipline it is today. Instead, botany was a popular, amateur pursuit that drew on literary and visual arts. “Botanizing” was a leisure activity that cut across divisions of gender and class: working-class men and women as well as aristocratic ladies and self-taught gentlemen would spend hours seeking, collecting, and preserving specimens. Activities that we now associate with scientists or gardeners were a significant interest for poets, peasants, and princes.
Early botanists consistently encountered the challenge of how to represent a living plant, whether by lengthy descriptive name, visual image, or preserved specimen. In the age of exploration, which coincided with the rise of botany as a science, a plant’s name varied by language as well as region. In the mid-eighteenth century, Carl Linnaeus standardized the naming and classification of plants by creating a universal system of taxonomy that replaced descriptive polynomials—long Latin names seen in some of the engravings on display here—with the system of binomial nomenclature still used today. In both its system of naming (taxonomy) and its methods (specimen preservation or illustration), botany emphasizes a question of reference, of how to refer to a plant in its absence. Similar issues of reference also inform many of the connections—between Mark Catesby and Linnaeus, between Erasmus Darwin and Robert Thornton, between William Bartram and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—that this exhibit explores in materials that juxtapose and combine the arts and sciences.