Science of the Archives: Visual Learning about Plants

Science of the Archives: Visual Learning about Plants

Maura C. Flannery (St. John's University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8142-2.ch007
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This chapter deals with the history of plant collections and their uses in science and art. It does this within the context of the development of a visual literacy about plants and their structures. It also covers how the value and influence of these collections are increasing as they become available electronically. These resources are now accessible not only to plant biologists but also to gardeners, environmentalists, naturalists, and students. Included here is a discussion of the various online portals that have been created, their relative usefulness to nonprofessionals, and how they can be “tamed” by educators to make them useful and useable tools for students.
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Biology is an extremely visual science, with millions of species to examine at both the macroscopic and microscopic levels. Thus, observation is a key ability in biological inquiry, sometimes taken for granted as a lower-level cognitive skill as opposed to what it really is: a complex interaction of seeing with thinking. Living in a visually rich world, particularly because of access to the Internet, does not necessarily translate into sophistication in the use of visual information. This chapter presents one way to create this sophistication in students in biology, through the informed use of digital archives such as the Encyclopedia of Life and JSTOR Global Plants. It focuses on flowering plants and particularly on botanical illustrations and on pressed plant specimens kept in collections called herbaria (Figure 1). As these resources become more readily available on the web, biology teachers have more tools for developing students’ biological and visual literacies. The broad spectrum of visual material presented here, along with the review of the history of herbaria and taxonomic botany, will serve as a foundation on which to build a discussion about using this information in developing students’ visual literacy as well as their appreciation of the links between science and art. Visual literacy will be discussed in a relatively narrow context, that of how a student looks at plant structure and comes to understand it.

Figure 1.

Specimen from the Lord Robert James Petre Herbarium, Volume 4. (© 2014, California State Library-Sutro Library, San Francisco, California; photograph by Angelica Illueca, librarian. Used with permission).


Visual Literacy

The Mind and the Eye, a book on the philosophy of biology by the British botanist Agnes Arber (1954), is relevant here. Arber’s father was a professional landscape painter who began teaching her art when she was six years old. She went on to become a noted plant morphologist and the third woman elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Arber did most of the pen and ink illustrations for her journal articles and books on morphology. Part of her motivation was financial. Her husband, Newell Arber, a paleobotanist with an appointment at Cambridge University, died when their daughter was five years old. Arber herself never held an appointment at Cambridge, but managed to maintain her household there with some fellowship and grant money. She set up a small home laboratory because the chair of the botany department couldn’t find room for her, but she did use equipment borrowed from the department. She didn’t have funds to hire an illustrator or a laboratory assistant. However, she saw benefits to this lack of resources. In a talk she gave at Girton College, Cambridge, she notes that working alone and having to do all the tasks involved in research provided time for her to mull over the issues she was working on. Often, when mounting microscope slides or drawing, she came up with ideas that advanced her research (Stearn, 1960). She argues that if she didn’t have such “mindless” work, her research may not have advanced as fruitfully.

Perhaps because of her art background, Arber was interested in botanical illustration from her teenage years and her first book, published in 1912, was a history of early printed herbals, collections of medicinal plant descriptions. Revised in 1938, it is considered a classic and is still in print today (Arber, 1938). She continued to write articles on the history of botany throughout her career, and when World War II came and she was in her 60s, she gave up morphological research and focused on investigating the history and philosophy of biology. Through the war, she worked on a translation and commentary on Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants (Arber, 1946). Four years later, her Natural Philosophy of Plant Form came out (Arber, 1950). It presented a metaphysical approach to the study of morphology. While many botanists considered it of little relevance to their work, some were inspired by it to look at a plant form in the context of an underlying unity, much as Goethe had. Years later, when the genes responsible for basic plant structures were discovered, the research revealed just such an underlying genetic structure (Rutishauser & Isler, 2001).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Republic of Letters: The community of those interested in the intellectual life, particularly during the Enlightenment. They maintained ties primarily through letters. The term originated in the Renaissance, so the concept arose before its more frequent use in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Taxonomy: The naming and classification of organisms.

Visual Literacy: An array of abilities related to understanding, using, and creating visual information.

Herbarium: A collection of preserved plant specimens.

Metadata: The information about an item in a database, such as the information from a herbarium sheet label.

Systematics: The study of the identification, naming, and classification of organisms involving the elucidation of relationships among them.

Phytographer: A term used to describe Renaissance botanists who described plant characteristics in both words and images.

Information Literacy: A range of abilities related to finding, evaluating, and effectively using information in a particular context.

Herbal: A book of plant descriptions, usually for medicinal purposes.

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