Botany and Butterflies, Seaweed and Science: New Perspectives on Natural History Collections

Endorsed by SHGAPE and the Western History Association

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Environment; Science and Technology


This panel takes up the question of how individuals assembled natural history collections within the matrix of settler colonialism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Institutions such as museums, universities, and government agencies mobilized collectors who occupied places in shifting intellectual and professional hierarchies, places marked by gender, ethnicity, and class. The resulting collections have much to tell us about the negotiations that occurred at the nexus between collector, specimen, and institutional representatives to produce scientific knowledge.

Papers Presented

“Very Pretty Objects”: North American Seaweed & the Free Labor of Women

In the nineteenth century, a botanist was only as powerful as their correspondence list was long. To have friends and acquaintances ready to collect and send specimens was to have access to a world of information necessary to make larger, career-shaping claims about the plants under study. For professors like Asa Gray at Harvard and William Henry Harvey at Trinity College Dublin, this was essential for their work and global reputations. By mid-century, many male collectors were demanding payment for their specimens to support themselves as they embarked on expensive expeditions. With limited funds from their institutions, Gray and Harvey sometimes turned to wealthy women as an inexpensive solution. Well educated in botany and unwilling to accept payment, these women provided free labor for the professors. As Harvey tried to gather North American specimens of seaweed for his new book projects, he begged Gray for help assembling an army of women to comb the shores, arguing that marine algae “are easily dried, & make very pretty objects, especially admired by Lady botanists.” This paper explores how botanists came to know something about North American seaweed, the complicated nature of the scientific gift economy, and dependency on women at a time when botanists were trying to professionalize and define their field as particularly suited for men.

Presented By
Catherine McNeur, Portland State University

Plucking Flowers, Despoiling Islands: Settler Colonial Botany and Asian Labor in Hawai‘i, 1920s-1930s

This paper explores the key role that Asian settlers played in American botanical practices in Hawai‘i during the interwar period. I focus on the stories of individual Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Filipino men who collected, preserved, and illustrated native plants for white American botanists, living and working with them in queer domestic settings. These Asian settlers provided the crucial but invisible labor that facilitated American knowledge production about Hawai‘i’s native flora, as well as produced scientific specimens of economic and intellectual value for circulation through U.S. and international institutions. I trace the movements of the men, their herbarium (dried plant) specimens, and their botanical illustrations to demonstrate how participating in American science provided Asian settlers socio-economic and geographic mobility as they strove to get off of the plantations. Moreover, by extracting and abstracting native plants and depositing them in colonial archives, these men helped shift the understanding about native flora away from Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) ways of knowing and toward settler colonial epistemologies. Going beyond the traditional understanding of botanical assistants as “informants,” then, I explore the complicated relationships these men formed across lines of race, Indigeneity, and sexuality.

Presented By
Ashanti Shih, Vassar College

At the Patent Office: Technology and the Visual in the Life of Titian Peale

Artist, inventor, ornithologist, lepidopterist—these are only some of the occupations practiced by Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885) during his long life. Schooled to look curiously and tinker avidly by a childhood in the museum of his similarly polymathic father, Charles Willson Peale, Titian produced literally thousands of drawings, paintings, and engravings, and an equally vast number of dried and mounted flora and fauna. This paper concentrates on his various techniques for producing and viewing images. From the “Peale Box,” a transparent container that enabled butterfly specimens to be viewed from multiple angles, to photography in the 1840s, to late-in-life work with his nephew on a “kinematoscope” machine for displaying moving pictures, Peale explored a range of scopic possibilities across the decades. This long engagement with questions of perception and representation has been overlooked because of the ways in which his collections and output were embedded in particular institutional contexts. In bringing them together through a biographical approach, this paper complicates our understanding of the intersection between art and science in nineteenth-century America.

