Order of Multitudes

Painful, Complicated, and Occasionally Hopeful: Discussing Museums and Collecting with Elaine Ayers

Elaine Ayers is a faculty member in the Program in Museum Studies at New York University, where she works on the entangled histories of science, art, and collecting. She received her Ph.D. in the History of Science from Princeton University, and she is currently preparing a monograph, Strange Beauty: The Art and Science of Botany in the Nineteenth Century Tropics, based on her dissertation research. In this interview, she discusses how colonial collecting practices and ideologies still permeate museums, intersections of science and aesthetics, and creating a botanical collecting network during a pandemic.

Sarah Pickman: Tell us about yourself and your work: what’s your academic background, what are your current research interests, and what are some projects you’ve been working on recently?

Elaine Ayers: I teach in the Program for Museum Studies at New York University, and I’m currently developing two books—an academic monograph on the history of botany in the biogeographical construction of the tropics and a shorter, public-facing cultural history of one of my favorite plants, moss. Through archival work at colonial botanical gardens around the world, I’ve followed plants rather than people to move beyond narratives of natural history collecting that privilege “great men” (and sometimes women), broadening the scope of what it meant to produce scientific knowledge. 

Recently I’ve also been thinking about the history of color ordering systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and about scientific illustration. Color standardization systems and technologies—from Ferdinand Bauer’s “paint by numbers” chart of the late eighteenth century to James Sowerby’s 1809 “chromatometer”—are undoubtedly visually striking, but they worked within colonial systems. For example, why is Pantone’s “Orchid” a light pinkish purple rather than a bright yellow or brown? Process of standardization and naming is inextricable from constructions of gender, sexuality, and race, all of which were written into the very foundations of colonial natural history. 

SP: As someone who teaches in a program for aspiring museum professionals, how do you combine collecting history with contemporary museum practice? How does the history of something like nineteenth-century botanical collecting practices inform your students’ roles as stewards and interpreters of collections for the public?

EA: I’m deeply committed to the idea that museum professionals need to reckon with their collections’ often violent and always complicated histories to work ethically while working towards a better future. We need to understand where our objects come from and how these collecting histories inform our daily practices. My students are sometimes shocked at the explicitness of these logics in primary sources that we read in class, but these logics still play out on a daily basis, as movements like #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and #ChangeTheMuseum have made clear.

This isn’t just a job for curators. Collections managers need to understand how taxonomic practices grew out of a colonial desire to order “exotic” specimens, educators should work to ensure that the stories they’re telling don’t privilege a certain type of visitor while excluding others, and those in fundraising should be aware of the capitalist philanthropic structures that recapitulate a Gilded Age “civilizing mission.” And unless the people controlling major funding and mission decisions for institutions—directors, trustees—acknowledge their continued role in upholding colonial and capitalist power structures and make their own practices more transparent, staff members are going to face an uphill climb in finding support for their work. 

Teaching within Museum Studies has inspired me, in turn, to collaborate with institutions to, hopefully, enact some real change. I’m excited to be working with some major botanical gardens next year to initiate conversations and long-term programming with the goal of decolonizing their collections—a process that has yet to be clearly defined within a large-scale institution. 

SP: One of the projects you’ve started in the last few months is called the Quarantine Herbarium. Can you describe the project for those who haven’t come across it before?

EA: I developed the Quarantine Herbarium when we went into lockdown this March as a way to reconnect with the plants living in my immediate vicinity that I often overlook—the weeds, trees, and grasses that I pass by on the street while thinking, paradoxically, about the tropical plants that I research thousands of miles away. Herbaria are, in their most basic form, collections of preserved plants (usually dried but sometimes pickled) arranged taxonomically for scientific purposes. We can trace the earliest forms of these collections to the sixteenth century, when Italian naturalists and physicians developed hortus siccus (“dry gardens”) by pressing plants into books for study, comparison, and classification, especially in the medical realm. Historians like Staffan Müller-Wille and Isabelle Charmantier have pointed to Linnaeus’ eighteenth-century collections as the first “modern” herbarium, noting that the naturalist mounted plants on moveable, individual sheets of paper housed in wooden cabinets—a new form of paper technology that allowed him to develop a standardized but (theoretically) infinitely expandable artificial system of classification.

