institution: Humanities Institute of The New York Botanical Garden
category: Exhibition Media or Experience
Poetic Botany: Art and Science of the Eighteenth-Century Vegetable World is a digital exhibition focused on the late eighteenth-century movement, Poetic Botany, in which botany became the subject of poetry. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles, inaugurated this movement with the publication of his scientific poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. The relationship between art and science cultivated during this movement resulted in a rich trove of botanical knowledge, sumptuously presented in books, artworks, and gardens. This exhibition introduces the poetic botanists who constituted this movement, the works they created, and the themes implicated in their works. Above all, though, the exhibition presents nine of the most beautiful, curious, and sensational species living within those very pages.
In the exhibition, plants are the true protagonists.
The exhibition, which is based on the Bootstrap framework and written in HTML, CSS, and JS, offers a responsive experience to visitors. Moreover, it brings together historical and contemporary resources—illustrations, photographs, videos, texts, and more—in an attempt to facilitate an experience not possible in a traditional museum setting. It reaches into archives, offering access to primary texts, artworks of the most talented botanical artists of all time, and contemporary photographs and herbarium sheets from scientists in the field. Additionally, the creator of the exhibition had the opportunity to record interviews with leading scholars and scientists, which are also included in the exhibition. As a result, you are not only able to view a variety of materials that no single collection could every hope to contain, but also able to peruse them at your leisure, on any screen, at any time or place.
Nine different plant species organize this exhibition. On each plant’s page, you will find images, excerpts from scientific and poetic works, a video interview, and a note that draws many of the exhibition materials into a cohesive narrative.
An overarching aim of this exhibition is to reveal that plants, like humans, are agents of historical change.
Another aim is to reaffirm that the imagination is an ecological force, responsible for how we have thought of nature in the past, how we think of it now, and how we will think of it in the future. The imagination, moreover, flaunts any boundary imposed on it by disciplines or areas of expertise, showing itself to be at home as much in the fine arts as in the humanities as in the sciences.
Any view of nature, then, that ignores a discipline or entire domain of disciplines is necessarily deficient. At the same time, paradoxically, any view that sacrifices the expertise that results from the focus of one of these disciplines will also be severely impoverished.
Hence, a complete view of nature can only result from an openness to the work of one another, from an ongoing collaboration and commitment to understand the more-than-human world through art, scholarship, and science.
The exhibition Poetic Botany celebrates this very effort, along with the artists, scientists, and scholars of both the eighteenth-century and our own. They attempt to understand the vegetable world, and in so doing offer us a wealth of perspectives that substantially enrich our own engagements with nature.