Presented By
Monica Rico, Lawrence University

Empire in a Drawer

One of the through-lines of my first book, "Taking the Field: Soldiers, Nature, and Empire on American Frontiers" (forthcoming Fall 2022) is a critical look at collection and display. In its second chapter, I argue that when we look at soldiers’ natural history practices, we find resonances with the tactics the U.S. Army used to fight, surveil, and contain Apache men. This echo brings the shape of U.S. empire into focus, and amplifies the tangled way that military action, environmental knowledge production, and imperial desire influenced the tactics used to control and incarcerate Indigenous people in what is currently the U.S. West. More broadly, these resonances demonstrate the layered, violent, and interconnected histories of collection and dispossession. In my next project, and beginning with this paper, I hope to continue thinking about collecting practices and their situatedness within and alongside institutions and systems that rely on settler colonialism and white supremacy. I am routinely struck anew by the strength of the connection between museum collections and U.S. imperial action; for example, the Smithsonian’s Philippines collection is a direct outcome of U.S. empire. (These links persist—there are mammals in the Smithsonian’s collections that result from the routine clearing of airfields at U.S. Air Force bases in the Middle East.) In this paper, I think through the invisibility of empire in natural history collections to argue for the work historians can do in nontraditional archives, in collections comprising specimens alongside papers.

Presented By
Amy Kohout, Colorado College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Daniel Lewis, Huntington Library
Dan Lewis is the Dibner Senior Curator for the History of Science & Technology at the Huntington Library, Art Museum & Botanical Gardens in Southern California. He is a native of Hawai'i, and holds the Ph.D. in Latin American History from the University of California at Riverside. His permanent history of science exhibit, "Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World" was named by the American Alliance of Museums as the best exhibit in America the year after it opened. He served as the Huntington’s Chief Curator of Manuscripts from 2010-2016, and has held post-doctoral appointments at Oxford, the Smithsonian, and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. He teaches four courses at Caltech on environmental history, policy, and humanities topics, and four courses at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He is the author of three books, and his new book (a global conservation story of trees in twelve species), will be published by Simon & Schuster. And he likes coffee a lot. So much. Coffee.

Presenter: Amy Kohout, Colorado College
Amy Kohout is an Assistant Professor of History at Colorado College. She works on U.S. cultural and environmental history, and her research and teaching interests include the U.S. West, American empire, museum studies, the history of natural history, and world’s fairs. Amy’s first book, "Taking the Field: Soldiers, Nature, and Empire on American Frontiers" is forthcoming in Fall 2022 with the University of Nebraska Press, as part of their new Many Wests series. In 2020-21, she held the David J. Weber Fellowship for the Study of Southwestern America at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University. Her work has been published in Museum History, Rethinking History, The Appendix, Sustainability Science, and A Companion to the History of American Science. Amy earned her Ph.D. in history from Cornell University, and currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Presenter: Catherine McNeur, Portland State University
Catherine McNeur is the award-winning author of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Harvard University Press, 2014). An environmental historian with a focus on the nineteenth-century, she is currently writing Sister Scientists: The Forgotten Women Who Transformed American Science (under contract with Basic Books) about the work of Margaretta Hare Morris, entomologist, and Elizabeth Carrington Morris, botanist. Recent publications have included a review essay about Covid-19 and nineteenth-century rabies outbreaks in Reviews in American History (Sept 2020 issue) and a chapter titled “Vanishing Flies and the Lady Entomologist” in Traces of the Animal Past (University of Calgary Press, pending publication). She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2012 and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Presenter: Monica Rico, Lawrence University
Monica Rico is Robert S. French Professor of American Studies and Professor of History at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she also teaches in the environmental studies program. She is the author of Nature’s Noblemen: Transatlantic Masculinities and the Nineteenth-Century American West (Yale, 2013) and “‘Don’t Forget This’: Annie Oakley and the ‘New Girl’ in Anglo-American Culture,” in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and the Frontiers of Transnational Mass Culture, edited by Frank Christensen (University of Oklahoma, 2017). She is the recent recipient of fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and the Bright Institute for American History at Knox College. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley and lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Presenter: Ashanti Shih, Vassar College
Ashanti Shih is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies at Wellesley College. She has also held fellowships at the New York Botanical Garden and the University of Southern California. Her research brings the critical studies of race and settler colonialism into dialogue with histories of the natural sciences and the environment. Her first book project, "Invasive Ecologies: Science, Preservation, and Settler Colonialism in Twentieth-Century Hawai‘i," is a history of invasion biology, natural preservation, and the U.S. national park system in Hawai‘i over the long twentieth century. The dissertation that project is based on won several awards, including the Rachel Carson Prize from the American Society for Environmental History and the W. Turrentine Jackson Award from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. Her newer projects explore Asian American relationships with nature in the Pacific and American West.