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Image from the database Herbarium GB
Type specimen from Herbarium GB

Dried and flattened–materiality and representation in digitised herbaria

Research project
Active research
Project size
270 000
Project period
2021 - ongoing
Project owner
Department of Cultural Sciences

Short description

The project deals with the digitalisation of herbaria and what this means for the practice of botanic research. The pressing of plants can be seen as a “photographic” process, in the sense of representing objects as flat and colourless, like a black and white photograph.The dried plants are mounted on sheets of card and accompanied by labels, pockets of seeds and diverse annotations. Digitisation of herbaria means photographing them sheet by sheet, adding another layer on top of this already photographic process. What does this mean for the status of the images and what challenges and opportunities have digitisation entailed for botanists?

During a lecture on the principles of botanical nomenclature, professor Lars Arvidsson showed pictures of digitised plant specimens from databases, among others Herbarium GB, which is a common research infrastructure at the University of Gothenburg. I was immediately fascinated by the pictures of dried plants mounted on sheets of card and accompanied by labels, pockets of seeds and diverse annotations (see image). Here were the hidden treasures of botany on display, a result of the many digitisation projects that have increased the availability of the herbaria, not only to researchers but also to a wider audience (Schmull et al. 2005). Plants have been dried and flattened to be put in the service of science, but to me, nature still looks defiant and unwilling to yield to the pressure, literally speaking. As a visual studies researcher specialising in photography and digital media, I will explore questions about digitisation, materiality and representation that the digitised herbaria raise, adding a new perspective to that of the botany researcher.

When a new plant species is discovered, it is given a name which is connected to a type specimen called holotype, which functions as a reference for the species. Together, the abstract name and the physical plant safeguard the position of the species within the botanical system, a giant material information system. In my previous research on photography, I have often dealt with the question of materiality (Wagner 2003; 2017; 2018). In the discourse on the digitisation of photography collections voices have been raised concerning the loss of the “object perspective” of photographic artefacts. A photograph has often been regarded as a surface with information that can be captured by a scanner, while its material history has been neglected (Edwards & Hart 1998). However, most photographs are flat, in contrast to the content of herbaria. In the process of drying and pressing, plants are flattened, but many remain quite bulky, as if resisting to be tamed by the botanist. It is somewhat paradoxical that a practice that strives for flatness generates such three-dimensional documents. The plants also lose their colours and adopt a greyish brown colour scheme. I would argue that the drying and pressing of plants is a “photographic” process, in the sense of representing objects as flat and colourless, like a black and white photograph. The botanist captures a plant – the photographer captures a scene. Both fit their catches into a rectangular frame. Digitisation of herbaria means photographing them sheet by sheet, adding another layer on top of this already photographic process.

Purpose and research questions

The purpose of this study is to find new ways of conceptualising the visual objects that are the result of digitisation and constitute virtual herbaria. New visual theory needs to be developed and adapted to the material at hand. The key questions I intend to explore are:

What is the ontological status of a type specimen? Is a dried plant a representation of a living plant? Can it be a “real” object and at the same time an image of itself? What does this mean for the digitisation of herbaria and type specimen, and the practice of botanists? What kind of epistemological challenges and opportunities have digitisation entailed for them? This pilot study will lay the ground for this work and for a more comprehensive research proposal to a national funding agency.

The paths of botany and photography were crossed already at the inception of photography, when Henry Talbot experimented with contact prints of botanical specimens by putting them on light sensitive material in the mid 1830s (Batchen 1997). The exposure times were very long and snapshots were only made possible in the next century. Analogously, the type specimens are not instantaneous representations, their “exposure times” are nearly indefinite. They are collectively and gradually constructed documents, on which botanists add new information or make corrections. How will this process continue in the age of digitisation?

The type specimens are a kind of visual and material inscriptions emanating from the practice of botanic research, which is why one theoretical approach will be Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, especially the concept inscription (Latour 1990; Latour 1999). This approach will be combined with the semiotics of photo theory and the discussion about indexicality (Barthes 1980; Elkins 2007; Ball 2017).

Material and method

A small sample of type specimens will be selected for closer examination from the Herbarium GB. Reference sites will be other parts of Sweden’s Virtual Herbarium and JSTOR Global Plants. Herbarium User Manuals (Victor 2004) and reports from digitisation projects (Barkworth et al. 2012) will also be analysed.

I will conduct visual analysis (Van Leeuwen & Jewitt, 2004) of digitised type specimens. The collage of plant and annotations may appear self-evident for a botanist, but for a non-botanist, the whole surface of the document is of equal importance, the rusty marks of a vanished paper clip as well as the formal arrangement of the plant on the sheet.

I will also conduct interviews with Claes Persson, head of Herbarium GB, and professor Lars Arvidsson, who has contributed several type specimens to Herbarium GB, about the implications of digitised herbaria for their field of research. The interviews will take the form of photo elicitation, which means we will look at images of type specimen and discuss them during the interview (Collier 2004).

Other major digitisation projects that will be studied as reference projects are The William Blake Archive (Hayles 2002) and Warburg Mnemosyne Atlas (Le Fevre Grundtmann 2020).

Expected results

During the study, I will superimpose the gaze of the visual studies researcher onto the gaze of the botanist, and in that way gain and produce new knowledge of the process of digitisation in botany and other similar fields. The pilot study will result in a draft for a proposal. A better theoretical understanding of the visual material that is created and its potentials will benefit the sciences and also contribute to the field of digital humanities.

Type specimen from Herbarium GB
Type specimen from Herbarium GB