In honor of Black History Month (2020), Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience seeks to acknowledge the complex relationship between enslaved Black people, nature and the colonial environment and reconsider the conscious omission of Black knowledge of the natural world.
In relation to the legacy of the history of botanical science and colonial histories, the absence of the Black experience perpetuates the ongoing exclusion of Black people within modern society, by whitewashing a history where racism, science, and colonial power were inherently entwined.
Many natural history collections held in museums of the western world have their origins in European colonialism. Their early specimens were often collected utilizing unacknowledged local labor, expertise, and knowledge, shipped on board merchant, slave and trading mission ships to western scientific institutions.
How these museums now engage with this history is crucial in how they move forward to make their collections more accessible to a wider expert and non-expert audience. Using five plants—cotton, the peacock flower, rice, the peanut, and the vanilla orchid—this exhibit shows a different perspective on interpreting the history of natural history collections in relation to people of color.
The exhibit features several works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library along with plant specimens from the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium to engage the audience in reflecting on how enslaved people experienced these plants.
The exhibit has been curated by Rashad Bell, MLIS, Collection Maintenance Associate at the Mertz Library, and Nuala Caomhánach, the current Humanities Institute Andrew W. Mellon Fellow and PhD candidate at New York University.
The exhibit has been curated by Rashad Bell and Nuala Caomhánach with editorial contributions from Susan Fraser, Esther Jackson, Laura McKinney and Stephen Sinon. A special thank you to Lila Chambers at New York University for her editorial contributions. Kelsey Miller worked to design and install the physical component of this display in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library.
Plant specimens from the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium were selected and provided by Laura Briscoe and NicoleTarnowsky. A special thank you to Barbara Theirs for her support and guidance.
Images courtesy of Marlon Co and the Photographs and Prints Division at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Thank you to everyone who worked on this exhibit.