The Quarantine Herbarium invited participants to press their own plants, collected on socially distanced walks or in their gardens under lockdown, and take photographs of their mounted specimens, in order to build a digital map of “overlooked” flora while connecting plant lovers from across the world. I left instructions for submissions deliberately open-ended to make the project as inclusive and low-pressure as possible. I ended up getting over 300 specimens from contributors around the world, including from a number of children (helped by their parents!). Many participants—myself included—have used this as an opportunity to look closer at the humble plants growing around us and to mark the passage of time during quarantine through something beautiful and hands-on. I’m hoping to use the project as a small-scale way to experiment with alternative methods of classification and accessibility in the otherwise visually-based (and therefore exclusionary) digital herbarium.

SP: What have the results of the Quarantine Herbarium been so far, and have you had any particularly surprising results from it—either in terms of specimens you’ve received, or personal connections you’ve made? 

EA: I’ve been happily surprised by how many contributions have been coming from people I’ve never met from all over the world, and how many contributors have stuck with the project by sending in series of specimens over weeks and months. Contributors have sent in botanical illustrations paired with pressed plants (which was quite common in nineteenth-century collections), and some of my favorites, sent from Cota, Colombia, are mounted on custom Quarantine Herbarium sheets with full metadata attached. Most moving, though, have been the personal stories that some contributors have shared with their specimens. One participant in Sydney had a baby right before the pandemic started and wrote about her daily (distanced) walks with her child. She’s been collecting eucalyptus leaves on each walk to bind into a book to tell him about these strange first weeks of his life when he’s older. Another regular contributor has been tracking the growth of “weedy” plants growing in the disturbed environments, including a reclaimed dump site, near her home in upstate New York. Ultimately, this project has reminded me that collectors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had myriad of reasons for working with plants, too. Some botanists wrote about their subjects with reverence, while others collected plants to make money, join professional networks, or forge social connections. There was no single model of what it meant to be a botanist and focusing only on “ideal” or “successful” collectors limits our view of natural history.

SP: How do you think about herbaria as exercises in data management? In some ways, they’re similar to a museum or to an encyclopedia, but would you say they also have similarities to atlases, in how they arrange geographic space through specimens?

EA: Herbaria function, like natural history museums, as storehouses or archives for centuries of plant data while serving as active sites for botanical research. Herbarium specimens are incredible sources of data for botanists, historians, climate change researchers, and others because they typically include precise information about the date and geographic location of collection. Knowing where and when something lived holds tremendous value in reconstructing how environments have changed over time, usually in line with the global slave trade and the rise of plantation agriculture. The herbarium houses a world’s worth of painful, complicated, and occasionally hopeful history on sheets of paper, always ordered along colonial European systems of classification in which geography (and perceived geographic difference) mattered a great deal.

I should note that geographical categorizations of specimens, even now, aren’t necessarily benign—some institutions still use, or are slowly phasing out, colored folders along blatantly racist geographical lines (yellow folders for Asian specimens, brown folders for African specimens, and so on). While it’s easy to dismiss this as an unfortunate legacy of the nineteenth century, many of these systems were, like numerous Confederate statues across the U.S., built in the mid-twentieth century. As in many large-scale collections, though, changing ordering systems is a massive undertaking. Rehoming millions of fragile specimens in new folders is hugely expensive and time-consuming. Gardens will need to dedicate major portions of their funding to correcting these racist structures, and to do that they’ll need to be transparent about their histories.  

Beyond these ordering practices, I’m also curious to follow how digitization could promote more inclusive ways of describing and handling specimens. Gardens could include place names and botanical descriptions that take seriously the people from whom these specimens were stolen and who worked with these plants for generations before colonization. For instance, Kew’s recent Richard Spruce Project could provide a model for working with contemporary Indigenous experts and local botanists on the ground to develop more inclusive methodologies. 

SP: Many museums and scientific institutions have recently embraced aesthetic qualities of their collections to attract new audiences—for example, many museums now have popular Instagram feeds of items from their collections. Do you have any favorite museums, libraries, or other collections that you think do particularly interesting work in how they present their collections visually and digitally? 

EA: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about data visualization projects that bring together and recombine old sources in new, visually arresting ways, often using institutional collections but produced by designers, artists, and digital specialists. Nicholas Rougeux’s projects for C82 are incredibly beautiful and innovative, allowing users to search and group illustrations by color, among other variables. The State Library of New South Wales’ DX Lab has been doing similar, wide-ranging digital humanities work. I’m partial to their recent experiment “Painting by Numbers,” which gives life to eighteenth-century botanist Ferdinand Bauer’s color charts used to illustrate natural specimens in the field. The question worth considering, I think, is whether projects like these can inform (and disrupt) historical research, or whether they’re primarily designed to make these source bases visible to broader publics—certainly a worthy endeavor on its own—by prioritizing aesthetics over deep engagement.