Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post to the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.
While the usage of exsiccatae is, primarily, rigorously scientific, their research purposes can differ when the collected specimens are re-contextualised as natural illustrations in published works. At the height of the Victorian natural history craze, personal souvenir albums of dried specimens were all the rage; sometimes, even published botanical books would be illustrated by real specimens, using “exsiccata in lieu of illustrations”1, which reflected the actual experience of botanizing excursions. These books represent a fascinating space for nature and culture to coexist and demonstrate the importance of illustrations in aptly conveying these corresponding ideas locally. Naturally decontextualized specimens then are given new meaning in book form and showcase a striking materiality which still lingers today.2
The unique works of the Scottish botanist William Gardiner (1808-1852) are prime examples of the use of natural illustrations. Born in Dundee, Scotland, William Gardiner was an umbrella-maker and a remarkable botanist. He was a keen naturalist involved in local scientific and literary endeavours alongside other aspirational working-class men.3 His work was commendable, and he rapidly became a local credible source and authoritative figure in Botany. Gardiner is often referred to as the ‘Dundee poetical botanist’ as he could not resist adding to his didactic publications quite prosaic descriptive accounts of his collecting activities, and poetical passages which used plants as metaphors for morals, ethical values, and lessons. Gardiner catered his work to a wide-ranging audience by making botanical knowledge more accessible in multiple forms. The few remaining examples of his naturally illustrated books are then organically, culturally, and scientifically relevant in their unique production, overall purpose, and readers’ reception in Scotland.
One of his most popular works is the Flora of Forfarshire published in 1848. The Flora is a hybrid publication containing rigorous botanical science and mounted local plant specimens with their manuscript taxonomic information, altogether interspersed with lyrical passages and personal observations. With the inclusion of natural materials directly taken from field work, Gardiner had found a way to translate nature directly into the book form, a culturally relevant object. Since the Flora of Forfarshire without natural illustrations was more widely circulated than the version with the complementary exsiccatae, the latter is considered to be quite rare. There were only a small number of copies (perhaps fewer than a hundred) of the bound folios of pressed specimens with manuscript labels that were crafted alongside the Flora of Forfarshire. The supplementary volume offers “one of the most detailed snapshots of plant diversity”4 in Forfarshire (Angus) in the mid-1840s. Overall, it contains 59 species of angiosperms, 17 ferns and allies, 37 bryophytes, 11 algae, and 10 lichens, collected at 36 localities in Forfarshire, Scotland.
Though there are plenty of copies of the published text of the Flora of Forfarshire in libraries across the globe, most of the volumes with pressed specimens, due to their relative rarity, probably no longer exist. One of the remaining plant folios is housed and preserved by the University of Texas Libraries in collaboration with the Billie L. Turner (UT) Plant Resources Center. Under the supervision of the center’s curator, Dr. George Yatskievych, a recent digitization project aiming to share its content with the scientific community and a wider public helped shed some light on this wonderful book. The result was a phenomenal digital educational tool for both scientists and humanists alike, openly accessible on the platform Texas ScholarWorks. It includes an updated data set with taxonomic information and local coordinates, as well as the fully digitized and barcoded folio of mounted specimens. The metadata and images of the specimens were integrated into the UT Plant Resources Center’s digital herbarium database. At the moment, this is the only fully digitized copy of the Flora‘s supplementary volume illustrated with specimens. The University of Texas’ project fits within greater digitization efforts of herbarium collections across the globe. With the help of emerging technologies, digital, or virtual herbaria aim to provide wider access to specimens while also minimizing the handling of such fragile collections.
With the premise that Gardiner’s book is a container for both nature and culture to co-exist, an interesting observation concerning the material legacy of nature came to light in this research: what if the physical implications of preserving nature on the page and the materiality of mounted specimens are lost in their digital counterparts? Gardiner’s Flora of Forfarshire with its supplementary volume was, and is still, quite notable because of its striking materiality beyond the simple printed page. This materiality adds to its cultural, historical, and scientific value, while also clashing with its Victorian mass-produced printed peers. The choice of including real specimens was a boldly clever decision but materially challenging as it not only emphasizes the visual quality and tactility of nature, but also highlights the ephemerality or fleeting nature of specimens’ lifecycle. Natural illustrations are the results of a delicate process of flattening and mounting the specimens into a book, taking them from organic matter to material form.5 This process is often lost in digital copies which end up ‘flattening’ the specimens even more by losing their three-dimensional element and by somewhat stopping their visual material decomposition. Digital herbaria aim to increase the longevity of specimens, yet this false digital afterlife of nature shows how “unnatural Victorian natural history could be.”6
As botanical resources are scattered across the globe, the need for digital access to these special collections has become increasingly apparent. Digital counterparts provide greater access to works which would not have been available under different circumstances, due to their relative material rarity as well as their unique localities. William Gardiner’s plethora of works already carved a space for itself in the digital botany world: his loose-leaf herbarium specimens and some of his fully manuscript volumes of Illustrations of British Botany and the Natural Method of Arrangement have already been integrated in the Charterhouse School Herbarium (GOD)7 in California, and his well-received printed work with natural illustrations, Twenty Lessons on British Mosses, is available on the digital repository of the National Library of Scotland. Can these digital facsimiles of Gardiner’s books create a new space for nature and culture to co-exist alongside greater scientific purposes and humanist inquiries? Perhaps, this new phygital herbarium builds a stronger case for the preservation of a natural cultural heritage.
The natural materials used in the Flora’s production are immortalized once again within a specific time and place digitally, perhaps stopping the natural decline of the specimens, marking a sharp difference between the slowly decomposing physical ‘bound herbarium’ copy, and the somewhat unnaturally preserved digital images in the long-term creating then an uncanny permanence of the natural world in digital form. Gardiner’s works resonated with Victorian readers due to their spatiotemporal proximity to the nature presented on the pages. Readers today, if only encountering the works digitally, might not make this same connection, even if the specimens of the supplementary volume are hyperlinked throughout the scanned copy of the Flora which significantly adds to the digital reading experience. These material archives of nature contained in mounted specimens may not convey the same meaning when remediated in digital format, but their legacy might end up bridging the spatiotemporal gap between past, present and future readers of William Gardiner whose digital botanical stories may just as well outlive their original material form.