Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Museum of Economic Botany @ Botanical Gardens, Adelaide

The Museum of Economic Botany is the hidden treasure of Adelaide’s cultural landscape. I went into the Botanical Gardens for the first time in years to visit the Tamara Dean photographs in the temporary exhibition space at the Museum. I was excited to find so much more in both the gardens themselves and the museum’s recently restored collection. On our way to the museum, we wandered down the central path, lined with Morton Bay Fig trees that had been planted in the 1880s, and I felt as though I was on another continent. In this oasis of lush green, rainforest-like coverage, I was reminded of my visit to the Botanical Gardens in Rio de Janiero where the first British settlers to South Australia had stopped to pick up plant specimens on their way to the antipodes. In some cases I could spot the specimens that had been brought with on the first fleets in 1836.
Morton Bay Fig Tree
Among the plants that must have been in South Australia since the British arrived were some giant Amazonian lily pads in a greenhouse at the end of the central avenue. I remembered having seen the exact same lilies in Rio’s Botanical Gardens, though of course, in Brazil they were outdoors in their natural environment. A story accompanied each of the lilies on the side of their basin in Adelaide’s Botanical Gardens, making the flowers romantic and mysterious. If nothing else, the charming stories entice visitors to spend more time in the greenhouse looking at the lilypads.
Exotic Lilypads
The Museum of Economic Botany with its Greek revival façade and interior was the brainchild of botanist Richard Schombergk, an obsessive collector and archivist of plants and their derivatives. Before visiting Adelaide’s museum, I had never heard of the phenomenon of a Museum of Economic Botany. I quickly discovered that the “economic” in the title means specimens with a use value, that is, that could be bought and sold.

Lifelike papier maché apples

Three original glass display cases are filled with seemingly hundreds of papier maché apples, pears and mushrooms. The pears and apples in particular were so real that I could imagine reaching into the case and taking a bite from the fresh fruit. The fruit are a kind of document of all the species of apples and pears growing in Australia, made by a German company called Heinrich Arnoldi. The museum catalogue explains that a number of the species of each fruit are now extinct, making the models archival documents of an otherwise forgotten history.

Interior of MEB with original display cases

The display cases in the central part of the museum were filled to the brim with papers, woods, nuts, oils, fruits, plant derivatives such as medicines, dyes, waxes and soaps. The list of uses of the natural world is astonishing. Perhaps most thrilling is that the plants are all arranged in their families. Schombergk had taken the system from Kew Museum (on which the Adelaide installment is clearly based). Thus, we discover the unlikely relationship between carrots and the deadly poison hemlock, between walnuts and opium poppies. And the pride of the museum pieces are magnificent: a double coconut, Guinean squash or cucumbers the skin of which is used as a penis cover, and exquisite bark made paper, mats and ornaments.
Seeds on Display
Schombergk’s was the era of colonial attempts to document and organize, to create knowledge through collecting, and advance through scientific discovery. The display cases and organization mirror this era with specimens crowded together as they would have been in the 19th century. And while the Museum of Economic Botany is named by the fact that every item in the collection has a use value, economic embraces its double meaning. All of the plants on display have an economic value, not only can that be bought and sold, but also, they demonstrate the re-use value and, ironically for an institution established in the late 19th century, the recycle value of the different parts of each specimen. Thus, stepping inside is to take a journey into the 19th century mind and its organization of information.

While most tourists to Adelaide are guided towards the Barossa Valley, Kangaroo Island, Rundle Mall and the Adelaide Hills, the Botanical Gardens and the Museum of Economic Botany should be a priority. As Australia becomes increasingly conscious and respectful of its history, the museum has a unique place in the preservation of a somewhat eccentric part of this history with its commitment to collecting, organizing, and displaying objects that, today, we happily consume or discard.

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