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Herbaria as places of/with memory: researching transatlantic plant exchange between European and Andean cities

Recorded on 23 January 2024

Speaker: Diego Molina (Royal Holloway, University of London)

The herbarium is usually thought of as a large-scale collection of plants organized according to scientific standards of naming and cataloguing. In this talk, I offer a different but complementary vision of herbaria by interpreting botanical collections as places of multidimensional memory similar to archives. I argue here that a herbarium is an apparatus of human and non-human, individual and collective memory formed through at least three levels: i) collectors’ memories, ii) plants’ memories, and iii) places’ memories. This structure of memories is available in turn through a set of elements such as maps, taxonomic lists, and guides, which transform the usually labyrinthic herbaria into intelligible spaces. The multidimensional nature of herbaria memory is intrinsically connected to the physical structure occupied by its collections. This place acts as a physical place of memory that creates a given order beyond the geographical or taxonomic categories. The feeling of loss experienced by any regular user of a herbarium after a change in the collection gives an account of how spatial memory stands as a way to relate with plants. When botanical collections and their memories are available for researchers, herbaria have the potential to turn into archives. Botanical collections, then, are documents capable of shedding light on the history of life on earth and their main human and botanical characters. Thought of as archives, herbaria have the potential to become pivotal and usually unexplored sources in the creation of environmental histories. But herbaria, like any other archives, are not free of noise, gaps, and false memories. As suggested by the destruction of the Berlin herbarium in 1944, collections of memories can be destroyed, or forgotten, perhaps to be partially recovered through parallel memories in the guise of Holotypes, Paratypes, or Lectotypes

Dr Diego Molina is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, undertaking a project on transatlantic plant exchange between European and Andean cities in the long nineteenth century. He is also a Visiting Researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

IHR Seminar SeriesLondon Group of Historical Geographers

Herbaria as places of/with memory: researching transatlantic plant exchange between European and Andean cities